KaiJuly: Shin Godzilla
In 2014, WB and Legendary Pictures launched their Monsterverse in earnest with their version of Godzilla.
And, in 2016, as one would expect, Toho had their ‘hold my beer’ moment with the release of Shin Godzilla.
Toho doing this kind of thing isn’t unheard of, as this pattern started after the release of 1998’s Godzilla from Sony/Tri-Star. Toho responded with Godzilla 2000 soon afterward, jumpstarting what would be called the Millennium Series of Godzilla films.
As such, Shin Godzilla would also start a new era, the Reiwa Series…which, at the time of this writing only includes this film as well as three anime films and an anime series. But before we get too deep in the weeds here, let’s take a look at that plot synopsis:
An abandoned yacht. An explosion off the Japanese coast. The flooding of Japanese tunnels by not only water, but an odd, blood-like fluid. While the Japanese government largely treats the latter two occurrences as part of an undersea eruption, a small group of misfits comprised of young government officials and scientists factor in evidence from the abandoned yacht to determine that this is not a natural event, but instead something that will cause the nation of Japan to re-evaluate how it sees itself in relationship to nature and to the rest of the world.
Now, typically, I like to write those with as little spoiler potential as possible, but come on, I’m writing this during KaiJuly and the movie’s friggin’ called ‘Shin Godzilla’…we all know that the problem at hand is a giant atomic lizard.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this review because I love the film so damn much. Not only is it such a realistic depiction of how modern-day Japan would face such a catastrophe, but it is a pointed response to the government response to the Fukushima incident as well as a commentary on Japan’s place on the world stage and whether or not they should still be held accountable for their role in World War II. Many reviewers have likened this film to an ‘Aaron Sorkin Godzilla film’…and that’s dead on. However, some view that as a positive, some a negative. While I come down very much on the side of the former, I can understand the point of view of the latter, as not only do you have subtitles from character dialogue to read, but you’ve also got subtitles that identify characters and their positions…plus subtitles that translate signs or headlines or what have you…and the screen fills up very quickly. Plus, not everyone wants to read their movies. But I love the approach because it’s really what would happen. As someone that works in emergency services, I was actually kind of thrilled to see that the first thing the Japanese government does in the film is to set up an Emergency Operations Center and staffing it with the relevant people. Only a half hour into the movie does the military become involved. Now, OF COURSE the military has to get involved in a Godzilla-like threat, but in a post-Michael-Bay-Transformers world, I’ve gotten really tired of that shit. Rah-rah, go military, aren’t our guns and toys so fucking awesome? Yeah, no thanks. I really enjoyed that we started with the government ministers and agencies that would have to get the ball rolling and THEN you see the camo missile jockeys.
While most movies in this vein would then use this introduction of the military to segue into nothing but military action for the remainder of the film, this film only sprinkles in the action as that’s not where the story lies. Instead, we stick with the politicians…well, mainly because all military efforts meet with few positive results. Okay, it’s not so much that we stick with the politicians, we stick with a politician, Rando Yaguchi, and his assembled team of political and scientific misfits…but the politics never goes away as other governments start to weigh in on how Japan should act and the looming threat that if Japan doesn’t act…they will. Naturally, at the forefront of this is the good ol’ US of A because as it turns out, Godzilla has some connections to the US Department of Energy. This brings us to probably the two weakest links in the film. First is US Liaison Kayoco Anne Patterson, the ambitious Japanese-American daughter of a US Senator with ties to the President. This just doesn’t work at all, mainly for her delivery of lines in English…it’s just horrible. Now, to be fair to the casting director, of course this film is mainly for the Japanese market, so naturally you’d look for a star/talent/idol before checking to see how good their English is. But I would at least hope that the search would turn up better candidates that didn’t sound like they learned their lines phonetically. It’s not that I’m bashing her for not having a mastery of English, it’s a Japanese film, of course she shouldn’t, but her character as written and conceived (after all, she’s got presidential ambitions for herself), require her to sound like she’s a fluent speaker. The director and writers (of which the director was one) should have re-written her background to accommodate this lacking. The other issue that arises from the use of English in the film is that when US officials do speak, the actors are slow, wooden and stilted. Granted, again, this is for the Japanese market and it makes sense, not everyone in the audience is going to know the language, but there are likely enough to have some basic familiarity that if the lines are read slowly and without much inflection, many in the audience will know what they’re saying. Kinda like me and Spanish. Anyway, my point with this is that given that this happens in some tense scenes, it can rip the viewer out of the movie.
