Shin Godzilla (2016)


The gods gave me two gifts in 2016 – one was Batman/Superman. The other was a Godzilla movie directed by Hideaki Anno – director of every manic-depressive nerd’s favorite mid-90s mecha anime series: Shinseiki Evangelion.

I was going to do a whole thing about the Evangelion movies before I got here, but this just come out on Blu Ray, and really, who has the time? Suffice to say, from the moment I saw Eva’s first episode (and the obvious debt it owes to classic Toho monster movies), I dreamed of seeing Anno take a crack at Godzilla. Let that be a lesson to you, kids: dreams actually can come true…but they’ll most likely be your dumbest dreams, won’t materially affect your life in any way, and come with some awful price tag. Dream accordingly.

Shin Gojira turned out to be exactly the kind of Godzilla movie I’d expect Anno to direct, and that is both a source of eternal gratitude…and a somewhat troubling sign. Anno’s habit of falling into depressive episodes after he finishes a project is well-documented, and making three of the highest-grossing movies in Japanese history (back to back, no less) hasn’t helped. So it was that, after he finished Eva 3, Anno’s friend and fellow director, Shinji Higuchi, came to him with glad tiding: Godzilla’s corporate masters at Toho asked Higuch to ask Anno to direct the next Godzilla movie. And everyone who knew him probably hoped this would snap Anno out of his not-working-on-anything-right-now funk. But according to the man himself, Anno took a long time to contemplate the winning lottery ticket fate had all-but-slapped into his hand. So long that Higuch eventually told him, (and here I’m heavily paraphrasing) “Dude! It’s fucking Toho and they’re fucking asking you to make the next fucking Godzilla movie! G-fans all over the world dream of this chance on a nightly basis, and they’ll never forgive you for looking this gift-horse in the mouth. Do it! I’ll help you with the special effects and everything, but JUST! DO IT! Yes you can!”

So they did, and the result is a Godzilla movie made specifically for me. As an inveterate fanboy, I already know my analysis is going to be annoyingly Anno-centric, but I should note Higuchi’s no slouch either, no matter what Attack on Titan fans might say now. I thought I first saw Higuchi’s work in the late-90s Gamera Trilogy and 2001’s Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, but it turns out we go all the way back to the original Evangelion series and I just never read the credits closely enough to realize it.

I knew I’d love this movie the moment it opened with the original Toho logo and the same booming footsteps that opened the first Godzilla movie, back in 1954. Believe it or not, this is the first full-on, no-frills reboot in Godzilla’s 60+ year history (if you ignore the 1998 Roland Emmerich film and the Gareth Edward’s 2014 offering, as most are want to do). Previous Japanese reboots of this franchise have always rushed to assure us that the original, 1954 film – the one movie we can all still agree on – remains in continuity. This movie wipes the slate clean, asking “What if Godzilla rose from the depths today, in the mid-to-late 2010s?”

Well, the first giant monster he’d fight would, by necessity, have to be modern, Japanese government. Where real heroes debut in gray, featureless hallways, having a good, ol’ fashioned, Aaron Sorkin-approved walk-and-talks with their aides. Such is our introduction to Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for the Prime Minister of Japan…which means, for those who don’t live in a parliamentary democracy, that he’s the government’s designated middle-manager, subject to all the shit rolling downhill from the Big Names, and all the bile rising up from the rank-and-file. His job consists largely of sitting in the back of meeting rooms and being ignored whenever he brings up anything. Like his concern that the flooding of a traffic tunnel might be due to a giant monster instead of an earthquake or a new volcano.

Initially, I feared centering the human action of this film in the various conference rooms would alienate my fellow American G-fans. Those who don’t ignore the human plots of these films outright are well-trained by years watching the Major Arcana of the Stock Character Tarot Deck go through long-since-standardized motions. All those characters are present and accounted for here…but they’re supplemented by another cast from what I call the Hideaki Anno Repertoire Company.

It’s not a one-to-one correspondence, but if you show me an idealistic young protagonist getting told not talk out of turn by a mentor figure in square glasses, my brain’s gonna go, “Huston, we have our Shinji!” He’s not manic-depressive enough to make the comparison obvious, but he still shameless trades on his father’s political connections whenever the opportunity comes up. And since he’s right about the whole “giant monster,” thing, he not only gets to survive, he gets kinda-sorta, rewarded in the end…Or perhaps not.

And Yaguchi’s just the start of this parade. Show me a slightly older woman with a sweet jacket who says things like, “The use of weapons requires careful examination of options”? And my brains gonna go,“Oh, hi, Misato. Defense Ministry’s a pretty big step up from Colonel. Congrats on the promo.” Show me a no-nonsense, taciturn, low-ranking professional woman who’s nevertheless right about everything, all the time? “Oh, hi, Rei. Miss the red eyes, but I gotta admit, you look much more human without ’em.” A foreign beauty with three names and the highest of high ambitions, who speaks perfect Japanese and a heavily accented version of her supposedly native language? “Oh, hai, Asuka.”

