Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Films of 2016: Shin Godzilla

Just a few weeks ago, Godzilla (or Gojira, if you prefer…) celebrated his sixty-second birthday. 

The big green, atomic-breathing creature has now been a crown jewel of the global pop culture longer than any competitors, including James Bond, or the heroes of Star Trek and Star Wars.

And in his six decades as a silver screen star, Godzilla has featured several distinctive faces.  He has grown and changed with the times.

I grew up with the Showa Godzilla, a set of filmed stories which ran from 1954 to the mid-1970s. During that span, Godzilla went from being a terrible menace (and overt avatar for the terrors of nuclear power) to a friendly guardian of the Earth, with friends on Monster Island such as Anguirus, Mothra, and King Caesar. 

When Godzilla battled Hedorah (the Smog Monster) in the early seventies, the Godzilla series lived up, again, to its reputation as a vehicle for meaningful social commentary; contending with what series filmmakers believed was the great, existential menace of the disco decade: our thoughtless destruction of our own home, the planet Earth.

After the Showa Era we got the Heisei Era, and kaiju challengers such as Biollante, Space Godzilla, and, finally, Destoroyah.  The Millennium Era was next, with Godzilla compared to a natural disaster -- like a tornado -- in Godzilla 2000 (2000), and broaching a Matrix-esque world in the steroidal Final Wars (2004).

Now, with the arrival of Shin Godzilla (2016) we have officially entered an age that I suppose will be called the Akhito Era of the Godzilla franchise after Japan’s current emperor…at least if tradition holds. 

To my surprise and delight, the new film, from director Hideaki Anno, is fresh, original, and briskly paced.  The movie doesn’t rest on franchise laurels, but instead -- once again -- has taken the temperature of the times, and produced a Godzilla film that seems like it belongs in our world and our time 

The franchise doesn’t feel sixty-two in other words.  It feels like it was conceived in the now.

How would I characterize “the now?”

Well, we live in troubled times. We’ve had the Brexit vote in England, and the recent American presidential election too. Both events suggest that the post-World War II era-- and Order -- is finally showing signs of its age; showing signs of fraying.  Globalization, for instance, is meeting with intense blow-back because of its negative impact on local communities, a phenomenon called glocalization

Also being rejected are longstanding Establishment rules and norms about political decorum, political parties, and matters such as trade and even, shockingly, racial integration or multi-culturalism. 

Again, the whole Post-World War II Order is being re-thought.  The Status Quo is showing signs of coming to an end.

In short, we are barreling forward into a future that appears frightening to some people because the old rules and hierarchies seem to be crumbling. The assumptions we have carried about the past may no longer hold true.

The future is -- as it always was -- unwritten. But our assumptions about its shape are being called into question.

Shin Godzilla captures and reflects this age of anxiety with almost perfect grace and execution.  Call it “Brex-zilla,” because this film is really about one topic: the modern Japanese identity, as reflected through its government and alliances. 

At times that government seems mired in red tape and tradition, to the detriment of all.  And at other times, the government -- or at least parts of it -- remains flexible enough to allow a breakthrough in innovation and technology that could actually fight the film’s challenge, Godzilla, to a standstill.

Featuring fantastic special effects, edgy, non-stop, overlapping dialogue, and a constantly accelerating pace, Shin Godzilla is a total, ground-up rejuvenation of the long-lived franchise, and a facelift for a beloved movie star that promises to carry him (and his films) into a brave new world.

In short, I loved Shin Godzilla.  

This is actually my favorite film so far of 2016, a heartening, thoughtful re-think of the silver screen’s greatest monster. It’s not only a great monster movie, it’s a great movie about the world as it exists today.

Much to the chagrin of the Japanese government, a strange disruption occurs in broad daylight in Tokyo Bay.  A strange, long-tailed creature emerges from the sea and moves inland, pulping bridges, cars, boats and everything else in its path.

Unfortunately, the government can offer no consensus about what to do regarding the creature. Even before information can be gathered about the monster, however, an attack is launched by the air force.  The creature retreats to the sea, but soon returns in a new, even more deadly form, standing fully erect on two legs.

