One of genre filmmaking’s most potent powers is to take the stories of small humanity and make them massive spectacle. To often make cinematic the uncinematic story. Depression is much more difficult to grasp in front of a camera without other points to the narrative, unless it’s filtered through an unkillable storybook phantasm that slowly crushes your relationships and ruins your life.
To no genre is that idea more important than the monster movie, and to no series was that idea more important than Godzilla. The original Gojira was a way for post-war Japan to sort through the destruction of atomic bomb and figure out what it did to their country. That atomic-age imagination grabber is why Godzilla became such a potent figure in the cinematic imaginations of the whole world, and the franchise’s abandonment of that is perhaps why he took such a respectability nosedive.
A few diversions (Hedorah, GMK, Biollante) aside, the Godzilla franchise largely abandoned its metaphorical power for more fantastic sci-fi storytelling, more often than not involving alien races. Shin Godzilla, the first Toho-released Godzilla film since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, sees the franchise sharply revitalized by re-grasping at its metaphorical roots and going almost too real.
Which, I’ll grant you, doesn’t quite convey just how bizarre of a film this really is, but we’ll get to that in a second.
The premise is simple enough. An unidentified giant creature (quickly identified as Gojira/Godzilla, the film is actually the first in the Toho line to give him both names) emerges in the Tokyo Bay, causing flooding and massive government. We follow the Japanese government’s response to this issue through Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) and his mounting frustrations with the inefficiency of bureaucracy and Japan’s utter stasis in dealing with international actors, including the United States, represented by Envoy Kayoko Patterson (Satomi Ishihara). That inaction becomes more pressing as the creature grows larger and more threatening and the clock counts down to discover how to beat Godzilla before a nuclear strike is enacted.
In other words, this is a giant monster film that spends the majority of its running time as a political procedural, and a satirical one at that. Writer/Director Hideki Anno, best known for his creation of Neon Genesis Evangelion, is pissed. Anno is pissed at the Japanese government for its inefficiency and its inaction, and its inability to solve the problems of the country without red tape and meetings on top of meetings.
He’s chosen to use his Godzilla film to rip them a new one. After all, it might have been hard to understand the frustration he feels with something as complex as the Fukushima Disaster, which is where Shin Godzilla clearly gets a lot of its reference points. But it’s easy to understand when it’s a giant monster, a genre that we as filmgoers know the rules of. So, when Prime Minister Okochi (Ren Ohsugi) refuses to fire on the monster because he’s worried about international perception or because he refuses to make the tough calls, we see Anno’s frustration. We know what has to be done, and we see them not doing it.
At least, not without meeting after meeting. There’s a certain hilarious rhythm to the way that Anno conducts the movie, especially in its early phases. Yes, I understand that setting most of the movie in the same dry meeting rooms is more cost-cutting than anything. But it’s the way he cuts between, constantly having his actors shift to the same positions in different places, to have decisions about decisions about decisions. Again, we as an audience understand the threat, and the inaction that the government takes is supposed to be frustrating. It’s the later breaks we get to Yaguchi’s team of misfits and their actual progress that is supposed to be satisfying, as they solve the mystery and figure things out while the Japanese government keeps simply delaying inevitable disaster.
This is an excessively real movie. Dense with detail and ideas, every movement and piece of equipment and advancement is thought through, and outside of the “perfectly evolved organism” that is Godzilla, nothing seems all that implausible. Anno put a lot of care into his weapon here, a film that seems as pure an expression of his feelings as Evangelion.
It’s an excessively personal film, all about the filmmaker’s concerns, right down to the way he shoots. Everything in this movie is either told in closeup, found footage, or massive pulled-back aerial shots. He’s concerned with the individuals making up his government, the story from the ground (not the people), or the scale and terror of what’s happening to them.
Which seems like as good a time as any to bring up this movie’s Godzilla. For those of you looking to come in and see a giant monster wreck things, the bad news is that there isn’t all that much. He’s in the movie for about 10-12 minutes of active screentime total, and he spends some of that in a pre-Godzilla form, a disturbing little larval creature.
The good news is that I think Anno makes the most of our new Godzilla, turning him into perhaps the most terrifying creature he’s been in a long time. His design, compared to the realistic animal of 2014’s American Godzilla, is an unnatural and twisted abomination. Godzilla’s musculature shows through the skin, his mouth is a row of crooked knives, his eye sockets aren’t fully developed and his beady and dead eyes are peeking out.
His moments of motion are powerful, including his second attack on Tokyo which combines the beauty and the terror of a creature like this better than any movie since the original Gojira. There’s an existential horror to his power, something that makes us feel small and out of control. If the Godzilla of Godzilla (2014) was about how nature will solve the damage we’ve done itself regardless of us, then Shin Godzilla is about the damage we as humanity have done to ourselves and how it will come back on us.
This is a shockingly difficult film, and one I’m still surprised got made. This is a film that is so dense and so specific to a culture when it feels like so much film is made for everyone to see. As much as I’ve spoken about what’s going on here, here’s the ultimate truth: I’m not Japanese and this is a film for Japanese audiences. It’s about the struggles they face and the way they want to face them. It’s full of references and specific satirical touches that I can only get the surface of. But I still know enough to know that this is a bizarre film, one that is so concerned with how a government might react to something like this, and is more about a vicious indictment of that reaction. It’s deeply fascinating to take in, and surprisingly enthralling.
I’ll temper my recommendation with this. There are about 5 people outside of Japan this film is made for, and I’m one of them. I’m a fan of giant monster movies and I did Model UN for four years of college. The ins and outs of governmental action fascinate me, more so than any actual issues. A political procedural about a giant monster sounds like an entry from my dream journal.
But Shin Godzilla does stand tall above that. A specific, pissed off film imbued with wit and a sense of the existential horror we’ve wrought upon ourselves deserves to be thought about.