I suppose I should just make this confession upfront; I’m not a Kaijiu fan. Never have been.
Not writing off an entire genre, obviously but it appears to me to be a genre chiefly relying on empty spectacle as a consequence of focusing on a main character incapable of speech, higher level reasoning or emotional growth.
That said, I have been watching the Kong versus Godzilla trailer on repeat and the sight of the two titular monsters duking it out on top of an aircraft carrier is the fucking coolest thing I have ever seen.
So…Godzilla. My experience with this character is as follows:
What can I say? Classic of world cinema.
I have a lot of fond memories of this one for purely personal reasons. Yeah, it’s dumb as all hell but it’s not as terrible as people say.
Honestly, I’d fallen asleep before Watanabe said “Let them fight” though I’m told that makes it all worth it. Must have been a hell of a delivery, I wouldn’t know.
Aaaaand that’s it. So yeah, three Godzilla movies and only one of them was Japanese.
Oh wait, I tell a lie, I religiously watched the Saturday morning Godzilla cartoon in the nineties.
Man, Adelaide Productions, whatever happened to them? They also did the Men in Black cartoon which was another movie tie-in animation that was so much better than it had to be...
Hideaki Anno is a celebrated Japanese animator and filmmaker who has worked on dozens of films over a long celebrated career and none of that means jack shit because he created Neon Genesis Evangelion and he will never not be the “the guy who created Neon Genesis Evangelion“. Dude could cure cancer and it would still be the second line of his obituary after “the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion died today”. That show, which ran from 1995 to 1996 started out as a pretty typical (if far more stylish than usual) “teens in mechs battling monsters” show before transitioning into an emotionally fraught exploration of adolescent psychology, mental health and abuse served with a heavy dose of surrealist imagery and Christian symbolism.
Godzilla’s home studio, Toho, had put the franchise on hiatus with 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, but after the positive reception of Ken Watanabe saying “Let Them Fight”, Toho decided to bring back Godzilla to kickstart a new continuity for the character.
Now understand, if you’re a fan of the Godzilla series what I’m about to say isn’t meant as a criticism, more an observation. There are two basic types of Godzilla movie: Godzilla versus Humans and Godzilla versus Other Monsters. It’s a pretty limited schema, but credit where credit’s due, the creators of this series have managed to ring a fair bit of variety out of these two scenarios, particularly in terms of Godzilla’s character, which is doubly impressive when you remember we’re talking about a large non-verbal animal. Godzilla is something of a renaissance lizard, a Kaijiu for all seasons. In the original he was a very deliberate representation of Japan’s lingering trauma over the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as a response to the more recent deaths of the crew of Daigo Fukuryū Maru as a result of US nuclear testing in the Pacific. He’s also served as a metaphor for Japanese war guilt, a gentle Friend to All Children, a reluctant guardian of humanity, a vindictive destroyer and even just a big dumb lizard. After 30 films, you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t really much else to do with the big lug. That’s probably why Anno got the nod to direct Shin Godzilla, given his success in putting a new spin on the seemingly tired giant mech genre.
How did it go? Shin Godzilla was a massive, and I do mean MASSIVE success in its home country, opening at number one and out-grossing the 2014 American Godzilla by almost a quarter and tripling the box office take of Godzilla: Final Wars, the previous Japanese installment. It also won Picture of the Year at the Japan Academy Awards, which is kinda like a new James Bond movie winning Best Picture.
This thing was huge in Japan, appropriately enough. In the West, though, the reaction has been a bit more mixed. Not bad, by any means, but there’s definitely a sense that this movie is not remotely interested in catering to Western sensibilities as to what this kind of movie should be. And that’s fair, this is most assuredly not your typical Godzilla movie, which is probably why the Western DVD release thought it necessary to put one of the most underwhelming review pulls I have ever seen on the cover:
So let’s talk a little about continuity in the Godzilla series. Godzilla is a lot like Halloween: a long running series with multiple sequels of wildly varying quality all emanating from one, unquestionable stone cold classic. And like Halloween, Godzilla has rebooted itself multiple times while leaving the canonicity of that one, original classic intact. Until now. Shin Godzilla is the first Godzilla movie where it is clear that the events of the 1954 movie never happened.
The movie opens with the Japanese coast guard coming across an abandoned pleasure boat, the Glory Maru, in Tokyo Bay. The coast guard search the ship but find no one. Suddenly, the boat is destroyed by a massive water spout and the Tokyo Aqua Line (an under-sea traffic corridor) begins to flood with water.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi rushes to the situation room where the Japanese government is monitoring the situation. So here’s as good a time as any to discuss what Anno’s fresh new take on Godzilla is and why it may not have gone down so well in the West. All through these early scenes I was waiting for Jeff Goldblum to arrive. You know, the one dude who saw the crisis coming and now has to show all these stupid, faceless bureaucrats what to do. I suppose you could argue that Yaguchi kinda fulfills this role to the extent that he’s the first one to suggest that it’s a living creature causing this crisis and everyone tells him to shut the hell up. But he quickly fades into the background and the one thing a Jeff Goldblum never, ever does is fade into the background.