So…Godzilla himself? We see him evolve throughout the movie and each form has its fans. I’m fond of the final form which is a perfect physical manifestation of the terror such a beast would invoke. Given that this film is from 2016, the effects are starting to age a little but nothing that really rips you out of the film. Sure, the effects aren’t really equal to the 2014 American film, but this movie tries to do a lot that the American film didn’t; varying life-stages, a majority of attacks in the daylight hours and such. This film ups the ante on his power set as well. Sure, we still have the favorite of Atomic Breath, but whoa boy did they kick it up to 11. Then there are the lasers, both out of his tail and out of his back spines. Lastly though, there’s something more sinister…something that should have been explored in a sequel but, alas, Toho has announced that Shin Godzilla would not be the start of a series of films. It might have been a way of using Godzilla as the progenitor of all kaiju or…like I said, something far more sinister, a lizard replacement for all mankind.
Lastly, let’s talk about the themes of this movie. The first and most obvious one would be a criticism of the response to the earthquake in 2011 that triggered the Fukushima incident. The film makes its point by dragging us the viewers through meeting after meeting after meeting throughout the beginning of the film. While some viewers, particularly American ones, might view this as boring and drawn out, it’s necessary to illustrate the bureaucracy that impeded relief efforts then as well as within the context of the film. We’re supposed to lose track of which committee we’re in, we’re supposed to get bored and frustrated with it, we’re supposed to ask what’s the point of all this…because our main character Rando feels the same way. And he’s not wrong. We also see politicians here doing what seems all too commonplace now: taking the easy way, going with explanations that are more palatable to the public as opposed to the more elaborate ones close to the truth and even fighting against what both scientific evidence and their own eyes are showing them. When this was released, in the waning days of the Obama administration, we all thought things like this were behind us, but now, here in 2021, these lessons are back again, needing to really be taken to heart. The next theme, once Godzilla is ambulatory and unleashing the havoc he’s known for, ties in with Japan’s place in the world. We see this first and foremost just in the hoops the Japanese government has to leap through to be able to use their own Self Defense Force to fight off this threat. This brings us to the question that will loom over every international interaction for the remainder of the film: How long will Japan have to abide by post-WWII restrictions? And this is a really good question. The cultural landscape has changed. Japan, like Germany who is similarly constrained to this day, are allies to the democracies of the West, they themselves being democracies. The film, rightly so, brings us a situation that begs the question, isn’t it time to re-evaluate these limitations, these…for lack of a better term…punishments? Should we find ourselves in catastrophic events, be they the very real threat of rising autocracies such as China and Russia or imagined like giant lizards rising out of Tokyo Harbor, isn’t it time to revisit our policies toward countries that have paid their penance for deeds committed at least two to three generations ago? That’s a big question for what most would typically dismiss as a ‘creature feature’.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Shin Godzilla is going to depend on what you want out of your kaiju films. If you’re looking for comedy, intentional and most importantly unintentional, actions and big dopey rubber suits…and hey, I can’t fault you because I love those too…but this isn’t your movie. There is action here, and it’s awesome looking, but it’s not the main focus of the film. However, if you’re looking to answer the question “What would REALLY happen if there was a Godzilla?”, Shin Godzilla is the best answer there is out there. It doesn’t succumb to being a jingoistic military explosion-fest the way Western entries do, but instead falls back on the tradition of the original 1954 film, pointed commentary on societal issues all camouflaged within the context of a monster movie. And Shin Godzilla proves that when done right, as is the case here, that methodology still holds up. As such, I’d echo what Japanese audiences said with their wallets (Shin Godzilla was the highest grossing Japanese film of 2016) and what Japanese critics said with their awards (winning 7 Japan Academy prizes, including Picture of the Year and Director of the Year): Shin Godzilla is a damn fine movie worthy of your attention…and I place it just behind the illustrious original film in terms of successfully mixing thrilling cinema with thoughtful message. You owe it to yourself to check out this classic.