Two years after the commercially successful American reboot of Godzilla in 2014, Toho came out with their own reboot of their greatest franchise. Shin Godzilla was the first Japanese-language Godzilla film in 12 years. It was written by Hideaki Anno (of Evangelion fame), and was co-directed by Anno and Shinji Higuchi (VFX sequences).
Plot Summary (possible spoilers)
A mysterious sea creature appears in the Tokyo Bay and causes a flood in the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line (an underwater bridge). The top officials of the Japanese government, baffled by this unprecedented event, call emergency meeting after emergency meeting in search of a way to deal with this catastrophe. An immediate standout is the young Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, who boldly speaks his mind even at the risk of provoking his superiors. It is Yaguchi who first recognizes that the disaster is caused by a biological being rather than an earthquake or a volcano. At first, it is speculated that the creature is too heavy to walk, but this is immediately contradicted (to the embarrassment of the Prime Minister) when the lizard-like creature begins to crawl through the land and destroys everything in its path. At one point it stops its progress and stands upright, transforming into a something akin a tyrannosaurus Rex. The Prime Minister considers a military strike against it, but ultimately decides not to attack in fear of harming any civilians. The creature returns to the sea.
In the aftermath of the attack, readings show a buildup of radioactive contamination along the path of the creature. A research task force led by Deputy Chief Yaguchi theorizes that the creature itself may be powered by nuclear fission of an unknown isotope. It is for this reason that Godzilla needs to return to water to ‘cool down.’ Later, the research notes of a missing Zoologist, Goro Maki (brought to the task force by US special envoy, Kayoko Anne Patterson, the half Japanese/half American daughter of a US senator) reveal that the creature is the product of radioactive contamination caused by careless research practices. Professor Maki names the creature ‘Godzilla,’ meaning ‘God Incarnate.’
Godzilla, now double his original size, returns to the shore and once again wreaks havoc on the city. This time the prime minister doesn’t hesitate and orders his forces to attack, authorizing unrestricted weapon use. Unfortunately, this proves ineffective. US bombers come to Japan’s aid (under the Security Treaty) by bombarding Godzilla. Though they do cause some damage, Godzilla retaliates with a powerful atomic ray that eliminates the bombers, sets half of Tokyo ablaze, and destroys a helicopter carrying the prime minister. After all threats against him are exterminated, Godzilla enters a dormant state, presumably to recuperate energy.
Considering Godzilla an international throat, the UN authorizes the use of a thermonuclear weapon in Tokyo. Under US pressure, the Japanese government reluctantly agrees. They have two weeks to evacuate Tokyo (the estimated time predicted for Godzilla to recuperate his energy). Yaguchi’s task force, however, is working on an alternate plan hoping to avoid the use of a nuclear weapon in the middle of the city, thus not repeating the nightmare of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They consider the possibility of using a coagulating chemical to freeze Godzilla’s inner cooling system, rendering him motionless. Deciphering Professor Maki’s cryptic research notes, the team finds enough information there to ensure that their plan will work.
After securing the government’s approval and some international cooperation (including the US), Yaguchi enacts his plan, named Operation “Yashiori” (after a well-known folktale). They provoke Godzilla and trick him to waste all his atomic energy on US drones. Once he’s all spent out, they deliver the coagulating agent. The plan is a success, and Godzilla freezes in place. We learn that the isotope fueling Godzilla has only a 20-day half-life, indicating that Tokyo will be habitable again in a few months.
The final shot of the film shows a frozen Godzilla, and as the camera moves along his body towards to the tail, a multitude of frozen miniature ‘Godzillas’ (presumably his offspring) are seen emerging from his tail.
Godzilla is as much a political movie as it is a monster movie. A full on satire, in fact. Indeed, only three scenes – one at the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the very end – feature the gargantuan as a protagonist. The rest of the film involves men and women in suits running around government buildings, trying to figure out how to solve the problem at hand. Tons of dialogue and legalistic minutiae are thrown relentlessly at the audience. They never take a moment’s rests, and the conversation moves forward at the speed of light. If you watch it with English subtitles, like myself, just keeping up with all the reading that appears on-screen becomes quite a challenge in itself. We get the impression that Godzilla is just another political emergency to be resolved through political means.
And that’s why Shin Godzilla works so well.
It is no mystery that the movie was an astounding success in Japan; the highest grossing live-action film of the year. The memory of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and its incompetent handling by the government, so mimicked in Shin Godzilla, was still fresh in the minds of the Japanese public. Hints of this are seen throughout the film. For example, in an effort to calm the public early in the film, the Japanese PM announces that Godzilla can’t possibly come on shore because his legs cannot support his massive weight, only to be proven wrong just seconds later. Moreover, the initial arrival of Godzilla onshore resembles a tsunami (what caused the Fukushima incident). The camera follows the waves of water that flood the streets of the city before the full stature of the monster is even revealed.
