After an enormous 12 year gap, Godzilla is back at Toho with Shin Godzilla. Gone is almost any remnants of the old guard, including Shogo Tomiyama who championed the series through the 1990’s and the Millennium series. In their place are Hideaki Anno, best known for his work on Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Shinji Higuchi, who rose to prominence after his work on Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). Together they craft a unique take on the King of the Monsters, bringing the character back to its menacing roots in a way not seen since the 1980’s. The end result might not be the A+ entry that some fans had hoped for, but delivers a memorable take bolstered by a more real world interpretation of events alongside impressive special effects and cinematography work.
Now before I begin the review… please note, there will be spoilers. I emphasis that as I do feel the movie works better when watched without them. So please take that into consideration before reading.
For the movie’s plot, the film launches the audience right into the investigation of a mysterious pleasure boat that has been left adrift. Not long after the Coast Guard arrives does all hell break loose with a huge underwater explosion. This causes bubbling, steaming waters offshore of Haneda and torrents of, what appears to be, blood to seep into an underground highway. The government begins a series of meetings to determine what could have caused this. As time ticks on, they stubbornly ignore reports of a creature until a live TV news station picks up footage of an enormous tail swaying above the water. Launching into more meetings, the government becomes preoccupied in formalities and red tape even as the creature uses the water ways to travel into the city and is causing destruction. It isn’t until the monster makes landfall, even after the prime minister held a press conference to assure it could not, does the government begin to treat the situation more seriously. Ways to deploy the JSDF are explored, and finally a squad of AH-1S Attack Helicopters are dispatched. Before the assault can begin, though, civilians are spotted in the area and the prime minister aborts the attack. The creature then makes a direct line for Tokyo Bay, vanishing in the waters. Some time passes before the monster, now known as Godzilla, emerges in Sagami Bay, larger and more powerful…
While Godzilla (1954) tackled a metaphor for nuclear weapons, brought to the forefront of consciousness due to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, and The Return of Godzilla (1984) tackled the Cold War, Shin Godzilla follows suit with another nuclear related event as its inspiration. In this case, the movie taps into a lot of frustration that built from the handling of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The film emulates this anger quite well, displaying a relatively powerless government body too busy in classifying the incident, running through endless meetings and figuring out what department it might fall under rather than working toward real resolutions. The power in Anno’s approach, though, is it starts off as black humour, but avoids feeling over the top. The government does end up treating the situation with the gravity it deserves… the problem for them is that the situation has ballooned by that time. Godzilla is more powerful, more destructive and much more lethal when the government is fully invested. The inherit tragedy is the possibility that they might have had an opportunity to avoid this all had they tackled Godzilla early in a unified fashion… and tragedy is a major theme of the film. Tonally, the movie is on point. It begins with black humour and as the seriousness of the Godzilla threat amplifies, so does the darker tone to the movie.
Now this far into the review, it’s probably time to tackle Godzilla himself. I prefer my Godzilla to be “cool” rather than “scary”, and the disfigured, creepy King of the Monsters from Shin Godzilla is certainly the first time I would consider the creature scary. I do admire the unique take to the character. This includes a variety of forms, sure to shock the viewer. It’s a very different interpretation to the character, whose evolution to stronger forms feels slightly grotesque to play on that mutated element of the creature. All in all, this movie seems like it would have been the perfect poster child for the “Millennium series” concept. A diverse interpretation of Godzilla. One that needs a lack of continuity to work, that needs this to be the first time Godzilla has attacked as opposed to films like Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999) that are more a Heisei series 2.0 without the continuity element. That said, I do find the lack of personality in this Godzilla to be hard to get behind. The beast is cold, emotionless… and feels relatively brainless. It advances and evolves to tackle threats, becoming more powerful as the movie progresses, but shows little emotion outside of a single wince of pain when the United States Air Force scores a damaging hit.
Speaking of, I do want to talk about the US role in the movie, but in the context of characters and acting. First and foremost, the movie is relatively light on characterization. Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, is one of the few who is fleshed out. His frustrations at the government and, at times, sole efforts in trying to resolve this issue feel like director and writer Anno trying to embody the type of response that should have been there for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. This is an exception, though. Hideki Akasaka, the Prime Minister’s Aide, is probably the second best, as there is some history to him and Yaguchi that is touched on. The movie does little to play with the fact that he is the Prime Minister’s Aide, though, feeling rather divorced from how this might impact his view of these events. Acting wise, both of the male leads do a good job, portrayed by Hiroki Hasegawa and Yutaka Takenouchi respectively. Neither is worthy of a standing ovation, but effective none the less. The huge, huge supporting cast also does a good job. It’s headache inducing to try to keep up with them all, though. New faces and new on screen titles to announce them bombard the screen for the first half hour. Thankfully, the important chess pieces are relatively few and they are easy to keep up with. Most everything else is circumstantial and rarely is their title of relevance.
