These are just some impressions about the new Godzilla movie because, even though I can speak relatively decent Japanese, I couldn’t really understand enough of the story in this case for me to comfortably write a review of the film. Please enjoy—I hope to write a review later after I get a chance to watch the movie in English or perhaps, through repeat viewings, understand enough to warrant a review. These are fairly hastily written reflections, but, again, hopefully I can write more later.
Last night I couldn’t sleep very well. I was really looking forward to seeing Godzilla Resurgence (2016), aka Shin Godzilla (シン・ゴジラ), the very first showing at 9:10 am, and even when I did fall asleep, I found I was dreaming about our favorite nuclear dinosaur. Look, it’s been 12 years since our last Toho Godzilla movie, Godzilla Final Wars (2004), which I also saw in theaters in Japan in 2005. While I enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ movie well enough a couple years ago, it didn’t completely scratch my Godzilla itch. Twelve years is the longest gap between Toho Godzilla films yet, and you better believe I was feeling the drought.
Thus I wanted to watch the first film as soon as possible and write up a detailed review for Toho Kingdom. I got up this morning and marched off to the movie theater—I ended up walking because there were huge lines for the busses as the Japanese businessmen and women were off to work. I ended up walking almost an hour on what turned out to be a rather hot and sunny morning. I looked like I had taken a shower in my sweat when I bought my ticket at the counter. I was wearing a Godzilla and Gamera meet Men in Black shirt. The lady at the counter probably thought I was a really gross nerd.
Sitting through the trailers—something which I usually quite enjoy—was nerve-stretching torture, not least of all because one of the trailers was for some sex comedy about old people that treats us to a close-up of an old man’s wrinkly buttocks. When the second video reminding everyone to practice good manners in the theater was shown, I was about ready to scream—which would have broken those same rules.
Then finally the movie started. Boom. Boom. Boom. Classic sound effects. Classic roar. It was like I was watching the original 1954 movie all over again. I think my heart was booming along with the soundtrack. The movie doesn’t play around introducing characters and side plots, either. Immediately there is an investigation of mysterious happenings in Tokyo Bay. People have disappeared from a boat. Geysers of water are shooting out. A horrible mess is spreading out across the water.
Thus starts one of the most unique, surprising, and daring Godzilla films I have seen. The plot is focused squarely on the mysterious appearance of Godzilla and Japan’s reaction thereto from start to finish. The main characters usually are just hustling from one meeting to the next while Godzilla appears and starts smashing things up. Yet despite the fact that the plot sometimes seems like a marathon of meetings interspersed with destruction, for me at least, it wasn’t boring. Directors Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno infuse the proceedings with welcome humor (the Japanese audience around me kind of snortled repeatedly around me) and dynamic, inventive cinematography that make the conversations crackle. Frankly, I couldn’t understand a lot of what was said—Anno and Higuchi keep the dialogue sprinting, with many characters monologuing about political tensions, anti-Godzilla strategies, and pseudo-scientific lunacy with fast cuts and faster lips barreling the story onward. I can’t speak to the quality of the dialogue really, but the tension and excitement is woven into the camerawork and editing with electric and eclectic timing that very frequently reminded me of the cinematic compositions of the Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion series, including sometimes puzzling usages of text overlaid on top of human drama, or scenes wherein the audience seems to be peering out from inside a computer monitor.
A big surprise for me was just how many characters were in the story. The first half or so of the film feels like a constant march of new characters, their names and positions scrawled across the bottom half of the screen in huge white kanji. Honestly, I couldn’t keep all the faces straight, and sometimes it felt like none of the characters had any real life—everything was meetings and strategy and politics, with no time for family or friends or hobbies or anything… and yet Anno has written in playful character moments (a stinky shirt from too much hard work, a bowl of mediocre ramen noodles for an official that leaves him disillusioned) that lend a surprising amount of humanity to what should be pretty staid action.
Which isn’t to say that the human action is great. Again, it felt like an unending stream of meetings and strategizing intercut with destruction, which sometimes left things a little hollow. There are also some so-so English-speaking “actors” (sigh), and some of the Japanese actors try to speak English with varying results (sometimes I couldn’t even understand what they were saying). Stilted English is kind of par for the course, but still disappointing.
As for the monster action, there are a lot of big surprises with Godzilla, but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that this take on Godzilla is one of if not the most unique cinematic spin on the Big G yet and is bound to stir up a lot of controversy among the fans. When I first saw early pictures of the Godzilla design, I was pretty skeptical. I thought G looked like a cross between a zombie and the Colossal Titan plus Godzilla and lots of pointy teeth, but he has grown on me (like a tumor?). In the movie, there are some huge surprises, some of which are just plain crazy and should be experienced without spoilers. Personally I enjoyed the ride, though this is decidedly NOT your daddy’s Godzilla, and the anime influence is pretty obvious. The fact that a Godzilla movie can actually surprise me, too, after dozens of films is pretty exciting. Godzilla is powerful, intimidating, a massive threat. The action, when it comes, is inventive and often exciting and dramatic… and sometimes really disappointing, largely due to inconsistent special effects which sometimes look fantastic, and sometimes look gratingly fake. I was not really satisfied with the conclusion, either, which (in my opinion) doesn’t have the oomph needed to satisfy… although there is a bit of a twist right at the conclusion.
Music and sound effects are fantastic, with suitably epic new themes combined with glorious Ifukube music. The classic Godzilla theme is played at a suitable juncture, as is one of Ifukube’s greatest military marches. All the music played over the credits is classic Ifukube as well. Many of the sound effects, including the sound of Godzilla stomping and many of the explosions, sounded to me like they came out of a classic Godzilla movie. The roar reminded me of the classic roars of the past as well, though fan tastes obviously differ.
Overall, Shin Godzilla is wild, daring, surprising, and fun, and there were multiple points where I was just stunned by some of the choices made in interpreting Godzilla for a new generation. I love it when risks are taken in regards to creating new kaiju films, and while I think some of the risks don’t fully pay off, nevertheless this is a memorable and sometimes breathtaking film, smudged and blunted sometimes by dodgy special effects and terrible English. If I can get a fuller picture of some of the story elements and perhaps watch the film a few more times, I hope I can write a full review. For now, I have to say, Shin Godzilla makes a fantastic first impression, at least for me.