Just like the original 1954 version, Shin Godzilla is a metaphor – an allegory. It’s not accidental that parts of the original score are reused. One cannot view it separately from the geopolitical message it contains.
For that reason, Shin Godzilla spends no time developing its characters beyond what is absolutely necessary for the allegory it presents. It’s all about the monster. It’s all about Godzilla (even if he appears so little in the movie). From the opening shot to the closing one, Godzilla is the sole subject of conversation. They’re either dealing with him, or trying to figure out how to deal with him. This laser-like focus not only keeps the pace rolling, but also ensures that the audience is not sidetracked by things that don’t really matter. The 2014 American version is filled with unnecessary character moments that detract from the message (in addition to completely misusing the term “echolocation”). Shin Godzilla is fortunately smarter than that, and the film’s structure reflects perfectly its intentions.
Director Hideaki Anno presents Shin Godzilla much like a government report. Text and titles are used extensively to introduce information. The location of almost every scene is announced via a title (even if we’ve seen that location before), and for almost every character that speaks we get their name and occupation floating above their head. The editing is minimalist, represented by fast cuts. Often, a question or inquiry posed by one character in one scene is cut and answered immediately in the next scene. This gives a wonderful sense of urgency to the whole affair.
Moreover, the film strives greatly for realism. Of course, everything about Godzilla, his existence and function as a biological entity is utterly implausible. Accepting that, however, the remainder of the film goes to great lengths to accurately portray in detail not only the governmental procedures, but also some of the scientific processes involved in defeating Godzilla. Much of the first half of the film is composed of stable, wide-angle shots of rooms full of government officials sitting in conference rooms. The decorum is remarkable, and anyone hardly deviates from proper etiquette. Just as the public expects their representatives to behave. When the PM prepares to give his first press conference to the public, he conveniently changes into an ’emergency’ suit, for no other reason than to convey an image of preparedness for the benefit of the press.
It goes even further, however. Perhaps the most impressive moment is in a scene where cabinet members are debating whether or not a certain law allows for the use of armed forces against Godzilla. While this is happening, the relevant article of the law appears on the screen in its entirety, superimposed over the actors. In a later scene, when two characters lament about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, two real photographs of those cities in the aftermath of the bombing are shown on-screen. And though the scientific elements in the movie are not 100% accurate, they’re treated with sufficient detail to be satisfying. They’re neither dumbed-down (at least, not by a lot), nor are they new-age profound-sounding pseudo-science. At one moment they show the use of large supercomputers to model the chemical-processes that happen inside Godzilla’s cells, which is what you’d need to use in a real scenario. I appreciated that detail.
No doubt, this may be daunting for the unaccustomed viewer. Because the filmmakers choose to keep a cold and objective distance from the human characters in the film, there’s no one there to relate or identify with. If the political message does not resonate, then one may have a hard time appreciating the movie. It’s a fair criticism, bound to affect the film’s non-Japanese audience. But that’s simply not the audience Shin Godzilla was intended for.
Though only a minor element in the film, I do believe that the character of Kayoko Anne Patterson (played by Satomi Ishihara) is a bit problematic. Besides being a US-born and US-raised Japanese-American citizen with an atrociously unconvincing American accent, her role felt out-of-place in the movie. She was a token character, defined only by a throwaway line stating her desire to be US president in her forties. I laughed, not because it was supposed to be funny, but because it reminded me a bit of Leslie Knope. Kayoko plays a role in the political maneuvering necessary to bring Godzilla down, but it’s never clear what she did exactly. Perhaps I missed it because I so distracted by her accent – it’s ridiculous. I understand it’s only a nitpick, possibly one that wouldn’t bother a Japanese native, but I could not ignore it.
Lastly, a few words on the design of the monster. Though the CGI is not perfect, the design of Godzilla is truly terrifying (as it should be). Godzilla doesn’t move much and doesn’t need to. His towering stature alone, aided by upward camera angles – much like the 1954 version – are enough to convince us of his true menace. He doesn’t need to jump around and fend off missiles. After all, they can’t harm him. Whenever he stops, there’s a looming tension that he might start again anytime. His silent presence gives us the chills more than his roar. Not that Godzilla’s attacks are benign. When he finally unleashes his infamous “atomic ray” (in the most beautiful scene of the movie), he seems unstoppable. The effects, the score, the visual aesthetic are all reminiscent of Evengalion, from which the influences are obvious. Perhaps that is why Anno was the ideal director to tackle this project.