So I’ve seen SHIN GODZILLA a total of 5 times now. I think that’s enough to try and form a solid opinion of the film.
Yes, I liked it. I know, GASP, Matt liked a Godzilla movie. In fact, I’ve been steadily enjoying it a bit more each time I watch it, which I’m sure will baffle and infuriate many of you ;)
Godzilla himself, like the rest of the film, is the kind of bold reinterpretation that this addled and stagnant franchise desperately needed. The initial appearance is shocking, which I count aggressively in the film’s favor. The exposed fish-eyes and wriggling movement call to mind something out of SILENT HILL; a grotesque mutation that makes one physically uncomfortable to watch. As Godzilla thrashes about, his body violently attempting to adapt to an alien environment, eventually he shifts into a two-legged form, which serves as a walking visual reference to the 1954 film, complete with roar. The music, cinematography, and scene composition are flooded with visual callbacks to the ‘54 film. Godzilla shows the first signs of intelligence by noticing its own body overheating, and then retreating to the sea. It’s a fascinating and unique opening.
When Godzilla reappears, it is the towering abomination that everyone is likely familiar with now. What I find inspired about this version is that Anno, Higuchi, and co. found a new way to reinterpret the character, rather than simply “make a new Godzilla,” the modus-operandi of the franchise for a looooong time. One familiar with the series will see not simply the 1954 version of the character, but more so the original maquette, with its desiccated arms and bulbously, mushroom-cloud shaped head. Shin-G takes a metric ton of elements from the '54 Godzilla, and pushes them to the extreme - the emotionless, unfocused stare, the upright, palms-up walking pose…it’s all been culled from the first Godzilla.
The beast shows no interest or is perturbed whatsoever by the attempts of the JSDF to stop it. Godzilla makes almost no reaction to being pounded by bullets and missiles, a visual trait shown before, particularly in GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA (2002). Anno takes that concept and pushes it to emphasize Godzilla’s unstoppability - the weapons of the military are so beneath this entirely reactionary creature that Godzilla doesn’t even bother retaliating until almost accidentally. Given that this new Godzilla is a creature constantly evolving to suit its environment and fend off hostile forces, it makes sense that, if the JSDF poses no threat, it wouldn’t retaliate. There’s no purpose to it.
It’s not until the U.S. forces finally wound Godzilla, after he marched across the county like a towering specte of Death, that the real light-show begins. Once again, Anno and co. reinterprets Godzilla’s signature weapon - the atomic breath has become less of a cathartic moment of audience enthusiasm and a total nightmare. The shocking layers and levels to Godzilla’s new powers are strange and visually inspired, but also wonderfully in-line with the newfound ability to constantly evolve to fight new threats. While there will always be a part of me that yearns for the man-in-suit charm of Nakajima and his brethren, I really do believe that moving to heavier CGI helped this film move into a new era and recapture the audiences of Japan, which is a sentiment I never thought I’d express.
Now for the part that most people will probably skip: the controversial political drama that envelops the rest of the film. While some decry it for being “talky” and “boring,” I found it to be fascinating and, while a little exhausting in the third act, the majority felt necessary and had a logical progression, where one scene fed into another with rapid-fire pacing. I was honestly surprised at the amount of comedy in the film - SHIN GODZILLA is perfectly willing to take pot-shots at the constant meetings, press conferences, and emphasizing how in-over-their-heads the government is. While not exactly incompetent, they are poorly structured to tackle something like Godzilla - the citations of the myriad of qualifiers and special circumstances that bog down the post-war system of government is not only chuckle-worthy, but feels close to home for the Japanese audience. Even though most of the laughs dissipate by the 3rd act, it’s been replaced by a mad dash to counter the ever-raising stakes, which are made abundantly, violently clear.
The cast reminds one of TWELVE ANGRY MEN (1997) or even GHOSTBUSTERS (1984), where the characters arrive to the setting fully formed, and while some small amount of growth or development is had, the majority of the drama plays out as how these characters, who are adults and professionals, react to the situation that they are thrust in to. It feels more believable than a character who undergoes some massive personal growth under the course of 24 hours. THOR (2011) is a good example of this. The more unique cast members are found in the rag-tag group put together by the main character, Yaguchi, and their quirks and personalities are brought to the surface through their actions, dialogue, and performances. The film blessedly eschews tiresome sub-plots about divorces and estranged children and pets and chooses to focus on how these characters are acting in the most professional manner they can, and their individuality bubbles to the surface. While I can’t immediately recall everyone’s names (there are a LOT of characters, which I personally liked, because it adds to the realism of how many people would be affected and involved in a country-wide catastrophe, not simply one globe-hopping narcoleptic who can’t even disarm a bomb), they had enough individuality that, despite the fact that my foreign-ness inherently makes it difficult to keep track of a massive group speaking a different language, I was able to suss out the individuals at play, especially through multiple viewings.
