On October 11th, 2016 I saw my fourth Godzilla movie in an American movie theater. It is a gift to see my favorite fictional character of all time grace the silver screen. In this review, I will briefly summarize the film, but I will mostly be providing commentary on its themes, story, contents, direction, and visual/sound quality. There will be spoilers. So grab your water bottles, have a new shirt on standby, and reschedule all your meetings pronto! It’s time to save the day.
The film begins with the Japan Coast Guard investigating an abandoned pleasure vessel found floating in Tokyo Bay. The vessel's owner, a zoologist who we would later learn made a terrifying discovery, has disappeared without a trace. Suddenly, an unseen force rocks the boat, heralding a cataclysmic event that will change Japan forever.
Japan’s Prime Minister and his cabinet scramble to squelch the threat, which reveals itself in the form of a giant monster. Bureaucracy and human ignorance shackles Japan from adequately protecting its people from this monstrous foe. Planes, tanks, and bombs have no effect. Entire districts are wiped out, baptized by the flames of a careless, self-evolving god. Japan’s days are numbered.
In the face of an unstoppable force and a geopolitical call for submission, Japan, refusing to go quietly into that nuclear night, finds its courage in the hearts and minds of its brightest individuals. Through human ingenuity, courage, and the cooperation of a coalition of nations, Japan defeats the God of Destruction. But their harrowing victory is, at best, a temporary reprieve. There is no rest for the wicked, and as Japan rebuilds in the shadow of a wrathful god, a new threat begins to manifest…
Shin Godzilla is a masterful work of Japanese cinema. I felt like I was more than just a formless spectator, but one of the hapless characters caught in the midst of a chaotic force of nature. When our characters expressed shock, I was in awe; when our characters showed humor, I laughed; and when Godzilla in one foul swoop silenced the lives of thousands, I was lost for words.
This is a Godzilla film that, unlike previous installments, is a multi-genre picture. Not only is it a monster movie, it is, at the same time, a politically driven, action-packed, science-fiction tale with competing themes of horror and mystery. It even succeeds in being funny, injecting humor when you least expect it. This allows the viewer to make unique interpretations and, if the film fails to deliver on, say, its comedic attempts, there is still an abundance of material for you to appreciate. As many readers are probably aware, the film is politically charged. With a cabal of characters seamlessly stepping off an assembly line in every other scene, you begin to feel like a tiny gear in a grand machine. Honestly, it felt like I was taking a crash course on Japanese politics. While the Japanese culture fascinates me, other viewers may not be so thrilled by this direction. Shin Godzilla’s large character ensemble didn’t always strike gold either. It didn’t excel at this like, say, Ridley Scott’s The Martian. But it was an ambitious effort and it succeeded in what it set out to do for the most part. In addition, Shin Godzilla boasts a cultural deconstruction of societal norms. It challenges its viewers, regardless of nationality or cultural background, to think for yourself. Thinking for yourself may not definitively keep you safe and happy, but it is the only choice that is truly yours to make.
My first viewing experience, much like the SDF’s first attack on Godzilla, didn't go so well. I was initially dissuaded by the multi-structured plot, the rapid fire dialogue, and the slew of characters I wasn’t expecting nor intending to pay much attention to. Ironically, much like the characters in the story, I felt lost and overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the film. Granted, my theater seat made it rather difficult for me to read the subtitles while simultaneously keeping pace with the story, which greatly hindered my viewing experience. I didn’t even know Rando Yaguchi was the main character until halfway through the movie, which was too late for me, as I had already given up the human element of the story. In short, watching this movie for the first time felt like I was dining on soggy noodles. It didn't always taste fresh but I was committed nonetheless, maybe because I’m a patron of noodles.
When I saw it the second time, I became confident that having a good seat makes a world of difference, and that this is one of the greatest Godzilla movies ever made. Despite the persistence of a few caveats (e.g. there were too many characters, some scenes felt like they should have been left on the cutting room floor, some VFX shots looked undeveloped, Godzilla’s second form was too hilariously disconcerting), I nevertheless returned from the movie theater with a newfound sense of appreciation for Shin Godzilla.
Traditionally, when it comes to monster movies, the human characters take a backseat for storytelling purposes. And by storytelling purposes, what I really mean is: monsters-beating-the-unholy-snot-out-of-each-other. This is why most Godzilla fans are Godzilla fans. It may not be the main reason, but it something we will unabashedly admit with glee. Shin Godzilla is a unique entry because it has a character-driven story complementing an overarching plot.
This film boasts a cast of characters that cast a shadow on Godzilla himself. As you know, it was difficult for me to determine who specifically to root for during my first viewing experience. I did have a huge takeaway though, one that was emboldened by my more positive second viewing experience.
