What does it mean to be a “true” Godzilla film? Is it a spiritual closeness to the original film from 1954? Is it embracing all aspects of what Godzilla has represented (criticism of humankind’s folly, defender of the Earth, and more), just as the recent 2014 film did? The latest film, Shin Godzilla, tackles that question in an interesting light, bringing the classic Japanese monster into the concerns of a contemporary Japanese (and to some extent global) audience.
Directed by Anno Hideaki, a man known more for his influence in anime as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shin Godzilla exists as a clear reboot. Set in modern times as Japan encounters Godzilla for the first time, the monster is quickly revealed to be the product of nuclear waste much like the original, but with the implied added context of the Fukushima Triple Disaster that hit Japan in 2011. While the expectation might be to focus primarily on the horror and destruction caused by Godzilla, the film defies this and instead has most of the action occur in government offices. This may very well sound like the most boring approach to a Godzilla film possible, but it’s actually very amusing and effective at getting the thrust of Shin Godzilla across.
While Shin Godzilla can be viewed as a movie full of talking heads and a bit of (extremely well-choreographed) Godzilla violence, the film draws strength from this format. By having groups of government officials move from one meeting room to the next over the slightest change in scenario, and by giving those characters increasingly long official government titles (to the extent that they begin to fall off the screen), it takes a stab at the bureaucratic inefficiency of the Japanese government. Instead of trying to create a character drama where a hero goes through a process of growth, the narrative unfolds more like an onion, as we the viewers see them try to figure out the mystery that is Godzilla, and how Japan will have to deal with its presence.
The actual protagonist of the story, Yaguchi Rando, is a young politician who chafes at the amount of red tape that weighs down any government action, and ends up forming a Godzilla task force. While Rando’s actions, as well as the portrayal of how the Japan Defense Forces are shackled by a long and tedious chain of command, potentially renders the film one in favor of less democracy and more military action, the actual portrayals of the politicians themselves appear to say otherwise. Every government official in Shin Godzilla, from Rando to US senators to the bumbling Japanese prime ministers, are shown to ultimately have the interests of the people at heart, even if they’re not always best-equipped to handle their positions. It’s an unusually positive portrayal of the desire for politicians to do good, and even the most scheming politician in the film ultimately works in a fairly altruistic fashion.
As for the portrayal of Godzilla itself, there are a number of new elements that breathe new life into the kaijuu, such as rapid evolution, a new attack reminiscent of the titular giant robot from anime Space Runaway Ideon‘s missile barrages, and even new anti-Godzilla countermeasures. Shin Godzilla highlights the power, majesty, and connection to nature that is a part of Godzilla, but also brings a new meaning to “destruction in Tokyo because of Godzilla.”
Shin Godzilla ends up being a clever and insightful film that challenges viewers to look at the problems of today with both an understanding of the past and an awareness that the solutions of old do not necessarily work today. While the actual action is scarce, what little is present ends up being captivating. The result is an excellent new film, though I wonder if it should be followed up with a sequel at all. It might very well end up changing the “meaning” of Godzilla yet again.
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