Audience favorite Ogashima, the computer-laden biologist, is a stand-out because of her mannerisms (and the fact that she’s, sadly, one of the only girls around…but this may be a commentary on the boy’s-club that is Japanese politics). What I find fascinating about her character is not only that she’s apparently tired of being the smartest person in the room, but she’s also playing her character with a touch of what I’d interpret as being slightly on the autism spectrum - it’s not a major factor, it’s merely an interesting addition to her performance that I found intriguing. There’s the spectacled “team leader” whom you find out, through a brief image on his phone, is a family man. Then there’s the doomsaying-scientist who puts a lot of information together, but only after he’s theorized that Godzilla will sprout wings or has “made itself immortal.”
All of this is overseen by Yaguchi, who’s unwavering belief in serving the country and keeping everyone together nearly makes him blow his lid, but he is the voice of optimism and the rallying force of the story. His main counterpoint is Kayako Ann Patterson, an “American” representative who initially appears as a flippant and self-serving dilettante, but is steadily revealed to be a caring and cooperative ally, without losing her flair or amusingly phonetic “English.”
The film has received criticism for its nationalistic edge and less-than-flattering portrayal of America. The latter is nothing new: America is cast as an overbearing big brother to the world in many an international production, and this is especially true in Japan. BIO PLANET WOO (2006) cast its Americans as nothing less than murderous super villains, and that’s to say nothing of the Godzilla franchise’s own proceedings. Anybody remember GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH (1991)? Ultimately, SHIN GODZILLA comes across as more of a realist in the back-and-forth diplomacy of politics, although the implication that the U.S. would rather nuke Japan than own up to their prior knowledge of the monster is pretty disconcerting. Then again, it may be a manipulative element by the Yaguchi plan to buy themselves the time they needed.
By the finale, the film doesn’t come down on the side of isolationism or superiority to other nations. It takes a group effort of nations to help defeat Godzilla. Germany helps crack the beast’s genetic code, France intervenes to halt the countdown, the team purchased material from Shanghai, and even America provides support in the final plan to stop the monster. While Japan spearheads the attack, they couldn’t have done it without the aid of other nations. Even with its nationalistic pride, it’s a far cry from the constant flag-waving of a Michael Bay TRANSFORMERS film.
Of course, with its warm endorsement of the SDF and the nationalistic leanings, it could be easy to see this film as a tacit endorsement of Prime Minster Abe’s recent re-working of the role the military plays in Japan’s political structure. This was intensely controversial for the populace, and is hotly debated to this day. In the context of the film, there is a slight conservative-government-endorsement at play here: meetings and diplomacy and “by the book” slows things down and gets people killed, whereas a small, cavalier group of political, military, and private-sector personnel saved the day by throwing out politics and working towards a common goal. It’s food for thought, and while I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the socio-political turmoil of modern Japan, I do find it compelling and interesting to watch a Godzilla movie that takes these kinds of risks - it’s clearly something that the Godzilla-loving audiences of Japan have been starved for.
And the music, my GOD, the music. Shiro Sagisu creates some deliciously Evangelion-inspired tracks that brim with audacious power and over-the-top chorus. I absolutely love it. And the Ifukube tracks, while a bit out-of-place, are nice treats for the fans. I was wonderfully pumped-up during the final battle’s invigorating march.
Speaking of the final battle, it was wonderfully creative, and while not a definitive defeat for Godzilla, it was new and fast-paced and exciting. The final shot? Weird and terrifying.
How does it rank for me when compared to the rest of the franchise? GMK (2001) by Shusuke Kaneko remains my favorite. It’s the kind of human drama I prefer with plenty of monster action. And while I have a lot to appreciate about SHIN GODZILLA, not every Godzilla fan is going to enjoy it. Many fans have little patience for the human sequences to begin with, so I can’t really recommend this to them. If you go apoplectic when Godzilla’s not onscreen, then you’ll probably not be revisiting this one. SHIN GODZILLA is a Godzilla movie that violates a lot of the comfort-zones that the fandom has built for itself over the years, and if you’re not willing to go along with a different sort of filmmaking to have to sift through before getting to a Godzilla that breaks a lot of the hard-line rules that have been calcified over the last 62 years, then it probably isn’t for you.
But if you want to see what a gigantic pain-in-the-ass it is for a kaiju to suddenly appear in the modern world, and all of the headaches and drama that come with it, not to mention an insane Godzilla that, again, breaks a LOT of “rules,” while still being 100% “Godzilla,” give this one a few sit-downs.
I do find it wonderful that we are on the cusp of two concurrent Godzilla franchises, and they are BOTH equal parts Godzilla. What a time to be a fan.