SHIN GODZILLA Review
Director: Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Genre: Kaiju, Political Drama
Giant monster movies are the cinematic equivalent of taking a baseball bat to broken appliances, letting filmmakers vent their frustrations with the world through bombastic displays of metaphorical destruction. GODZILLA was spawned from Japanese angst over the atomic bomb and the ensuing proliferation of nuclear power. THE BLOB represented the fear of Communism (and later, AIDS and drug abuse), and CLOVERFIELD encapsulated the anxiety following 9/11. Well, Japan was dealt another nuclear disaster a few years back, so it’s only reasonable that they get another GODZILLA.
SHIN GODZILLA is helmed by Hideaki Anno and Shniji Higuchi, which is an appropriate choice seeing as the two were also the minds behind EVANGELION, Japan’s highest-grossing anime property that also happens to involve city-destroying creatures. Also like EVANGELION, SHIN GODZILLA is less about that titular behemoth than it is about the behind-the-scenes struggles of those fighting it. But where EVANGELION was more or less a self-portrait of its creators struggle with depression, SHIN GODZILLA is very much rooted in the satire of its predecessors.
As a reboot, SHIN GODZILLA opens almost immediately with the titular monster causing havoc beneath Tokyo Bay. With only its tail protruding from the water, the Japanese government has just as little of an idea as the audience of what they’re in store for. When the creature finally appears on land, it is a far cry from the Godzilla we all know and love. This prepubescent, almost larval Godzilla is completely comical as it waddles around Tokyo, its hilarity is heightened by the film’s less-than-stellar CG. While the monster does eventually reach its full form, it’s the parody version that we’re treated to for a little over 30 minutes.
Godzilla put on some weight since then
But that’s not the end of the piss-taking of the monster genre. By the time Godzilla transforms into its final, familiar form (and this is the largest onscreen appearance of the creature yet seen), the focus has already shifted away from it. For the remainder of the film, the bulk of the action follows the members of the Japanese government trying to thwart the beast. Not by sending plucky commandos to destroy a nest or a ballsy researcher to take samples from the creature, mind you, as those kinds of Hollywood heroics have no place here. Rather, much of the battle is waged through countless boardroom meetings seeking everything from foreign aid to permission to mobilize certain agencies. In this sense, SHIN GODZILLA is closer to CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR than it is to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 take on the franchise, a distinction it coyly reminds us of time and time again.
Each government worker, from the Prime Minister down to the most minuscule lab assistant or platoon leader, is introduced through rapid fire captions that must be read through subtitles alongside the already overwhelming amount of dialogue. No less than a hundred titles are presented this way, and for an American audience struggling to keep up, most of these fall through the cracks. The only names that stick are Rando (yes, seriously) Yaguchi (Hirohito Hasegawa), a low-level but capable pencil pusher, and Kayako Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), an American diplomat he collaborates with. The vast majority of the film is spent following these two, as they’re the only ones with the gumption to break the web of red tape between them and taking Godzilla out.
Here, I’ll give you a minute to get acquainted with everyone
Like any good Godzilla flick, the farcical bureaucracy that drives the film is the real villain of the film, and the government does just as much harm tripping over itself as the monster it time and time again fails to stop. But SHIN GODZILLA takes this sentiment to the extreme, going from allegory to full-on spoof in its dogged insistence of not showing the monster we came to see. SHIN GODZILLA is the anti-monster movie to Anno and Higuchi that MONSTERS was to Edwards. The commentary is all still there, but there is a second layer of genre criticism above the political that is omnipresent. When the Japanese PM bemoans the sorrows America foists upon his nation, one wonders whether he is referring to the bomb, or perhaps the Edwards-helmed appropriation of their cultural icon?
The only fault in these attacks is their reluctance to drive all the way home. Anno is ambivalent in the American treatment of the property he has been been given the reigns of, always tempering his critique of the West with the addition that the two cultures have much they can teach each other. Yet Japanese Godzilla and American Godzilla are two completely different beasts tailored for two distinctly separate audiences. Each is infinitely superior in its preferred arena to the other. SHIN GODZILLA is as obvious a response to the last American remake as GODZILLA 2000 was to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation, and each of these pairs are as different as can be without refuting the other. So if Anno and Higuchi are hesitant to absolutely condemn their American counterparts, then why not just let them be? That is, after all, the way to truly defeat Godzilla…
“Oh, what? You mean the helicopters DON’T kill him?”
Aside from that one conundrum, there is very little that is actually wrong with SHIN GODZILLA. The aforementioned CG blows, but that is a minor problem when your film only requires the bare minimum of its use for the genre. It also helps that this Godzilla does little that an actor in a suit couldn’t, bringing the film all the way around the uncanny valley. Anno’s trademark obsession with inserting English phrases whenever he can also makes its way into SHIN GODZILLA, and the only thing cringier than Ishihara’s Engrish is the detail that she is supposedly a prime candidate for the Oval Office (though if this election has taught us anything, it’s that mastery of the English language isn’t required to be a real contender HYUCK).
SHIN GODZILLA’s response to Hollywood’s take on the monster feels unnecessary in concept, so it’s an accomplishment that the film still works (better, even) when judged on its own merits. This is both a good Toho Godzilla film and an effective lampooning of it’s genre, even if its jabs at Edwards and Emmerich are pedantic at best. Like the last classic Japanese reboot Funimation brought over to the states, SHIN GODZILLA is not a crowd-pleaser, but at least this one can stand by itself just fine.