Godzilla may be a character and symbol widely recognized across the entire globe, but culturally, the monster has never had more impact than he does in Japan, born of a cautionary tale barely a decade after the atomic bomb events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1946. Obviously, in talking about Godzilla as a movie series, that 1954/’56 film gets mentioned a lot, as it is always a starting point for the franchise despite great inconsistencies between the other 29 films that followed in the series. It’s been discussed that Godzilla is a physical incarnation of Japan’s nuclear anxieties, but it has not too deeply been thought of as therapy. A 50-400 foot tall lizard marching through the streets of Japan isn’t for the sake of senseless destruction and entertainment like in most American action films. It depicts a horror, and then also presents comic relief, particularly in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the disasters were 20 years removed and children embraced this embodiment of nature’s destructive power as a mascot akin to Mickey Mouse. So, when an audience applauds the hefty destruction of Tokyo, it’s not based on enjoyment of the buildings, artillery and armed forces being wasted, but in awe of a creature in its natural habitat, and maybe a little bit of fan service in respects to the latter.
But Japan has seen hard times in the last few years, namely with the devastation of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima in 2011, and horrific earthquakes and tsunamis even just in 2016. Japan as a country is surely having a hard time coping with harsh realities, and most collectives flock to the movie theater to escape these issues. Toho has made their first Godzilla movie since 2004 in reaction to this.
The world has changed a lot in that time, namely in that the world is more connected than ever, and people across the globe are constantly tuned into news networks and keeping score on what their governments are doing, prepared to criticize at every step. The nature of bureaucracy has never been more understood in public consciousness than it has today, and Japan has been particularly careful since these disasters in their nation.
Enter: director Hideaki Anno, the co-director of this film, and the man who, for better and for worse, created an anime that reshaped the world of animation, the giant robot genre and monster movies with Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1995. Anno, most known for his survival through depression and anxiety, and having it permeate through the series after a cut budget, showed the industry the importance of humanizing characters to allow audiences to be invested in bouts between giant monsters, giant robots and covert government technologies corporations. He has a distinctive way of building tension, atmosphere and an enjoyable sense of uneasiness in his directorial style, and as his first live action feature film, he masterfully recreates the notes he’s known for in a film within the franchise that inspired his career. Just as much as there is fan service here for Godzilla, there is also fan service for Evangelion within this film.
However, both elements take a backseat to the political thriller that drives Shin Godzilla, as Japan’s Prime Minister, politicians and committees are the characters that establish the focus and pace of the film’s representation of bureaucratic systems while the government proceeds in their understanding of the threat, establishing how to handle it, creating a means to execute their plan to handle it, and then the military doing so, all while evacuating the citizens safely out of the cities that this giant monster strolls through. To some, it could take a few minutes to settle into people playing politics at this brisk pace, to others there may be no interest at all. However, this structure of the film has, surprisingly, never been done before and works quite well overall. This process of politicians working through red tape, committees and chains of command not only provides occasional comic relief at the redundancies and poor timing, but also establishes how seriously the Japanese government, or any government in the UN, handles subjects from post-disaster economy and environmental protection of living organisms to international safety and the means to protect the Prime Minister. This is the first Godzilla film I can recall seeing that involves military efforts from outside nations as well, as the geopolitical interests of the United States, China and France also play roles in how Japan decides to exterminate, or detain, Godzilla.
As far as the execution of Godzilla himself on screen, Hideaki Anno and Attack on Titan art director Shinji Higuchi make Godzilla feel alien, but organic, as his structure is an unsettling, inorganic presence while he marches through Japan. I can say that the visual effects can’t quite compare to what was done in the 2014 American Godzilla film, but those in Shin Godzilla are a marvel considering that the budget was merely a fraction at $15 million dollars, and it reintroduced puppet effects in tandem with use of CGI, which makes this Godzilla equally, if not more effective than the one by Warner Brothers and Legendary. This Godzilla, both the creature and the film, feels inherently foreign as much as it does classic, which works quite well as it is considered the first ever “reboot” of the Godzilla franchise: a modern retelling of the 1954 original Gojira, and when understood as such, it works in every way. More than any other Godzilla film in a long time, this one presents a lot of smart concepts to unpack, and the quality of this film will be found in the viewer’s reflection of it over time. As a franchise that desperately needed some form of evolution, Shin Godzilla offers it in a way that is occasionally surprising while also strangely familiar.