For all the contentious arguments made in “Shin Godzilla,” the oft-repeated observation that Japan is a country that has been “scrapped and rebuilt” should ring true for most viewers. The same is true for the Godzilla franchise itself, as its newest reboot sees it taking a definitive turn from the silly, escapist antics of more recent entries.
“Shin Godzilla”’s images of city-wide destruction might not resemble the ‘disaster porn’ you’d find in a Michael Bay film, or any one of DC’s latest superhero flops. That’s because here, the film is more interested in the chaos a walking nuclear catastrophe could wreak on a system of bureaucrats than the physical destruction it would cause on the environment around it.
This is reflected in the film’s choice of protagonists. As opposed to the ground-level heroics of Gareth Edward’s 2014 “Godzilla” or — God forbid — Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla 2000”, the main cast this time around is comprised of politicians, not soldiers. Much of the action in this film comes from their heated discussions and efforts to navigate the red-tape and frustrating inaction that is inherent in their line of work.
None of this means that “Shin Godzilla” is devoid of disastrous imagery. When Godzilla first crawls onto land, it pushes a wave of debris before it, floundering on top of buildings until they topple over. The midpoint of the film also marks its high point, as a U.S.-led airstrike backfires terribly, resulting in destruction as devastating as it was visually appealing.
Being a fan of Director Hideaki Anno’s previous works, this was largely unsurprising. If that name didn’t mean anything to you, there’s a chance this won’t either: “Shin Godzilla” seemed at times to be a live-action episode of Anno’s notorious “Neon Genesis Evangelion”. Save the lack of mechas and themes of adolescent existentialism, and you’re left with an incredible overlap of governmental agents tackling a very unprecedented attack.
If meeting rooms full of suited men watching grimly as Godzilla shrugs off the military’s barrages isn’t familiar enough, “Evangelion”’s soundtrack occasionally sneaks its way into the film. I welcomed most of these similarities; it’s the live-action aspect that causes much of the resemblance to become a bit laughable.
“Shin Godzilla” had my theater’s audience laughing constantly, and only rarely with it. Much of this has to do with the surprising prevalence of English dialogue. On the topic of having to learn to pronounce her English lines, actress Satomi Ishihara said, “Sometimes it’s so frustrating, I just want to cry.” Unfortunately, this shows, though her effort is a bit more valiant than some. Most of the Japanese actors’ English lines were so unintelligible I found myself continuing to rely on subtitles. On the other hand, the English-speaking actors sprinkled throughout the film seemed to lack conviction in their delivery, especially for the overwrought vocabulary.
The prevalent use of English stems from the movie’s interest in the political relationship between Japan and the U.S., which I’d argue it tackled rather maturely. Early in the film the Japanese Prime Minister voices his irritation that the United States would attempt to dictate the Japanese government’s response to the monster, but is thankful for the humanitarian and militaristic support he’s receiving because of it. The U.S. is neither infallible nor demonized in the film — just another aspect of an incredibly complicated bureaucracy.
This ambiguous dynamic of the film reaches its peak when America announces its plan to nuke Tokyo in an attempt to stop Godzilla. The irony of a third nuclear attack by the U.S. on Japan is not lost on the characters any more than it will be the audience.
“Shin Godzilla”’s greatest flaw is its anticlimax, and not because it’s an anticlimax. The true final fight can be found in the diplomatic effort to save Tokyo; the scene that follows afterward, detailing the politicians’ actual plan to defeat Godzilla, borders on parody.
Godzilla emerged in Japan as an embodiment of the horrors of the nuclear holocaust. The metaphor worked, as the creature itself was an unstoppable, unrepentant force of destruction. But over time it became a pop culture icon, comically grappling with any other giant being, be they extraterrestrial or mythic in origin, who made the mistake of challenging his status as the “King of Monsters”. Here Godzilla was more about escapism than anything else, about watching men in rubber suits fight over model cities while playing heroic anthems (which the newest film tactfully reuses).
While there was nothing inherently wrong with this direction for the series, it’s admirable to see Godzilla return to its roots as a franchise, blending new and old for something which is, if nothing else, unique.