30+ entries into the Godzilla franchise, it’s funny to think that the longest-running film series of all time would still be able to surprise its audience, especially after all of the violent/philosophical/chaotic/campy/what-have-you places it’s already gone in the past. That’s why I was shocked & amused that the franchise’s latest Japanese reboot, helmed by Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion (aka That Thing from Tumblr that Baffles Me), was entirely different from the kaiju genre piece I was expecting when I entered the theater. Shin Godzilla is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of following Gareth Edwards’s mistake in recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. It plays like how I would imagine a creature feature version of The Big Short (a film I’ve yet to see, I should note): pointed & playful political humor that calls into question the very fabric of its nation’s strength & character. Instead of being attacked by predatory investors, however, the victims in Shin Godzilla face the towering presence of a giant, rapidly evolving reptile that shoots purple lasers & leaves a trail of radiation in its wake. Otherwise, I assume they’re more or less on the same vibe, but I’ll likely never know for sure since only one has the laser-shooting lizard beast & that’s the one I watched.
In an American production the tendency would be to push for a lone hero to save Japan from its kaiju problem. A Japanese film about Japanese temperament, Shin Godzilla instead looks for the virtues in collaboration & the power of the hive mind collective. It’s largely in the first half of the film where this kind of political philosophy is played for satirical humor. A condemnation of the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy, the film follows a bewildered Japanese government as they hold meetings upon meetings upon meetings about what to do about Godzilla in a process that produces inaction through belabored decision-making on what exact action to take. By the time any order is given the situation has shifted and the multilayered meetings & special emergency councils start all over again, like a rotary dial. Everyone is fearful of “rushing to judgement” and reads their opinions directly from print-out reports, so that nothing ever gets done in a Kafkaesque political process that goes in circles chasing its own tail. This slow process is depicted through the quick edits of a modern comedy, producing an interesting dynamic in its form vs. content divide. What’s even more interesting is how that dynamic evolves along with its titular laser-shooting monster. The ever-shifting official titles for the government’s ranks-climbing employees and their special councils & task forces for the “unidentified creature emergency” stop being played for laughs at a certain point and the tone understandably becomes morbid. Somehow even the slow, measured groupthink satirized in the first half is explained to have its own virtue and is eventually celebrated, especially in comparison with the rash, easy-fix violence proposed by foreign bodies like America & the UN. It’s a much more thoughtful & nuanced mode of political self-reflection than I ever would have expected from a giant monster movie.
Speaking of giant monsters, I guess it would be a shame to review a Godzilla movie without talking about Godzilla itself. Like with Pulgasari & Hedorah, the kaiju in Shin Godzilla is a rapidly evolving creature that starts off pathetically ineffective & maybe even a little cute. That is, if anything that could be described as a lopsided feline turkey with dead fish eyes & blood-gushing gills could be considered “cute.” When Godzilla reaches its final form it’s named “God incarnate” out of respect for its adaptability & its capacity for survival, but it starts as a half-formed, difficult to look at mess of mismatched biology. It’s a stumbling weakling that only makes it more frustrating when bureaucratic inaction allows it to evolve & soldier on into near-immortality. The film’s CG renderings of its creature-driven mayhem can come across as a little cheap or odd-looking, recalling the bizarre digital imagery of titles like Big Man Japan, but it’s no more visibly artificial than the costumes & miniatures of the Godzillas of old, all things considered. Also, Godzilla’s final form is so undeniably badass that the film’s digital means aren’t really worth questioning or nitpicking. Like with most Godzilla films, the creature is second to the concerns of humanity’s response to its presence here, but when the god lizard is in action it’s just as weirdly fascinating as ever. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow.
There wasn’t a whole lot of laughter at our fairly well-attended Shin Godzilla screening, which means either that I’m exaggerating the film’s merit as a political comedy or that the satire isn’t translating consistently well across cultural lines. It’s been reported that Anno specifically wrote the film as a response to the government’s handling of the 2011 Fukushima Daiishi disaster, where a tsunami caused a full-blown nuclear meltdown in Japan. I’m sure there’s plenty of rewarding political subtext you could read in Shin Godzilla‘s take on that tragedy, but it has a much wider scope of intent than merely addressing that one issue. Everything from Japan’s general foreign policy to the looming shadow of Hiroshima to the country’s very sense of national identity is tackled here. Shin Godzilla barrels through all of these ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the experimental framing & mixed medium experimentation (including moments of found footage aesthetic) of an indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could, no matter what some audiences seem to believe they want from the franchise. Outside of a few clunky details like a stray stumbling in screensaver-quality CGI or a goddawful stab at an American accent, this is Godzilla done exactly right. Its philosophical ideas are enthusiastic & exciting and the monster exists only to serve them, the exact ideal for a creature feature not aiming for cheap genre thrills or easy camp.