Shin Godzilla (2016) Review

I feel like Godzilla is one of those franchises, comparable maybe only to James Bond, whose iconography has become more famous than the formal elements of its actual movies. And by that I mean the moments that everyone expects from Godzilla or James Bond usually make up a very small part of each actual entry in their franchise, and so when people who aren’t that familiar with the franchise see the latest entry, they’re usually disappointed by how little of the iconography is actually there.

What makes this doubly difficult for Godzilla is that, over the franchise’s 60something year history, it’s been split into two strains of movie. There’s the Godzilla movies that follow the structure of the original, where Godzilla is the main threat that human characters have to face; and there’s the Godzilla movies where the main threat is a different monster that Godzilla has to face. Shin Godzilla is of the former category.

And the reason I bring this up is because, in 2014 with Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, we saw people complaining how little there was of the big guy in the actual movie. And while that movie definitely could have had some fat shaved off it, the problem was more with the non-Godzilla stuff than the lack of Godzilla. I can see a lot of people going into Shin Godzilla excited for two hours of the monster mash being disappointed that most of this movie is about bureaucratic gridlock instead of well, Godzilla. But that’s kind of the point. The truth is, Godzilla is a spice best used sparingly. He’s not a character as much as he is a walking end-of-act climax. The best of these movies understand that Godzilla movies aren’t about Godzilla, they’re about our response to Godzilla.

Luckily, Shin Godzilla understands this completely, and tells a surprisingly resonant story about how humanity copes with a world-threatening catastrophe with the most awe-inspiring Godzilla rampaging scene in franchise history.

The plot of Shin Godzilla is about exactly what you’d expect. A mysterious giant lizard appears in Tokyo Bay causing all sorts of destruction, and Japan and the rest of the world has to contend with this existential threat. Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), a low ranking cabinet secretary, is the first person to realize that Godzilla isn’t a natural disaster, and leads a splinter group of other lower-ranking Japanese officials in devising a plan to stop Godzilla before Japan is forced to let the USAF drop a thermonuclear device on Tokyo to protect the rest of the world.

Anyone with the faintest grasp on 20th century history should recognize thematic weight of America nuking Japan as a plot device, and anyone with a familiarity of Godzilla should understand how that ties into the franchise roots.

However, the most refreshing thing about Shin Godzilla for me was that it doesn’t go the route you’d expect it to, especially from a western perspective. While the film does, quite hilariously, skewer the hesitation of the Japanese government in responding to a national crisis through a first act that consists almost entirely of the entirety of the Japanese leadership holding a series of ineffectual meetings in a series of different boardrooms; the solution isn’t for a gung-ho Yaguchi to grab as many guns as possible to fight the monster himself. Instead, he starts a small team to work with an alternate solution inside the Japanese government. The film doesn’t knock the Japanese government’s aversion to fire a bullet before a total evacuation, or comment on the weakness of the Japanese military to combat the threat themselves, but puts the fault entirely on the heads of politicians who use those virtues to protect them from having to take responsibility at all.

Shin Godzilla is adamant that Godzilla is not a military threat, and that violence won’t solve the problem he presents. In fact, an American style combat-oriented approach becomes even bigger threat than Godzilla himself once the nuclear weapon enters the equation.

The reason much of this movie’s thematic elements work is because of Shin Godzilla’s take on the monster. The movie smartly combines Godzilla’s origin as a manifestation of atomic warfare with a latter interpretation of him as a natural disaster by turning him to a natural disaster made worse by violent human interference. In this way, Godzilla becomes an almost perfect analogue for the 3/11 Earthquake and Fukushima melt-down.

Godzilla’s first appearance in the movie is treated and filmed like a natural disaster, with lots of found footage, news footage, and shots of destruction rather than of the monster himself. And when we do finally see Godzilla, he looks silly: he has googly-eyes, inflamed gills, and can’t even stand up on his own. Both the Japanese government, and the audience, underestimates this Godzilla despite him already causing billions of yen in property damage and hundreds of deaths.

And because of this underestimation, and the way that the initial response to a more threatening Godzilla is with violence, the end-of-act-two Godzilla rampage scene finds Japan completely unable to deal with the increased level of destruction Godzilla causes.

And that scene is one of the most dissonant scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Because, on one hand, it’s arguably the best Godzilla destruction scene in the franchise’s history. Not only are we starting with the scariest looking Godzilla to date – with sinewy, scab-like skin covering a glowing red core – but the scale of everything is captured fantastically. How the scene builds to the reveal of this Godzilla’s atomic breath, and witnessing how it obliterates Japan is epic. Seeing Godzilla stand tall among the burning wreckage of Tokyo is jaw dropping.

But it is not the sort of jaw dropping that makes you want to cheer. Watching Tokyo get annihilated by this unstoppable monster was not fun. It was genuinely horrifying, which is rare for a modern Godzilla movie.

But that horror pays off tremendously in the finale when Godzilla comes face-to-face with the full force of international cooperation and Japanese civil-engineering efforts. And as silly as it sounds on paper, the most triumphant scene in this entire movie might be one where an iconic feature of Japanese civil engineering gangs up on Godzilla. The film really drives home the point that the best way to fight fire isn’t with fire, but water.

But I’ve written over a thousand words on Shin Godzilla, and somehow not directly complimented the direction of Hideaki Anno. Probably most well-known for Neon Genesis Evangelion, Anno brings his anime sensibilities to Shin Godzilla in spades. While this isn’t always for the best – almost every shot of a person talking is in extreme close-up, while shots of boardrooms are almost always in a weird semi-fisheye perspective – it pays dividends when it comes to the overall pacing of government actions. Anno blazes through the bureaucratic gridlock of the first act by signifying the constant passing of the buck and inaction through sheer number of cuts. He directs these countless meetings like action scenes, and fills them with subtle jokes – like people’s official titles getting longer and longer on-screen subtitles as they get more and more responsibility – so that they are way less boring for the audience then they are for the characters. Moreover, the movie goes all in with treating Yaguchi’s team of politicians, biologists, chemists, etc. as action heroes, doing things that will eventually save the day.

Anno’s experience with giant robots and monsters in anime also means that he can direct the heck out of a Godzilla scene, perfectly capturing the scale of Godzilla compared to the city, and the sheer amount of destruction he leaves in his wake. There’s a seeming effortlessness in how he cuts from a line of tanks firing at Godzilla to seeing the missiles explode ineffectually of his hide that so many other directors can’t nail.

The movie also make incredible use of the classic 1954 Godzilla soundtrack, which plays in retro sounding mono over contemporary CG visuals of Godzilla rampaging through the city, creating a tangible link across 60 years of Godzilla.

Shin Godzilla will not work as well for other people as it did for me. It has, for my money, the single best kaiju rampage in the franchise, but if that’s all you’re looking for out of a Godzilla movie, wait for it to go up on Youtube, and enjoy it. But the movie as a whole is not one where we root for Godzilla because he’s the cool dinosaur with atomic breath, it’s one where we root for humanity to search for peaceful and cooperative solutions to world ending scenarios. And that’s what really makes Shin Godzilla epic.

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