The fact she comes looking for a biologist named Goro Maki is the cherry on top of this stunning and unexpected fan-service cake. Maki was the name of the Scientist in what my fellow Americans know as Godzilla 1985, the first Godzilla movie five-year-old me managed to find in the back of his closest video store. In that film, Maki was the Scientist who came up with one of the few ways to stop Godzilla that’s actually worked (if only until the next movie). In this film, Maki’s the Scientist who discovered Godzilla snacking on nuclear waste at the bottom of Tokyo Bay, named him, sailed his boat out to Godzilla’s hiding spot, and then took a header over the side, presumably in despair over the radiation-induced death of his wife.

At least he left all his research behind for our be-suited heroes to find. So can Yaguchi and the team of nerds he hastily assembles decipher it before Godzilla nukes Tokyo? Hell no. If they could, this movie wouldn’t be nearly as good. The real question is, can they decipher Maki’s research before the US nukes Tokyo in the hope that will stop Godzilla? Conventional weapons are still as useless as ever, thank Ishiro Honda.

When you get down to it, the movie starts off like a dark comedy – and I mean “dark” like “the darkness between galaxies, where sentient star ships wait to harvest our civilizations, like a well-tended crop.” The PM & his cabinet switch meeting rooms 3 times because the Briefing room is for briefings & the Cabinet room is for cabinet meetings. Determining “which agency [Godzilla] falls under,” takes precedence over determining what to do about him as he tear-asses through the streets. The first wave of biologists brought in are too concerned with their reputations to say anything at all. Experts at the Environmental Ministry conclude Godzilla couldn’t possibly support his own weight on land…which, of course, he does, right after the PM says he won’t at a televised press conference. Cellphone cameras and social media posts regularly scoop the information-gathering powers of a major first world country with a “top notch” security service. The refrain, from every level, is “This is unprecedented.” “We never drilled for this.” “Nothing in the manual applies here.” Yaguchi’s initial attempts to take initiative are stymied by quizzical expressions and questions of whom he’s even talking to. Only after Godzilla’s trampled a path through the city does Our Hero get enough respect from up top to form his own little study group.

I could feel the joke land throughout the audience I saw this with at its One Weekend Only showing at my local theaters, last year. The true horror dawned on them about halfway through: that their laughter was the laughter of recognition. I wonder how many were thinking of their own tedious office jobs, and the various absurd protocols that rule their lives. How many were thinking of Katrina, or Sandy, or Matthew, and what might’ve happened had a nuclear power plant been in any of their paths? I probably think about that too much. But, then again, I’ve been watching Godzilla movies all my life. I watched from afar with dawning horror as the Fukishima disaster spun completely out of control. The fallout is literally still washing up on my shores, and I’d be amazed at how quickly the rest of the world forgot about it, if I had any faith in anyone’s historical memory.

But I don’t, and I’ve gotten used to all the stupid people who rule over us despite spewing out a constant stream of stupid bullshit. There’s not escape – not even in the Film Critic Game. “The true bad guy is Big Government,” say the spoiled children over at Forbes, because of course they do. And don’t I love it when my fellow Film Critic-Americans are so myopic? You bet’cha. Thank god for Japanese critics, who schooled me on various allusions of Fukishima I missed by not being there, on the ground. The image of officials in their blue Emergency Jumpsuits touring scenes of devastation is as loaded for this generation as the image of American and Russian diplomats arguing over who gets to nuke Tokyo first is for mine.

Yes, modern Japanese government bureaucracy is the other giant monster Godzilla fights in this film. And, like any good protagonist, it goes through a character arc. The heroes of this film are those who expedite on the fly, without reference to manuals and precedents. A crack team of “lone-wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic heretics and general pains the bureaucracy.” Not the type of power fantasy that usually gets called a “power fantasy” in my circles, where “power fantasy” is either a description of superhero movies, or a slur against them. But for a certain type of nerd, it is as much a power fantasy as any instance of super-strength or super-inherited wealth. It’s the fantasy that a younger generation might rise up and overcome the apocalyptic challenges the older generation’s left us to face, by working together for the greater good of sheer human survival.

Because on the other side of the dark comedy is a horror movie – and a very holistic breed of horror movie at that. Obviously, there’s the genre-standard horror of a giant monster causing mass casualties through the simple act of walking through a city as “dense and brittle” as Tokyo. And because this Godzilla mutates over the course of the film, we also have more body horror than is average for this franchise. In the beginning he looks like some cave-dwelling salamander – stare into those sightless, insane eyes and face the horror – before mutating into what looks almost like a dinosaur with fourth-degree burns. Even his final form seems less like a tower of scales and more like a mass of hardened lava. The kind that make sure the next erruption’ll be ten times worse. Which it is. And the way his jaw unhinges looks extremely painful.