In Shin Godzilla, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is the human protagonist. He works tirelessly day and night to save his countrymen from a god incarnate. I thought he was a strong character, one that embodied true leadership and conviction. I liked him. Hideki Akasaka (Yutaka Takenouchi) was more withdrawn than his counterparts but that didn't stop him from being compelling. Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) proved to be a very interesting character to me. Her strong demeanor initially made us question the sincerity of her motives. Later, it became more than obvious that Kayoko genuinely wanted to do the right thing, even if it meant sabotaging her future political aspirations. Speaking of which, Kayoko plans on someday being the President of the United States. Even though I didn't buy her English accent, which was distracting and amateurish, I know I'd vote for her in a heartbeat.
Here is what I hope is a unique take on the film's narrative: Japan itself was the protagonist of the story. I’d even go a step further and state that I think humankind as a whole was the main character. Obviously, Godzilla is the antagonist, as he fit the role perfectly. Not only is it explicitly stated repeatedly in the film that Godzilla is a super-organism, he is depicted as such by being in control of his own destiny. Godzilla, if left unchallenged, will presumably continue to evolve into a higher, transcendent state.
Humankind behaves and functions like a super-organism too. So this is more than just a battle between Man and God, though that would be an adequate takeaway. This is a war between two of nature's finest predators. Man and God are false dichotomies, attributed by one creature that is both mystified and terrified of the other. Against all odds, humanity triumphed over a nigh- omnipotent force of destruction through human ingenuity, courage, unity, and chance. But this victory has merely postponed the inevitable. Godzilla was on the verge of creating his own pantheon. Humanity’s days appear to be numbered; however, I suspect there is a sliver of hope.
In the face of extinction, humanity made an interesting choice: it embraced its humanity. Instead of allowing itself to be shackled by the chains of its own bureaucracy, Japan sought a more humanitarian solution. In order to survive, Japan needed to assert its independence and embrace its individualism. This in turn led to the cooperation of nations, culminating in a decisive win over Godzilla. When people put aside their differences and join forces for the greater good, peace becomes a reality. But when human greed and hatred takes root and rots the heart of Man, monsters are born.
When I first saw Shin Godzilla’s design, I was taken aback. I thought he was a cancerous god made flesh and bone. And that is exactly what he is. This depiction of Godzilla is an unstoppable, unrepentant force of nature. In his earlier forms, Godzilla displayed little to no malice for the tiny humans unlucky enough to be swept up in his wake. He was a creature driven by unregulated instinct, nothing more. But what happened when he mutated into a higher being? When you peel back the layers, you begin to wonder if what we're really seeing at the heart of it all is a cruel intelligence. But then again maybe Godzilla isn’t malevolent. Maybe this is just a foolhardy projection on my part, though I’d contest that there probably is something eerily human about Godzilla’s destructive ambitions, and it correlates with Goro Maki’s personal involvement along with the film's twist ending, which I’ll address later in this review. Whatever Godzilla’s true intentions may be, his depiction as an unstoppable force of nature was aptly demonstrated to us, and I loved every second of it.
Godzilla’s charcoal skin and gaunt expression initially suggested he was a victim of nuclear negligence and hubris. But it’s more than that. What this Godzilla’s design really is is a work in progress, just like nature itself. Evolution isn’t perfect, it’s not intelligently woven with a higher purpose in mind. Godzilla doesn’t care if his body has an asymmetrical design. He doesn’t care if his fins are imperfectly positioned, or if his teeth are filed arbitrarily. Godzilla’s mission in life is to become the most powerful creature on the planet, regardless of whether his appearance looks frightening to us puny humans or not.
I do have a few discrepancies with the design, however. Godzilla’s eyes, no matter what form he took, confounded me. I understand the artistic license. I understand the creative decision behind it. I just don’t like it. For me it was distracting when it shouldn’t have been. Though I do like how Godzilla was able to shield his eyes when he attacked. Also, Godzilla’s tiny arms were a nuisance for me to look at. And I thought Heisei Godzilla’s arms were stubby.
Shin Godzilla’s design has for the most part won me over for its uniqueness and execution. If we were to see this specific Godzilla return, I’d be very curious to see what new transformation it would take.