No, in this movie there is no one central hero. The hero of this Godzilla movie is the Japanese government. Those faceless bureaucrats are the heroes. Anno’s question is essentially; “But what would actually happen if a giant monster attacked Japan?” and the quite plausible answer would be “the government would have a shit ton of meetings, try desperately to cover its ass and basically improvise desperately on the fly until they somehow muddled their way out the other side”. This is why I find this movie so damned hard to recap, there are tons of characters and names and departments to keep track of. Frankly, if I never see another middle aged Japanese man in a suit looking pensively at a screen it will be too soon.
I’ve read reviews calling this satire but I don’t think that’s correct. I’ve also read reviews calling it a harsh critique of Japan’s government and I think that’s flat out wrong. The impression I get (and maybe this is just the civil servant in me) is that Anno is taking an unvarnished look at the unglamorous, laborious, decidedly un-sexy world of government and nonetheless finding nobility there. He looks at a regime in the midst of an unprecedented crisis and turns it into John McClane; bloodied, disheveled, terrified, in over its head and fighting to survive moment to moment, but also fundamentally good-hearted and ultimately even heroic. It’s certainly not a movie I’d recommend to a libertarian, but then I wouldn’t recommend any movie to a libertarian as I don’t break bread with their kind.
Anyway, while rescue teams work on evacuating people from the flooding tunnel, the Prime Minister and his cabinet try to figure out what the hell caused the disaster in the first place, reasoning that it must be a volcanic eruption or a thermal vent. Yaguchi pipes up that there is viral footage showing a massive creature emerging from the bay but he’s shot down because what ever is causing all the steam in the bay is
a) Frickin’ huge
b) Frickin’ hot
so barring a whale going through one hell of a menopause the causes are probably geological. After the meeting, Yaguchi’s boss, Hideki Akasaka, quietly reprimands him and reminds him who got him his job.
Anyway, footage soon surfaces of a massive frickin’ tail emerging from the water and thermal vents *checks notes* do not have those so it looks like Yaguchi’s crazy ass pull of a suggestion was actually correct. The government calls in some experts on aquatic life but none of them is actually willing to even admit that this is a giant animal in case it turns out to be a hoax. Yaguchi’s aide puts in a call to a girl he knows in the Department of the Environment named Ogashira so they finally have an expert who can analyse this thing without worrying about not getting tenure or whatever.
Ogashira (who I can best describe as “Japanese Aubrey Plaza”) notes that the creature has legs which means it can probably walk on land. But another minister tells the PM that they have it on good authority that the creature’s legs are weak and squishy and that it definitely will not leave the water. The Prime Minister, thinking that this is one of those Godzilla movies where Godzilla stays in the water and doesn’t bother nobody, gives a press conference saying that the creature absolutely, definitely, 100% will not come ashore.
I mentioned already that this is the first Godzilla movie that does not treat the events of the original film as canon. In this continuity, Godzilla never appeared in 1954, meaning that the Japanese government is completely at a loss as to what this thing even is let alone how to deal with it. There’s a reason for that. The original Godzilla, as already mentioned, was a very deliberate attempt to comment on the horror and destruction of the nuclear bombings (some sources state that this was to get around Allied censorship but the American occupation of Japan had already ended two years prior so I don’t think that’s the case). But yeah, next time you watch the original movie, pay attention to the shape of the monster’s head:
Likewise, the mottled hide of the beast is modelled after the keloid scars of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagaski. It’s very, very deliberate. So by setting its story in a new continuity, Shin Godzilla is finally breaking that link between Godzilla and Hiroshima/Nagaski. And it does this because, of course, there was another, almost as traumatic tragedy that had befallen Japan a mere five years before this movie was released.
Just as Godzilla ’54 was about the carnage wrought by Little Boy and Fat Man, Shin Godzilla literalises the apocalyptic days of March 2011, when Japan was hit by the largest earthquake in its history, a subsequent tsunami and a Level 7 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. And if you’re wondering how bad that is, just know that there is no such thing as a “Level 8” meltdown.
