Let’s get this out of the way; Shin Godzilla isn’t your grandma’s Godzilla. This isn’t like any Godzilla you’ve seen. That said, co-directors Hideaki Anno (Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan) have created the closest incarnation to what Ishirô Honda unleashed on the world in 1954. Shin Godzilla is deadly serious and offers a realism often lacking in the film series. This is also the most ambitious Godzilla movie with over 300 name actors involved and a promotional budget reserved only for the biggest of Japan’s films (there is Godzilla advertising nearly everywhere you look in Tokyo from department stores to conbini stores, subways and street banners, pop-up galleries and roadshows; seems like everyone in Japan is aware of this movie). Godzilla is back and Japan is embracing him in a big way.
I was in Tokyo for opening day and only a couple days earlier watched the stars walk the red carpet for the premiere of this new film previously promoted as Godzilla Resurgence (until Funimation announced distribution at Comic-Con). However, before thinking that I’m predisposed to leaning in on Shin Godzilla, I should note that I did not have high expectations. The initial promo spots weren’t selling me and to be honest I wasn’t crazy about this “new look” Godzilla, the biggest departure from his dinosaur humanoid hybrid form since Emmerich’s 1998 film (the infamous “Iguana Godzilla”). However, two viewings later at two separate Toho Cinemas including a MX4D screening at the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku location, the “Godzilla Hotel”, I will confirm that this is indeed a very good Godzilla movie that teeters on greatness. Yet much like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, this film and its monster are sure to polarize longtime fans of the Big Green Guy. Similar to that film and Godzilla 1985, Shin Godzilla establishes a new timeline that only references research that began sixty years prior to the events in this movie.
The film opens with footage of the coast guard discovering an abandoned boat floating in the bay of Tokyo near a ventilation duct for the Aqua-Line Tunnel. The only items on the boat are a large envelope, eyeglasses, pair of men’s shoes, a map and an origami crane. What does it mean and where is the passenger? Did he commit suicide (as hinted by his remaining shoes)? All these are clues to the mystery surrounding the origin of the titular monster. Coincidentally a massive disruption is bubbling in the bay near the location of the boat. The Japanese government isn’t sure whether it’s a vapor leak or something else until suddenly the sea surface erupts as glimpses of an enormous creature is captured on video. Now we’re introduced to all the primary characters, mostly government officials, with Hiroki Hasegawa (Love & Peace, Attack on Titan) as Rando Yaguchi, the Deputy Chief of Cabinet Secretary, in the lead role. Other notables include Yutaka Takenouchi (At Home, The Hovering Blade) as Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Ren Ôsugi (Spiral, Audition) as Prime Minister, Jun Kunimura (The Wailing, Audition) as Chief Self-Defense Force, Kimiko Yo (The Ramen Girl, Suicide Club) as Minister of Defense, and Akira Emoto (Karate-Robo Zaborgar, Golden Slumber) as Chief of Cabinet Secretary, to name only a few. As mentioned this is a loaded cast.
The first chapter of Shin Godzilla, 25 minutes or so, is highly critical of the current government condemning their slow reaction to a major crisis. This is where the tragedy of 3/11 casts its first shadow. The Japanese government was heavily criticized for their poor response to the 2011 earthquake near Tohoku resulting in the radiation leak at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Shin Godzilla portrays the government in the same way including a soft Prime Minister. The parallels to those events run deep in this movie and are on point to ridicule the standing government with lots of talking… and more talking before they reach consensus on how to handle this unidentified creature attacking the ships near Kawasaki (south of Tokyo). Watching these officials deliberate is dry comedy. By the time they declare this incident a national disaster the lumbering creature has already reached land tearing up everything in its way. This giant amphibious mutant monster isn’t exactly Godzilla nor is it like any monsters we’ve seen in the Toho Studios franchise spanning 28 films. The Japan Self-Defense Force, primarily used for rescue and defense, is called in and, for first time in history, is authorized to use military force to stop this thrashing and flailing fish-like creature from doing more destruction. This sets the table nicely for Godzilla’s introduction.