As scientists determine that the monster is powered by nuclear fission, the crisis worsens. The creature continues to cause billions in property damage, and the Prime Minister agrees to a U.S. request to use B2 bombers against the monster, now known as Godzilla.

Unfortunately, the attack by the U.S. spawns a second mutation.  The creature again alters itself. Godzilla retaliates by using atomic rays fired from its mouth, dorsal spines, and even tail. In the ensuing blow-back, the Japanese Prime Minister is killed.

A low ranking government official, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) attempts to execute a plant to freeze Godzilla, but he is competing against the Americans, who want to immediately drop a nuke on the monster…and Tokyo itself.

Yaguchi teams up with a special envoy from the U.S., Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihari) to rally a plan to stop Godzilla before Tokyo is obliterated.

It is not difficult to view Shin Godzilla as a commentary on the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the response to that disaster by the Japanese government. 

Specifically, this Godzilla is a threat who keeps changing shape. He’s not exactly a tsunami or an earthquake, but the nature of the danger he presents keeps changing.  Similarly, in real life, Japan had to grapple with a meltdown, and then, containment, and then, unfortunately, radioactive contamination.

Shin Godzilla knowingly sets up a conflict between the higher-ups in the Japanese government, who are unable -- from their establishment perches -- to respond to the crisis in a meaningful way, and the younger generation (Yaguchi and Patterson), who are able to heroically and meaningfully respond to the constantly changing menace.  These young heroes rally various industrial and scientific sectors to stop Godzilla, a feat that the old guard can’t manage. 

Instead, the old guard simply cedes authority to the Americans, relying on an antiquated alliance or power structure that may no longer have Japan’s best interest involved.  After all, the Americans believe everything will be solved if only they are permitted to drop a nuke on Godzilla, destroying Tokyo in the process.

By pitting the younger generation against not only the older one, but against international forces and alliances, Shin Godzilla perfectly reflects the dynamics of our post-Brexit age. The criticism here of the United States is a criticism, as well, of the outdated status quo, and by extension, globalism.  The criticism of the old guard (both prime ministers in the film) is a judgment against the wealthy elite who control the world for their own benefit, and can’t seem to solve any real problems.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Shin Godzilla is cynical about the world. 

Contrarily, the film states, rather convincingly, that government can also be an effective force of good, in the right hands. Yaguchi is also part of the establishment system, but he is able to think outside of it for the good of his nation. Patterson, an American, is motivated by what I term “enlightened” self-interest. If she manages the Godzilla crisis successfully, her power base will grow, and the film makes clear her ambition to be U.S. President.  

But ambition isn’t the problem here.  The problem is lack of ambition.  

The Prime Minister(s) in the film don’t seem to recognize that the primary concern is saving people's lives.  Rather, they seem to see the problem as one where they just don't wan to be assigned blame. 

There is a vacuum of leadership.  

And this is a crisis that calls for emboldened, innovative leadership. Instead, the first thing the interim Prime Minister can offer on the job is his disappointment that his dinner is now soggy. To him, that’s his first “trial” or sacrifice on the job, having to deal with soggy noodles.

I find it fascinating too, that Godzilla -- for the first time in his long history -- is now a shape-shifter, and not merely a radioactive dinosaur.  

This fact makes the monster, more than ever, our responsibility.  Godzilla first emerges from the Bay as a big eyed, open-mouthed, thing. He’s kind of cute, actually. It’s true he is leaking red radioactive fluid and destroying things in his path, but his destruction doesn’t seem intentional.  He’s just…large and ungainly.  He’s an animal on the loose.

The government, fearful of being blamed for a crisis, or property destruction, orders Godzilla attacked before he can be studied, as Yaguchi prefers. After the attack, Godzilla returns as a more fearsome monster.  The question is: had he been met with something other than violence, would he have had biological need to develop into this more terrifying stage?

And again, a second time, Godzilla is met only with violence. The U.S. B-2 bombers go after him, and activate his ‘atomic’ capacities.

In other words, Godzilla evolves as he does because of the way we treat him, because of the decisions we make.  

In a very real sense, we are his parents, and our choices transform him into a walking, talking avatar of mass destruction.  

Again, I see a very Brexit/2016 connection evident here: the idea of an uncertain future unfolding in ways both unpredictable and scary, because of the choices we make. 