Hovering above all that, though, is a species of horror I rarely see, certainly not from my fellow Narcissistic-Americans. I even had to think up a new name for it: Sociological Horror. The horror you might feel at the dawning realize that your entire society is ruled over by a calcified gerontocracy with its head firmly lodged up its ass, more obsessed with status and resume bullet-points than with anything happening outside its conference room walls. Including the nuclear-armed superpower with no qualms about vaporizing your capitol city from the comfort of their own on the literal other side of the world. “Post-war” Japan is a tributary state and, as Yaguchi rightly points out, “post-war” is a the kind of time period that extends indefinitely into the future. It’s horror at the idea that nothing – not even an invulnerable, fire-breathing reptile from the sea – will ever shake the old men and the careerist shitheads out of their ladder-climbing mindset, and that the rest of us will be stuck working under, or around them for the rest of our lives. It’d be nice if Godzilla could just casually vaporize them all in one nuclear laser blast…but he’s never been known for his precision. And we, his fans, would be unhappy without gratuitous amounts of collateral damage.

Despite that, I’d have to be made of stone to not be affected by shots of Tokyo’s urban core transformed into a lidless, orange eye. That such things manage to penetrate my own chitinous heart is a testament to our directors’ skill. I haven’t praised Higuchi nearly enough over the course of these…Jesus, 2000+ words, but there are few giant monster movie directors more qualified to wring pathos out of burning cities. The Gamera Trilogy managed the same trick, especially Gamera 3, and it’s nice to see the two decades since have not dulled Higuchi’s superpower.

About the only real criticism I have of this has to do with the relative flatness of the human characters. Much as I like to see the Hideaki Anno Repertoire Company put on a Godzilla production, I recognize when one of my favorite writer/directors is working on auto-pilot. The movie’s big answer to living in a stifling, fossilized hierarchy is, “Work yourself all day and all night, to the point where you forget to shower and never see your actual home again, ever,” which is not a good answer by any stretch of the imagination. And it has an unbearably naive view of the United States, buying into the pious American fiction that we’re some kind of meritocracy, instead of a giant, rolling storm of fraud, lies, bullshit, branding and retroactively-legalized theft.

But this isn’t “about” Rando Yaguchi, or any other human member of the cast. Certainly not in the same way as, say, the last Godzilla movie with Shinji Higuchi’s name on it was about a Reporter trying to repair her relationship with her Admiral Dad. This is (literally) a “New” Godzilla for a new age, and it’s nice to see him become more than a supporting character, as he is in many of his other films. (I’m looking at you, Gareth Edwards Godzilla.)

Speaking of which, the last shot of this film – a slow pan up to the tip of Godzilla’s tail, where several humanoid, dorsal-finned creatures appear to be frozen in the act of tearing themselves free of his flesh – suggests several interpretations. All the action of this film starts with the Coast Guard finding Goro Maki’s boat floating in the Bay – it’s the first thing we see, so we know it’s important. Yes, because it supplies Our Heroes with the pseudo-scientific technobable they’ll need to come up with a working Godzilla Countermeasure…but it also suggests that this Godzilla was quite content to chill at the bottom of the bay with all that illegally dumped waste…until a scientist with a serious hate-on for the nuclear industry, and all who aid, abet and profit from it, took the Spalding Grey Express into his next life. Only then did Godzilla rise from the depths and start mutating into a land animal. All of which makes me think there’s a bit more human in this Godzilla’s woodpile than in any of his previous incarnations. We never get a real answer for why he keeps coming back to Tokyo, but this wouldn’t be the first time he became the vengeful avatar of the unjustly deceased in a movie half-directed by Shinji Higuchi…

I don’t know. It’s just a theory. The fact – in my opinion – is, Shin Godzilla’s the Godzilla movie I wanted two, five, ten…hell, twenty years ago. A remake that’s worth every dollar spent making it and every dollar you might spend seeing it. My fellow G-fans have probably already seen it multiple times, but if you have any interest at all in what giant monster cinema can be at its absolute best, then you should join our crack team of nerds. Welcome to the party.


2 thoughts on “Shin Godzilla (2016)”

  1. Fantastic review! I wanted to see it but it was here and gone in Vancouver in 3 days *sigh*. Now I will seek it out. Interesting take on the geritocracy, reminds me of how the Boomer generation is so annoyed at the X-ers (me) and the Millenials (my kids) for stirring up shit about human rights and climate change. And their hand in leaving a big stinking mess for us to clean up after them.

    Thanks the review and now to go find the movie.

    1. Yeah, it sounds like y’all in Vancouver had the same “limited engagement” traveling show that came to my town. The theater down here was packed, even for an early Saturday afternoon matinee, but Godzilla help those fans who had to work or (more likely) didn’t even hear about it until it was too late. Toho’s still acting like it’s the 1990s with their international distribution deals. We all get a 3-day window and, if we miss it, too bad – we’ve got a year to wait for the DVD/Blu-ray.

      Re: the gerontocracy: Exactly! I can only assume some of the (appropriate) laughter I heard last year was in recognition of that as well, since it’s pretty much a world-wide phenomenon. But we all know what happens when we assume.

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