Shin Godzilla is a massive Yes. Amazing fun, would watch again.
Who would have thought the funniest film I’ve seen this year was a horror movie about a Lovecraftian abomination wreaking havoc on an unprepared population centre, costing thousands of lives. And that too, a horror movie about a Lovecraftian abomination that pays the majority of its attention to the administrative realities of responding to the abomination rather than the abomination itself.
But yes, Shin Godzilla is a hilarious, biting satire that takes aim at Japanese bureaucracy’s inability to manage a crisis situation because it is too busy being cautious and trying to save face, a screed against a system that privileges seniority and status over competence and lateral thinking, a procedural about organising disaster response (that goes into a ridiculous amount of detail about the procedure involved), an honest to goodness social science fiction movie, a horror movie with particularly haunting imagery, and feature length otakubait. I’m going to be honest and say it ticked a lot of boxes for me, but it really does spend a lot of time with human characters who are largely uninteresting on an individual level. Most audiences aren’t going to like or want that in a Godzilla film, but I ate it up.
Full disclosure here, my experience with the Godzilla canon starts and ends with Gojira, Godzilla vs Destoroyah, and the 2014 American Godzilla. Roland Emmerich’s monster was rechristened Zilla (for taking the God out of Godzilla) and featured as its own creature in Godzilla: Final Wars, and therefore doesn’t count anymore. So two out of three “proper” Godzilla movies I had seen prior focused a large amount of energy and screen time on the humans. As far as I am concerned, I was primed and ready for a film that had Godzilla as a thing in the background and forcing the humans’ hands. But it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge there is a larger number of films where Godzilla is a character in its own right, and if the response to ’14 Godzilla is any indication, these are the films that have resonated with audiences to a greater extent.
Caveat aside, let’s get into the meat of it.
The first thing to note is that Shin Godzilla serves as a soft reboot of the franchise. Godzilla makes his first ever appearance in this continuity off the coast of Tokyo, causing damage to infrastructure. The Japanese government spends a good while deliberating over what caused the damage, quite reasonably shooting down the idea that it could ever have been the responsibility of a giant, hitherto unknown creature. Where another disaster movie would play this scene straight, there is a hint of the comic in Shin Godzilla, and this is where we get the first clue that it’s got more on its mind than just blowing stuff up.
When the Japanese government finally come to the realisation that a large, unidentified aquatic animal is indeed responsible for the damage, they spend a great deal of time deliberating about how to fashion a response, whether one is needed, if the creature can even come ashore, and whether or not mobilising the JSDF will shame them with the international community for retaliating against something that is not an aggressor nation. It is now when you start to realise things about what kind of movie Shin Godzilla is. It was around here that it became obvious that the previous hints of comedy were intentional, and that the movie is far more interested in the minutia of governmental bureaucracy in the face of an unprecedented situation. Much like an Edgar Wright film, the comedy comes from the art of film making itself, rather than solely from planting a camera in a room and having funny people improvise. It has impeccable comic timing in its editing, utilising smash cuts to either heighten any criticism a character is making of the current administration’s handling of the situation or to juxtapose unfounded suppositions with actual events, and allowing scenes to breathe in still silence to allow the audience to appreciate the absurdity of the situation the characters find themselves in.
Even the visual composition of scenes plays into the film’s satirical leanings, with higher ranking members of government being seated at comfortable seats while the lower ranking members are shunted off into the corner, barely in view in most shots. And in one particular scene, a low ranking (and therefore not respected) biologist is brought in as a consultant by a low ranking official, she is seated up against the wall at the far corner of a room, away from all key players. The scene is blocked in a way that forces her to assert herself in order to be heard and considered, and is a great use of visual as metaphor. It is little things like this that I mean when I say the comedy comes from the act of film making rather than just having a locked down camera and improv.
Needless to say, things with Godzilla escalate beyond the Japanese government’s capacity to manage, the US steps in, nuking Tokyo is proposed by the UN and the clock is ticking to solve the Godzilla problem before Japan gets nuked for a third time.
