Hollywood producers, take note: Shin Godzilla is how you can reboot a franchise in bold, ambitious, stylish ways, opting for true creative vitality instead of simply box-office profits. Put into production in late 2014 (the same year that the American Godzilla made almost $530 million worldwide, though it displayed precious little innovation while doing so), Shin Godzilla was released to critical and commercial acclaim in Japan in 2016. It became the highest-grossing live-action Japanese film of the year and won seven Japan Academy Prizes, including Best Picture and Director. The movie isn’t perfect but is largely deserving of such accolades, using the relaunch of a beloved cultural text as an opportunity for formal experimentation and incisive political satire. (How many Marvel blockbusters can claim such a feat?)
Shin Godzilla‘s bold aesthetic and idiosyncratic story are on display from the start: the film opens with a POV shot as seen by a member of the Japanese Coast Guard, investigating a yacht that was abandoned in Tokyo Bay. While this seemingly throwaway opening will have bearing on the plot later on, the sudden appearance of an aquatic monster interrupts the proceedings. Before long, a googly-eyed quadruped appears on land, causing unimaginable carnage even though it honestly looks pretty silly, like some kind of giant, mutated squirrel-lizard.
Not surprisingly, mayhem ensues. Seemingly every member of Japan’s government convenes to debate the best way to stop the rampaging monster. But the surprisingly cynical thrust of Shin Godzilla‘s satire is obvious right away: these politicians are so inept and self-serving that they do virtually nothing to save lives or stop the creature’s progress. The sprawling ensemble of characters (whose official-sounding titles are displayed onscreen whenever someone new is introduced – an amusing gag that gets increasingly absurd as the film becomes littered with bureaucrats) hem and haw and schedule meetings and phone calls, all the while pondering what solution will make them look the best (and give them the most political clout). In Shin Godzilla‘s estimation, if Japan (or most other countries in the world) are actually faced with an urgent crisis, worldwide populations are screwed: politicians don’t have the selflessness or foresight to assume responsibility when it matters most.
This satire of red tape and government ineffectiveness – comical on the surface but deeply pessimistic – was actually inspired by a devastating real-life occurrence. On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean about 45 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula, sending a massive tsunami heading for Japan’s shores. Almost 20,000 people died as a result. The consequences were made even more dire by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster: when the tsunami hit land, it caused three of the nuclear plant’s reactors to melt down and spread radioactive water through Fukushima, resulting in the deadliest nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. In the aftermath of such a tragedy, accusations were slung at the plant’s safety inspectors – not to mention overseers and bureaucrats in the government – for failing to be prepared for such an event. As writer William Tsutsui put it, “Shin Godzilla leaves no doubt that the greatest threat to Japan comes not from without but from within, from a geriatric, fossilized government bureaucracy unable to act decisively or to stand up resolutely to foreign pressure.”
But the movie’s themes are actually a little more complex than that suggests. Coupled with its critique of a self-defeating bureaucracy is Shin Godzilla‘s commentary on current geopolitics, particularly the strained relationship between Japan and the United States. The film makes repeated reference to the Security Treaty which was signed in September 1951 and then amended in June 1960. This treaty allowed the US to continue having military bases on Japanese soil for the indefinite future; initially, it was a heavily unilateral agreement that benefitted the United States, although the terms were later changed to establish a more bilateral military agreement. Shin Godzilla alludes to not only this treaty but later scores of government pacts and agreements; “Article 72” is ominously referred to, and in one befuddling scene, the sprawling text of a political document is displayed onscreen, foregrounded against several characters as they have a rapid-fire dialogue, their discourse apparently superseded by the endless words their government has dictated for them.
Both the impotency of the government to intervene and increasing pressure from the international community become more pronounced as the situation grows more urgent. The somewhat cuddly, four-legged creature that we see at the beginning of the film starts evolving as soon as it’s attacked by Japan’s Special Defense Forces, morphing into the towering, two-legged dragon that we know and love so well. But even this second “form” is only one of many, as the scientists called on to defend Japan (who are mostly seen as the country’s one and only salvation) hypothesize that the monster has various forms into which it will evolve. A later iteration of Godzilla has atomic breath that can level entire cities and shoots radiation from its dorsal fins, eviscerating any aircraft unfortunate enough to come near it.