Hideaki Anno, renowned for spearheading the Evangelion franchise, has given us the most ambitious Godzilla film yet. Anno has a particular way of having his characters express themselves. Sometimes this engenders interesting characters, sometimes it does not. Another interesting directorial trait of Anno’s is he doesn’t seem to be content with one character. Like a novelist, Anno is determined to give us a large ensemble to work with. We’re given many interesting camera perspectives that help elevate the film in a big way. He knew when to give us a faraway shot, and when to give us an angle of what it would be like standing in Godzilla’s shadow. There is this one scene where it feels like we’re driving down a street next to Godzilla, our view panning around him as he stomps off into a different direction. That was incredible! At times, Anno didn’t seem to know when to leave scenes on the cutting room floor. Some scenes dragged, and some characters were just better off not being there at all. There was filler in this movie, and it temporarily took me out of the experience. As a fan, I loved hearing Akira Ifukube’s legendary opus again, especially in the movie theater. The old school sound effects were, at times, a nice touch; however, nostalgia aside, I would have preferred it if they used newer, more state of the art sound effects. It would have matched the film’s more modern look. Overall, I’d love to see Hideaki Anno return to the franchise.
Shin Godzilla was a very nice-looking film, thanks in no small part to Kosuke Yamada, its cinematographer, and Shinji Higuchi, its VFX director. Yamada has a good eye on color gradients. Higuchi is an established kaiju animator, having risen to prominence for his work on the Heisei Gamera trilogy. Here he doesn’t disappoint. Aside from a few silly scenes, which looked to be undeveloped, the visual effects here excelled in a spectacular way. Shin Godzilla is the most realistic-looking Japanese Godzilla movie made yet. As for Higuchi’s Co-Directorship, I’m not privy to which scenes he specifically worked on, or how well he collaborated with the cast and crew.
Içm decidedly mixed, and not because of the composer’s work per se, but more with the creative decision not to utilize him more. Shiro Sagisu’s score was mesmerizing, even spine-chilling when it needed to be. Very few composers can go from sounding like a fantastical orchestra to a somber piece reflecting the inadequacies of human nature. All the more reason why I felt like they should have utilized Sagisu more. I love Akira Ifukube. He is the kaiju maestro, now and forever, but with this new fresh take on Godzilla, it would have been better to give the new kid on the block a chance to shine. For the most part, he did shine, and I would love to hear more of his music.
In regards to the twist ending, which showed the skeletons of a Godzilla/human hybrid species emerging out of Godzilla’s tail, your guess is as good as mine. With that said, I’ll still offer up my two cents. Firstly, it looked like a botched mutation. This could mostly be due to Godzilla’s body being rapidly frozen, which obstructed the next stage in Godzilla’s evolution. Second, their mere existence suggests there was human involvement in some capacity. The likelihood of Godzilla’s body creating something as complicated as human DNA out of scratch is extremely unlikely; unless, of course, he had human genetics to begin with. This is where Goro Maki fits into the picture. What jumpstarted the rapid mutation of Godzilla’s first form? It’s not a coincidence that it coincided with the disappearance of a man who was not only fully aware of Godzilla’s existence, but held nothing but contempt and resentment for Japan. Shortly after, Godzilla would later besiege Japan with extreme prejudice. But that is enough fan theories for now.
Godzilla setting Tokyo ablaze, which was a perfect demonstration of Godzilla’s godlike power. The buildup was perfect, the score was unsettling, and the destruction was profound. Godzilla has long been compared to a living nuclear weapon. Unlike an actual nuclear weapon, Godzilla, despite his immense power, couldn’t instantly wipe out a city like a nuke would. It would usually take an hour or maybe a day for him to raze a city to the ground. Shin Godzilla annihilated the heart of Tokyo in less than a minute. Oh, and it’s nice to see Godzilla’s legendary weapon, like Godzilla himself in this movie, be utilized in different forms. The purple-hued glow was a nice touch, as it helped make this Godzilla feel more unique and authentic.
Shin Godzilla is, as you have probably surmised, a unique chapter in the Godzilla mythos. It will be polarized and praised for years to come. Now it didn’t exactly give us any new, award-winning material. It’s not an original film by any means. It heavily borrowed story elements from Godzilla (1954), even taking ideas from other kaiju characters (e.g. Destoroyah and its self-evolving forms) and applying them to Godzilla. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, however.
What we have been given is a uniquely presented film with memorable characters and sequences, a political allegory on current affairs, and, more importantly, it has given us a revamped take on one of the most famous movie icons of all-time.
Opinions aside, it is a testament to Shin Godzilla’s effectiveness as a story to spark such interesting discussions and commentaries. As a fan, I’d say it’s time to celebrate. Seriously folks, at the time of this writing, we have two independent Godzilla series competing for our affections. What are the odds of us seeing something like this ever again in our lifetimes? For once, even if it is for a brief moment, we should, as a fan community, rejoice. Seriously. We are lucky to have what we have. Godzilla is and always will be an immensely unique character. As far as characters go, Godzilla is one of the most legendary. He will likely outlive us all. So enjoy the ride and savor the experience. We live in a new era of kaiju films. And if that is not exciting enough, then to each their own. Pop in a classic movie and relive those golden years. Do what makes you happy. Do whatever it takes to enjoy the moment.
Do as you please.