What impact will electing a reality TV star to the White House have on World Peace? What will England’s exit from the EU do to the rest of Europe?

We have no answers to those questions as of yet. 

Just as we have no idea, finally, of Godzilla’s ultimate form.  The movie ends with him frozen, about to (asexually) reproduce.  Freezing him (and his offspring) is temporary solution, and one, perhaps, with unforeseen consequences.  

The future -- like ours, post-Brexit -- is not yet written.  What will be the consequences of our choices?

Shin Godzilla is beautifully filmed, and one aspect that stands out for me are the scenes of destruction.  

When Godzilla goes nuclear, literally, it is an awe-inspiring moment, visually-speaking.  It is a credit to the filmmakers that they have updated the monster’s atomic breath and made it more like an atomic barrage, firing from all quarters.  This is the most over-powered Godzilla in film history, and yet he doesn't feel evil or malicious. He is, as the movie seems to note, a Force of Nature (or, in the verbage of the film, a God Incarnate.)  

And the moment during which Godzilla attacks is terrifying too. The Prime Minister’s helicopter is cut down in flight, and a city goes up in flames. It is a fantasy setting -- replete with giant monster -- and yet the damage and pain feel very real, almost tangible.

Perhaps it’s just the events of the 21st century so far which make this movie so terrifying. I never in my wildest dreams (or nightmares) thought I’d witness the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the drowning of an American city in a hurricane.  But watching Shin Godzilla in 2016, this destruction in Tokyo doesn’t feel far-fetched, but rather frighteningly real.

Shin Godzilla is the first Godzilla movie my (10 year-old) son Joel has seen in a theater (mine was Godzilla: 1985, when I was fifteen), and we saw it in a crowded-to-capacity auditorium.  In fact, we saw it in the same theater where we saw The Force Awakens last December, and it was even more crowded for Shin Godzilla, because it was the only theater in Charlotte showing the film.  The movie earned a rousing reception from the audience, including all the Muirs.

I knew my son didn’t get the larger real-world context behind the film. He just saw his new favorite monster movie (and his new favorite Godzilla movie) up there on the screen. Watching the film through his eyes, I realized how the Godzilla franchise has achieved, again, something magical and wondrous.  

Shin Godzilla honors the franchise's ancestry and history by succeeding as both as a monster movie for kids, and a movie for adults about the monsters of our own making.

Long live Godzilla!


  1. John,
    This is an excellent review. I felt as if I were back in the theatre, examining the film with a new perspective. The Fukushima parallel seems so apparent to me now; I must admit to being more like Joel when I view something for the first time. I bask in the wonderment, and leave the analysis for second or third viewings.
    Yet Shin Godzilla engages on various levels, and seems to work on all of them. There were initial complaints in early reviews of "not enough Godzilla," but I felt that the pacing was flawless, and indeed, we are given much more kaiju action than in Gareth Edward's Godzilla movie. Shin Godzilla pulls no punches. The scene in which the monster goes full-on nuclear is devastating, as is the feeling of hopelessness in its wake. This gives so much more power to the response of the protagonists in the face of that hopelessness, and their varied reactions as their plans are brought to fruition. The human element is stronger here than in possibly any Godzilla film we've ever seen.
    Godzilla as Force of Nature was exactly as I described the monster after seeing the film. It's a creature, created by man's carelessness, and is doing its best to survive in spite of our efforts to wipe it out. This evolving, mutating life form is the Michael Jordan of Godzillas...You cannot stop him; you can only hope to contain him.
    Political allegories, monster mayhem and special effects aside, this is a greatly entertaining spectacle but also an intimate look at ourselves - how we, as humans, respond to the difficulties which we are responsible for, and how we confront and overcome the impossible challenges of a world that seems to be out of control. It's also a statement on how the younger generation, seen by the older as shiftless and useless, will ultimately find the power to save the day. The world may contain monsters, but the future is in good hands if we allow ourselves to move forward and evolve to meet the challenges ahead. As Shin Godzilla grows and changes to survive, so must we as human beings. That's a great message for our times.

  2. daniel3:09 AM

    Love your reviews, but damn, can't you use spoiler tags?
    This film won't shown in cinemas in my country and it won't be out on any medium for months.