What to do with such a seemingly indestructible creature? The United States urges Japan to use an atomic weapon against it, and most of the world agrees with the exception of China and Russia. (Not only are these countries right next door to Japan, but such an arrangement also echoes the tensions of the Cold War: the capitalist, war hawk United States, the socialist China and Soviet Union, Japan caught in the middle.) Japan’s mostly timid bureaucrats go along with the plan to nuke their own country, despite the injustice of having the country that killed about 200,000 of its civilians by dropping atomic bombs on them asking them to commit the same atrocity against themselves. The last chance to avoid imminent disaster is for Japan’s scientific community to band together and research Godzilla, not to mention calling on the Japanese people’s resourcefulness and dedication to work together. It’s a race against time as the scientists rush to find a coagulant that can freeze Godzilla’s irradiated blood before the US drops yet another bomb on Japanese soil. (Shin Godzilla was released in 2016, but its themes of scientific know-how and civil organization acting as the last defenses against certain calamity are even more poignant in a post-COVID world, when the mishandling of large-scale crises in the United States especially has claimed over a million lives.)
This is heady territory for a Godzilla reboot, though that’s of course one of the things that distinguished the original 1954 Godzilla: its political outrage and thematic complexity. In Ishiro Honda’s original, the crimes against humanity committed by the United States were the genesis of the monster in the first place, and the question of whether extreme, potentially deadly measures should be taken to stop ongoing bloodshed was tackled directly. For Shin Godzilla, co-director and writer Hideaki Anno (who worked with co-director and special effects supervisor Shinji Higuchi) was initially reticent to accept the assignment, believing they couldn’t do justice to Honda’s classic film, but it’s fascinating to see Anno and Higuchi emulate the radicality of the 1954 film, echoing its thematic richness and its critique of global imperialism. Of course, such radicality is conveyed through visceral genre conventions and pulpy storytelling, which only makes its subversiveness more impressive.
With so many characters onscreen and so much going on conceptually and narratively, it’s only fitting that Shin Godzilla has an equally kinetic style. Cinematographer Kosuke Yamada opts for wild, skewed camera angles whenever possible: oblique high- and low-angle shots, angles from the POV of phones, computers, documents, you name it. It’s all edited together with the rapid aggressiveness of Soviet montage – indeed, Shin Godzilla sometimes seems like what would happen if Eisenstein or Dovzhenko made a Godzilla movie. Some camera setups involving numerous extras, a distinct setting, extreme compositions, and/or rapid camera movement last onscreen for only a few seconds, underscoring the ambition of the production and how carefully calibrated it all is.
The film isn’t perfect. Its CGI is wildly hit-or-miss, which is partially the result of a variety of different approaches for the special effects (a lot of computer graphics surrounding motion-capture performances, along with limited animatronics and “suitmation”). Generally speaking, distant shots of Godzilla towering amid the carnage he creates, foregrounded against smoldering city skylines, work the best: the effects are more convincing whenever the movie goes for suggestion instead of vivid detail. In the latter instances – for example, early shots of hundreds of cars (obviously computer-generated) being flung towards the audience – the CGI may be technically top-notch but their effect is still one of artificiality. In moments like these, you long for the “man in a suit” approach that typified the series for so long, which at least had a handmade uniqueness to them.
Shin Godzilla also has a tendency for blatant didacticism (sample line: “Man is more terrifying than Godzilla”) and the character of the Japanese-American envoy, Kayoco Anne Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), comes off as a bit trite and awkward, though that may be a result of the stilted English-language dialogue. But whatever its flaws, it feels ungrateful to criticize Shin Godzilla too much. Whenever a cultural touchstone like this one is reinvented through a combination of thematic insight, political sharpness, formal ingenuity, and (for the most part) visceral thrills, it’s a cause for celebration. The film even offers concessions to kaiju fans that are impossible to resist; when Godzilla first awakens from the sea in its third form, accompanied by the ominous brass of Akira Ifukube’s classic, recycled score, the wide-eyed, monster-loving eight-year-old within you may be reborn.
Written by Matthew Cole Levine
Runtime: 120 minutes
Country of Origin: Japan
Premiere: July 26, 2016 (Tokyo)
US Release: October 11, 2016
Directors: Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi
Producers: Minami Ichikawa, Taichi Ueda, Yoshihiro Sato, Masaya Shibusawa, Kazutoshi Wadakura
Writer: Hideaki Anno
Original Music: Shiro Sagisu
Cinematography: Kosuke Yamada
Editors: Atsuki Sato, Hideaki Anno
Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, literally hundreds of other bit parts and cameos