This battle is the first of several leading up to and including Godzilla when he finally rears his ugly, jagged tooth-filled head. The calculated assaults by helicopters, fighter jets and tanks firing everything they have at this impenetrable creature as it retaliates are pure joy. Yet as we’ve seen in previous kaiju films, these scenes express how ineffective the SDF/military is in containing such a monster. Let’s be very clear; this is a real monster hell-bent on destroying everything in its path. The government is helpless. The Prime Minister realizes that neither he nor Japan can handle this situation so now the United States, Russia, China and other countries are stepping in to offer aid and take over. That’s when our next biggest player appears: Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara, another Attack on Titan alum), a Japanese-American Special Agent to the President. She’s brought in to negotiate a deal for Japan and US to work together. She also presents material on who might have been on the boat and how the scientists can find a way to stop Godzilla. This sequence, including the missing professor from the boat, is one of many nods to Godzilla’s history. Shin Godzilla is speckled with homages to previous films, some more subtle than others. More catastrophe results in Team Yaguchi taking charge of the situation and ultimately crafting a solution to defeat Godzilla. At least that’s their plan, and, in concept, on par with the Oxygen Destroyer from the original movie in its magnitude to eliminate the threat. As the tagline states, this really does become Japan versus Godzilla.
The score by Shiro Sagisu (Evangelion, Attack on Titan) is excellent incorporating orchestral and metal tracks (including some borrowed from Evangelion) for an operatic effect that gives scenes added weight. Easily the biggest tribute to the 1954 film and franchise is the use of selected works by Akira Ifukube in the score during significant moments throughout the movie. Hearing those cues over the choreographed combat of man versus (giant) monster patterned from Eiji Tsuburaya’s exquisite miniature work makes it easier to appreciate this movie. It’s the ultimate tribute to Honda, Ifukube, and Tsuburaya giving them the proper respect as Toho Studios reboots their most famous creation yet again. Those moments make the movie work so well and won me over. This Godzilla is truly horrific and seemingly unstoppable. His origin also explains why he has that googly eye that I had a problem with from the first images released. I’ll just say that I no longer take issue with it.
Thankfully Godzilla is the centerpiece of the movie; a couple scenes in particular are indelible when Godzilla lights up Tokyo. This is the monster we want. In contrast, some of the drama beats don’t always work nor does most of the English dialogue scripted for the film. It’s very canned and often corny in delivery. Ishihara as a Japanese-American is another weak spot. She’s convincing in most of her scenes with Hasegawa but generally a hard sell in her role. That’s unfortunate because her character still could have worked if they hadn’t pinned her to that background. At least she’s good enough to overcome that minor quibble during her Japanese language scenes because she is rather feisty especially played against the stiff government officials.
Overall the talky bits do tend to weigh down the movie despite presenting a realistic portrayal of how a disaster would be handled by this government. I definitely felt it on the first viewing. By the second viewing I adjusted to it and the movie flowed a lot better. So much information is thrown at the viewer that it will take another watch to catch it all. Having time to discuss with others in our party also helped (we went to Tokyo with intent of seeing this movie opening day while visiting many notable landmarks in Godzilla history during the week like the Hattori Clock Tower in Ginza). Will the movie and particularly the Japanese components translate well outside of Japan? Absolutely. One doesn’t have to look outside of the United States to understand how slow government can be to react to a disaster. As Shin Godzilla illustrates, it’s often too late and at a great cost. The upside is that humans can still work together to overcome even the greatest of obstacles even if that obstacle is a 400ft tall, radioactive fire-breathing monster.
I’ve seen the movie twice in its native Japanese. I cannot wait to see this film released with completed subtitles. I’m sure there is nuance missed having not totally understood all the dialogue but there is nothing lost in translation in seeing a giant monster raging through Tokyo over Ifukube’s “Japanese Military March” blasting through the Dolby Atmos. Shin Godzilla may be a reboot sans the rubber suit we’ve grown to love but it’s unquestionably Godzilla; a city-stomping super monster and a very good Godzilla to build a new series a films. Shin Godzilla is rolling out internationally this month starting with Taiwan on August 12. For giant monster fans and horror fans in the United States look for Shin Godzilla to hit theaters before the end of the year. I’m already hearing rumors of a limited release in October.