When Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla failed to light up screens here in the U.S., Godzilla‘s parent company, Toho, took the reboot as kind of an insult. Vowing to reclaim their famous monster, Toho unveiled a striking new design for the radioactive dinosaur. Blood red scales, rows of jagged teeth, and unsettling eyes promised a bold new horror.
Like its name implies, Shin Godzilla is distinctly Toho and, more importantly, distinctly Japanese. But the pressure Toho has put on itself to make this film succeed and theoretically take back the Godzilla name has worked against them in the end. In trying to recapture the spirit of the original Godzilla series of films, Toho has accidentally recreated it; with all of the old school good and bad qualities that come with it.
Directors: Hidaeki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Release Date: October 11th, 2016
Much like the original Godzilla (or Gojira) film released in 1954, Shin Godzilla is a natural disaster film through a political thriller lens. When a giant, radioactive monster suddenly rises out the sea and wanders through Tokyo, the Japanese government discusses how to handle the situation. But the focus is on the one lone dissenter, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), the Deputy Chief who’s more interested in saving as many people as possible rather than rise through the political ranks. As he leads a task force, he must now work with the Japanese government members who have their own agendas, an American government with their own ideas as to how to handle the problem (both metaphorically and narratively), and of course, a giant monster slowly getting deadlier as time rolls on.
As you can gauge from the synopsis, Shin Godzilla is light on Godzilla action. It’s reflective of that old school Toho mentality where Godzilla is merely a disaster punctuating the human drama. But unlike the similar criticism used against Edwards’ Godzilla in 2014, this film makes sure each of those short bursts is treated with the appropriate amount of weight. When Godzilla attacks, or better yet walks, the action is grounded. You see citizens actively reacting to the monster and even witness some of their downfalls. When this Godzilla tears through a building, there’s a sense that each of those buildings is populated. Like the film, Godzilla itself moves in a direct way. Using a traditional suit highlighted by CG also helps the titular kaiju feel real. There is an attention to detail that’s been missing from the series for quite some time. It’s part of the reason the new design is so effective as well. This “Shin” Godzilla radiates with bright reds and oranges, and I’ve never seen the series’ radioactive fire breath be more effective. Watching deep purples giving way to the trademark blue flame crawling up through Godzilla’s tail and then out of its mouth is honestly badass.
But the problem with having such a well thought out, weighted Godzilla is the absence felt when not on screen. By leaning so heavily into a political thriller, directors Anno and Higuchi bet everything on human drama. The main problem with this angle, however, is the political stuff isn’t all that interesting. There are vague hints of government members who are making decisions in order to protect their own interests, but it neither helps build the world nor is relevant to the overall plot. The attention to detail also works against the team here as a lot of time is spent explaining minor details like evacuation plans or devoted to following down a chain of command as they issue orders. Leading to much of the dialogue feeling like wasted time. To their credit, Anno and Higuchi do their best to make the dialogue heavy scenes easy to digest. Much of the dialogue is framed through quick cuts (leading to these weird moments when characters speak directly to the camera), and little jokes give some of the members much needed personality. But it’s not until the titular monster fully evolves does the film choose to evolve as well.
Much like the 1954 original, Shin Godzilla is a thinly (then not so thinly) veiled metaphor for nuclear weapons. But before settling on the same commentary on the subject the series has been known for (making for a weak conclusion), directors Anno and Higuchi slip in some experimental commentary never seen in this series. For one, there are several direct references to America’s vision of Godzilla. From its name change, as this film adopts “Godzilla” over the traditional “Gojira,” to ridiculing American blockbusters’ penchant for big, loud solutions to their problems. But oddly enough as the two ridicule Western film making sensibilities, a lot of its themes are adopted here. When the film works best, it lauds itself with a Japanese nationalism mirroring much of American disaster films. The “united we stand” mentality carries the film through its climax and eventually gives way to a cool “rah rah” moment. Which makes it all the more confusing when it reverts back to a somber, “nuclear weapons are bad” tone.
In the end, Shin Godzilla has me torn. While I appreciate a return to the series’ deep thematic roots, the film is at its best when it flirts with ideas outside of the norm. It’s a clash of old school Toho and modern monster movie filmmaking that ultimately leaves a lot to be desired by film’s end. But at the end of the day, Shin Godzilla accomplishes what Toho set out to do. This new Godzilla is fearsome as it is toothsome. It simply beats out the American version with just the fire breath alone.
Regardless of what Toho decides to do with this new Godzilla series moving forward, I’ll be there to watch it happen.