But enough build-up. It’s time to actually see this monster. And it is…well, it’s…
First of all, if you hate this, I don’t blame you. And I think if this was the Godzilla we got for the entire movie, Anno would have received a fan backlash that would have made the finale of Evangelion look like a day at the spa. But this Godzilla is kinda like a Pokémon; it has many forms that bigger and tougher looking as it evolves. So if you don’t like it, don’t worry, it’ll be gone soon. But personally, I really dig it. The slithering motion, those dead, staring eyes. It’s goofy but also really creepy, in a way that reminds me of the Titans from Attack on Titan. The absurdity of it makes it more nightmarish, it’s cool.
Anyway, the creature goes lolloping blindly through Tokyo, desperately scrambling over buildings and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Meanwhile the government is working to evacuate the city and trying to co-ordinate a defence in a country where they can’t even legally activate their own army unless they are being attacked by a foreign nation. There’s been a lot of hemming and hawing as to whether this movie is promoting Japanese militarism and nationalism and…you know what, I’m not qualified to answer that. I don’t speak Japanese, I’m not au fait enough with the current political climate in Japan, anything I say will just be ill-informed burbling so I’m not going to comment okay? I am keeping my fool mouth shut, for once.
Anyway, while the creature keeps evolving, we see the movie’s fascination with the minutiae of disaster response. How do we get these people out? Where can we send the evacuees? Do we distribute our defence evenly or focus on the economic and population hub of Kanto? What are the diplomatic repercussions of activating the army? And how is it done? Meetings, meetings and more meetings. In fact, Yaguichi is so disillusioned with all these meetings that he goes rogue and forms a crack team of scientists, bureaucrats and military to…have meetings with.
Yaguichi tells this group that they have been assembled because these are the freaks, outcasts, Cassandras and oddballs of the Japanese government and he’s brought them together because they get results, damn it! Now, in an American movie this would be the part where one nerd raises their hand, suggests a radical new idea and becomes our main character. But again, this movie purposefully eschews that kind of glamorising of the individual. The only heroism is collective. It honestly feels more like a Chinese science fiction film than a Japanese one and this absolute disinterest in individuals and absolute fascination with groups is at once weirdly compelling and alienating. I’m fascinated by this film, which is not quite the same as enjoying it.
Anyway, the team’s first question is “how the hell is this thing powering itself?”. Ogashira suggests that it uses nuclear fission.
Everyone thinks that’s crazy but, sure enough, radiation levels start rising all over Tokyo. Because you can’t so much as whisper the word “nuclear” without Uncle Sam getting all up in your bidniss, the US president insists on sending a representative to join the Japanese efforts. He sends Kayoco Anne Patterson, a third generation Japanese American diplomat who has aspirations to the US presidency which will be rather difficult considering she speaks English like a character in a Twin Peaks dream sequence.
Sorry, sorry. I don’t mean to be an asshole, especially since Satomi Ishihara apparently found the English dialogue incredibly frustrating. Her performance is very good overall but, yeah, her English is pretty much unintelligible. I do really like this character though. Like, she’s representing the US State Department and she shows up to her meeting with her opposite number in the Japanese government wearing a leather jacket.
Like, I’m amazed they didn’t just have her crash through the wall on a Harley while smoking a cigarette and disrespecting her elders. It’s hilarious. Patterson gives the Japanese a lead on a scientist named Goro Maki, who left Japan several decades ago and was working for the US Department of Energy. Maki theorised that there was a big fuck-off lizard on the bottom of the ocean feeding on nuclear waste and mutating to a massive size. Maki was originally from Odo Island (the island where Godzilla first appeared in the 1954 film) and named the monster after a local deity; Godzilla. Yaguichi notes that the name, rendered in kanji, is “Gojira” and that means it’s time for FUN WITH LINGUISTICS!
So it’s a common myth that the character’s “correct” name is “Gojira” and that “Godzilla” is just what the ignorant gaijin call him. In fact, it was Toho who proposed the transliteration of ゴジラas “Godzilla” and not “Gojira” when the original movie was released in the West. The confusion comes from the fact that in Japanese there is no different between the two names. It’s a phonetic distinction that’s audible to native English speakers but not native Japanese speakers. Watch the original film (and this one) and you’ll hear people using both interchangeably because to them it’s the same word.
Godzilla/Gojira has retreated back into the water and Yaguichi’s team theorise that it needs to cool down like a nuclear reactor and that this might be the key to destroying it. The next morning the monster returns and this time…ho-boy…
Now fully bipedal, and more than double its previous size this is the largest Godzilla ever depicted in a life action movie. It’s also probably the creepiest. It feels less like a living creature and more like a huge, sky-scraper tall zombie, a mountain of rotting cadaverous flesh powering forward on residual instinct.
The Prime Minister decides that he’s put up with all that he’s going to put up with in an election year and orders full military countermeasures. The SDF attacks Godzilla with every weapon at their disposal; machine guns, tank artillary, aerial bombardment, social opprobrium, you name it. None of it works, Godzilla just takes everything they throw at him and says “thank you sir, may I have another?”