It is evident from its focus on the political and bureaucratic process, that Shin Godzilla is an overtly political film. It takes great pains to follow decision making all the way down and back up the chain of command, showing just how many moving parts there are in actually orchestrating disaster relief, and how any one weak link could result in an entirely ineffective response. The film ends up being nostalgically nationalistic, drawing parallels to how Susanoo defeated Orochi, and positing that the Japan of the past was able to work as a united entity, public, corporate, and governmental bodies coming together to serve the best interests of the country as a whole. It even goes to great lengths to frequently mention how the response coordination is being aided in large part by civilian volunteers, in much the same way volunteers helped with the clean up after Fukushima. It is a very collectivist film in a way a Hollywood production absolutely would not be (with perhaps the exception of Pacific Rim). Even taking the recent American Godzilla, the story focused on Ford Brody’s journey as the US Army’s only bomb technician, or something of the sort. Western cinema seems satisfied with stories of individual achievement in the face of adversary, and Shin Godzilla is quite refreshing in its insistence on having the Japanese government, civilians, and corporations be the protagonist. This may leave the human characters wanting for depth, but this is very much the point of the film. A few characters do stand in as voice pieces for the film’s politics, but the large cast of human characters are effectively interchangeable. The film even does replace its characters from time to time, announcing new job titles in bold on screen text. But it is very much the collective body of the Japanese government that is the main character of this movie.
In some ways, Shin Godzilla is most similar to the absurd and blackly comical Korean creature feature, The Host. Those who have seen it will notice its similar distrust of the United States Government and its occupation and control over the nation. Shin Godzilla is ultimately a more optimistic film, with even the United States offering support when Japan moves to initiate its own end game to stop the Godzilla menace in a possible nod to the United States military’s Operation Tomodachi. That said, the contempt for the US strong arming them into a nuclear ultimatum is palpable, as is the frustration with their pascifist constitution, which reflects the relatively current political climate and interest in reintroducing a Military in Japan.
You may have gathered by now that Shin Godzilla is light on Kaiju action. But when the film shifts focus to Godzilla, it is not afraid to get serious, and even grotesque. Scenes with Big G are appropriately massive and creatively lensed. Director Hideaki Anno (most famously of cult mechs anime Neon Genesis Evangelion) makes effective use of perspective and negative space to communicate Godzilla’s massive size and alien appearance against the Tokyo skyline. Action sequences are all wonderful, whether they be scenes of the JSDF ineffectually firing upon Godzilla, with hundreds upon thousands of tracers converging on a single point, or a particularly awe inspiring night time scene where Godzilla lets its true power be known for the first time. They are all coherently staged and direct the audience’s attention to the most important elements of each shot. It is all the more spectacular to have an uninterrupted, clear view of the carnage than an artificially kinetic, quickly cut sequence. Some of Anno’s cinematic fingerprints make the jump as well. He subtitles everything of significance on screen, including tanks and helicopters. Military deployment scenes focus on synchronised movements, as if it is all a choreographed dance. The film uses montage to highlight the destruction left in Godzilla’s wake. These moments serve as sobering reminders of the human and economic cost of bureaucratic inefficiency, and is once again not something you are likely to see in a Western movie. Sure you’d have your money shots of buildings being toppled, or cut in half by atomic breath as the case may be, but no sombre reminder of what was lost once the monster has moved on to another district.
I think what pleased me most about Shin Godzilla is its insistence on tackling heady subject matter by using the absurd as a rhetorical device. In this way it is similar to the 1954 film. But where Gojira is a haunting, sombre horror movie, Shin Godzilla runs head first into comedy.
Now, while I can say Shin Godzilla is indeed an interesting, often hilarious, often haunting movie, I am not sure how much of my appreciation came from my familiarity with the tropes Anno used with Evangelion, vague understanding/awareness of the disastrous handling of Fukushima, Operation Tomodachi, and in internet parlance, being a weeb. I don’t know how much of the satire and the use of the Japanese government as the central character of the film would work without at least a passing understanding of Fukushima. I know some of the specific cultural references will pass most audiences over (e.g. Nico Nico Douga scrolling comment text, Susanoo tricking Orochi into drinking sake before their battle – in the subtitles, Orochi is referred to as a hydra), and knowledge of Japan’s JSDF being relegated to a self defence role after WWII. What power will the film have then without this baggage the audience brings in?
Ultimately, given how Kaiju light Shin Godzilla is, will people receive it like the 2014 American Godzilla?
Would now be a good time to mention I liked that one too?
In keeping with the film’s use of metaphor and parallelism, Godzilla is identified as a cluster of extremophiles, rather than a singular organism. Godzilla is shown metamorphosising into various forms that are better adapted to the situation at hand. His initially shown form can barely function on land, so he transforms. He is under threat, so he transforms again, into a larger, final form.
The point here is this is a collection of smaller entities coming together as a whole organisation, and adapting quickly and effectively to the difficulties that they are presented with, in sharp contrast to the bumbling of the Japanese Government.
This film is taking Godzilla as metaphor as far as Gojira, and it is glorious.