A New Memory: Shin Godzilla Film Review

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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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Like the Transformers Movies but Less Stupid: Godzilla 2014

The 2014 Godzilla film is a strange amalgam of sorts. The most famous of Japanese giant monsters is many things to many people, its movies spanning generations, the narratives of which vary between Godzilla as the power of nature made reality, a representation of the hubris of humankind, and kick-ass monster eager for a rumble against its fellow kaijuu. Rather than going for the heavy reintepretation as with the old 1998 film, Godzilla 2014 tries to embrace all facets of the lizard with some mixed results.

I have somewhat of an “improper” understanding of Godzilla. Certainly I grew up on some of the movies, having watched my Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla VHS tapes religiously as a kid, for example. However, I’ve still never seen the original (not even the English adaptation with Raymond Burr inserted in), nor am I so hardcore into Godzilla that I can tell you all of its production history. I’ve realized that deep down I think of Godzilla first and foremost as teaming up with Mothra or Jet Jaguar and giving monster smackdowns, so when I originally came to the movie expecting something more along the lines of a disaster flick, I could feel the kid inside of me smile as the film revealed that it was definitely leading to a massive battle.

At the same time, Godzilla 2014 definitely does not have the same feel as those Showa-era movies I’d grown up on, the heavy emphasis on military presence makes it feel somewhat closer to the Michael Bay Transformers films. Fortunately, Godzilla maintains the image of futility as the US Navy’s weaponry proves overall ineffectual, a classic trope of the franchise, and so it avoids the more jingoistic feel of Transformers when it comes to representations of the military. Even though the main protagonist is a soldier, and he accomplishes quite a bit as a human being, his significance pales in comparison to Godzilla, and the film does a good job of conveying the smallness of humanity.

In this respect, the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too, being on some level the disaster movie I expected going in, but also the monster mash that Godzilla is famous for, but also the contemporary US blockbuster with that strangely stylish militaristic vibe that has increasingly become a part of the movie experience. I find that it balances these incongruities surprisingly well, which is actually pretty impressive, but I also can’t help but shake the feeling that the “something for everyone” approach allowed it to only go so far. I won’t say that it was like three films in one, as I do think there is a good sense of continuity and cohesion overall. Instead, it’s more that Godzilla 2014 embodies the idea of an “American-made Godzilla” to a tee, for better or worse.