The PM is advised to request American assistance, only to then be told by the American ambassador that USAF planes are already en route whether he likes it or not. The government then lurches into a face-saving press conference to claim that they requested America’s assistance in the first place. This movie drew some flack for being “anti-American” from American fans but I don’t think that’s exactly the case. It’s definitely critical of what it sees as Japan’s overly deferential relationship with the US. But on the other hand, various characters express admiration for the US not being beholden to an ossified gerontocracy, valuing talent over experience and actually being able to get shit done. Even when the US makes the decision later in the film to nuke Japan for the third time, it’s never implied that they’re doing it out of malice or that they’re not aware of how deeply traumatic that would be for the Japanese people. It’s because they’re out of options and this Godzilla is a threat to all life on Earth.
While the US attack is pending, the Prime Minister and Yaguichi’s team are forced to evacuate from Gozilla’s path. And again, this movie’s obsession with process comes to the fore. Where do we relocate the government to? Who will be in charge while the PM is in transit? This may be the first Godzilla movie where the fact that traffic would just be a nightmare in the middle of a kaijiu attack is actually a plot point.
The American planes hit Godzilla with a couple of bunker buster which actually cause him to bleed. And Godzilla’s all…
…and pukes atomic fire all over Tokyo.
The fire breathing scene also reveals two really cool little details of this creature’s design. Firstly, his mouth unhinges like a python and secondly, before he unleashes his atomic breath a second eyelid snaps over his eyes to stop him being blinded. It’s neat.
The next morning, Yaguichi is distraught to learn that the Prime Minister and a majority of the cabinet has been killed. The acting Prime Minister is a man named Satomi, a party hack who apparently got the job based on party loyalty and not any suitability for the role. And when we see Satomi, he clearly has a lot of problems on his plate.
A group of American scientists arrive to help Yaguichi’s team. At the moment, Godzilla is all tuckered out and in a state of hibernation. However, when the team analyse Godzilla’s DNA they realise that Godzilla can reproduce asexually and mutate into new, smaller forms that can cross oceans whereupon the Americans abruptly leave saying “sorry, be right back, we just gotta tell our boss the bad nukes…news! News! The bad news.”
The UN gives Japan an ultimatum: get its Godzilla shit together, get all its Godzilla shit together, get it all together and put it in a back pack, all their Godzilla shit, so it’s together and if they don’t get their Godzilla shit together in two days, the US will see how many times you can nuke a country without voiding the warranty.
Everyone is furious and horrified at the idea of Japan suffering another nuclear attack and Ogashira solemnly intones that “man is more terrifying that Gojira” which…
So now it’s a race against the clock. Fortunately, Yaguichi’s team crack Goro Maki’s research and they come up with a plan, to use chemical coagulants to freeze its blood. They need international help to get enough coagulant and the movie has one very short scene that goes out of its way to show the Germans being super helpful.
Aw, how nice. The Germans and the Japanese, helping each other. Just two good pals. Best of buds. Best friends in the whooooole world. Isn’t that so nice?
While the American military forces Godzilla to use its atomic breath and expend energy, the Japanese use high powered trains to knock the creature off its feet and then shove great big wodges of coagulant into his open mouth while he’s still recharging.
It seems like it hasn’t worked when Godzilla rises to his feet again, but then he suddenly flashes freezes solid. The nuclear attack is called off, with the nations of the world warning Japan that if Godzilla so much as moves his big toe they are going to nuke the shit out of him.
Yaguichi is congratulated by his boss and told that he has a bright future in government ahead of him. And the last shot of the movie is a close up of the tip of Godzilla’s tale, which seems to be sprouting weird…humanoid…things…
I won’t say Shin Godzilla converted me to the Godzilla fandom but it did make me appreciate that the franchise is more versatile and interesting than I’d been giving it credit for. If you’re a fan of Hideaki Anno I’d definitely recommend it; it feels very like Neon Genesis in music, sound design and cinematography. If you like big monster action, it’ll certainly scratch that itch too. And while it wasn’t really my bad, I found a lot to like in this rare film where the faceless bureaucrats who do the thankless job of keeping society running finally get their due.
I doubt there has ever been a movie that made the drudgery of meetings and paper pushing seems as weirdly noble as this one. And in a time when the institutions of government have been put under pressure like never before and have still, somehow, kept trundling on, I think that’s worth celebrating.
Next update: 11 April 2021
Next time: So did this Anno guy do anything else?*
* So I know I previously said I’d be reviewing Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone but it’s not streaming anywhere I can find and the DVDs are crazy expensive so we’re doing this one.
My book, When the Sparrow falls, is now available for preorder! Links here.