It’s incredibly difficult to watch Toho Studios first Godzilla film in over ten years without comparing it to the American version from 2014. Unfortunately, it’s a comparison that does Shin Godzilla no favours.
Toho Studios return to the franchise it created, once again recasts Godzilla as an unstoppable force of nature, utterly hostile towards humanity. You won’t find the “King of Monsters” fighting against a common enemy on humanity’s behalf, even accidentally, in Shin Godzilla.
This latest reboot, the first Godzilla movie by Toho since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, is first and foremost a disaster movie, even more so than Gareth Edwards successful 20145 reboots, focusing less on the monster himself and more on the people who are arrayed against him.
While this is an approach that mostly worked for Edwards, who depicted Godzilla’s rampage from the Brody family’s perspective, here directors Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (the live action Attack on Titan movies) seem to focus on almost the entire Japanese government!
A Cast of Thousands
When an almost unrecognisable Godzilla (more on that later) first emerges, rather than scenes of massive destruction or action, the audience is treated to snatches of phone and security cam footage of the monster while more time is spent on repeated “gripping” scenes of ministers and aides discussing policy and possible responses, in a parade of almost identical conference rooms, as the Prime Minister and his cabinet try to figure out how to deal with this unprecedented threat. It’s not even as though the film focuses on one small group of characters amongst all this. It’s not until almost the very end that a main group of characters emerge, but by then you’ve spent so little time with them that it’s difficult to get engaged in their plight and plan.
Instead, Anno and Higuchi seem to do everything to distance viewers from the action, cutting away to show minor actions elsewhere, that in other disaster movies would simply be explained in dialogue. They also seem to take a perverse joy in wasting time showing nerve centres being set up with dramatic shots of photocopiers and printers being wheeled in, rather than anything to do with the monster!
The nigh constant use of captions in the top half of the screen to indicate where there action is taking place and the names and government position of those appearing also gets incredibly wearing after the first hour, especially in a subtitled film.
It’s pretty clear that the filmmakers have high aspirations for their film, touching on themes such as the rigidity of the Japanese social hierarchy, the overreliance of the government on the rule of law and inability to think outside the box, Japans’ reliance on the US and its subsequent fear of too much US involvement, as well as Godzilla’s traditional role as symbol of unchecked nuclear ambition gone awry.
If Godzilla is an avatar of the fears of the Japanese nation Shin Godzilla also updates his profile to include the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and the resulting Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster. It’s a point well handled as footage of Godzilla shuffling up river beds in his “first form”, pushing ahead of him a bow wave of stricken boats and cars, is subtly reminiscent of the handheld footage of the tsunami waters going inland.
This subtle approach is counterbalanced by the completely heavy-handed manner in which the film reacts to the possibility of the US using nuclear weapons against Godzilla; by cutting to static photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This heavy-handedness even extends to Anno repeatedly reusing one of the music themes from Neon Genesis Evangelion in the film.
And then we come to the “Big G” himself. While Edwards’ Godzilla was easily identifiable as the King of Monsters, Toho’s latest incarnation starts off as a wiggling, quadrupedal, furry monstrosity with disconcertingly staring blank googley eyes. It bears so little resemblance to classic depictions of the creature, apart from the distinctive dorsal fins, that at first, I assumed that it was another monster that Godzilla would end up fighting! Only after evolving does he take on his more recognisable shape. Even then he has a burned look to his skin, similar to the colossal Titan from Attack on Titan and those weird, blankly staring eyes never go away. It’s a design that robs Godzilla of any character and prevents him for conveying any motivation or focus. He’s just an immensely powerful but dumb beast reacting on instinct.
Apart from his look, many of the effects surrounding Godzilla are weak as well. His vestigial “arms” just look weird for most of the film as does his massively oversized tail, flailing around with a mind of its own.
Some effects standout, most notably those tsunami-like scenes and the first few attacks on the creature are well realised, but many later scenes look very cheap looking and dare I say it, almost like PS2 game graphics.
Shin Godzilla has been a bone fide hit in Japan, perhaps due to its depiction of Japanese society and as an exorcism of its fears, however apart from infrequent displays of a wry sense of humour it left me cold and I doubt it will seize international audiences the same way the 2014 version did.
Starring: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Ohsugi, Akira Emoto, Kengo Kôra
Directed by: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
Official Site here.