This brings us, though, to Kayoko Ann Patterson, Envoy to the US President and played by Satomi Ishihara. Yes I’m saving a whole paragraph for her as she is a huge misfire. Ishihara sadly doesn’t have the acting chops to play a convincing American. The idea that she is meant to play a high ranking American government official is a little laughable. Her random switching between speaking flawless Japanese and struggling to speak English is just bizarre. Whatever Anno had planned for her arc is relatively lost as well. The movie makes a strange, last minute revelation that her political ambitions are to be President of the United States, which elicited an unintentional laugh from me. As quickly as these ambitions are revealed, though, the character puts them on the line to help out the Japanese. This means diffusing what was an overly nuke-happy, unflattering portrayal of the United States (who at one point refer to themselves as the Allied Forces… yes, shades of World War II persist) to become instead a unified front. It’s murky how this happens, involving the French to break up a United Nations directive that previously authorized the US-led attack and a sudden change in heart by the US seemingly thanks to Patterson. This is disappointing as it feels like the switch happens suddenly rather than organically, but it leads for a cool military strike against Godzilla. The sequence, using music from Battle in Outer Space (1959), can’t help but make me smile, given director Ishiro Honda (director of both Godzilla and the 1959 space opera) and his penchant for uniting the people of the world against a common, non-human threat to show that humanity can be inherently good. I doubt this homage was the intention of the filmmakers with this sequence, but this does work as a segue into using the 1959 movie’s score.
In terms of the music used in the film, I gave some initial thoughts on them for my review of the CD soundtrack. The CD was my first exposure to the movie’s music, so let me add in some context from watching Shin Godzilla. First, what pops for the viewer is the wealth of recycled Akira Ifukube music. In fact, the stock music tends to over shadow the original work by Shiro Sagisu, with the exception of the chorus based themes. My complaint with the music: this really should have been reorchestrated. When Godzilla changes into its third form and the “Godzilla Comes Ashore” theme from Godzilla (1954) is utilized it really sucks the viewer out of the moment. The theme, with its mono presentation and smaller orchestration, feels out of place in the modern movie and updating the music would have given a much more positive response. It’s also odd to see the Godzilla theme from Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), when the character was in a heroic role, placed alongside this antagonistic take of the character. …that said, gives one pause if fans back in 1972 protested to the Godzilla theme from Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) being used in Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), seeing a reverse switch in the character from evil to good. What new music that is there tends to be way too repetitious, although the “Operation in Taba” works even better with the movie context to help it. At any rate, the movie is all about using sound to give overt nods to the films of yesteryear. From the stock music to stock sound effects as well, as Godzilla only emits roars from the Showa series alongside one well placed appearance of the character’s roar from The Return of Godzilla (1984). This feels forced, though, rather than organic in the context of the movie, especially as, outside of the opening that mimics Godzilla (1954), the use of these themes and sound effects aren’t utilized in a way that plays off the nostalgia factor.
Now I have saved the best for last, which are the special effects and cinematography in the film. I feel both deserve highlight. Starting with the effects work, Shinji Higuchi is amazing here. The movie is consistent in a way that Japanese special effects productions rarely are, usually due to tight schedules that mandate a few sequences hit the final print that are “okay” rather than perfected further. Yes there are a few sequences that look bad, such as the POV shot from the trains with Godzilla and the Tokyo city scape, which looks right out of a decade old video game cut scene, or the segment with the JSDF aerial bombardment against Godzilla. These are brief and relatively minor distractions from what is otherwise a spot on SFX job for a Japanese production. There is a continuity lapse, though, when Godzilla utterly destroys Tokyo… only for it to appear okay during the climax (giving Godzilla a chance to destroy parts of it again during the united Japan and US assault). I’ll chalk this as a nitpick, though, as it did take me a couple viewings to notice. All in all, Higuchi has upped the anti in Japan for the genre with this production. There are a lot of detailed, awe inspiring and creative special effects elements to this film that hit all the right notes. This is aided by some incredible cinematography for these sequences as well. There are a lot of distant shots with Godzilla, which really help to convey the size of the monster, are credible and breath taking. While some will lament the loss of suitmation for this film, I’m more focused on results. Result wise, the movie executes the concept very well and is the most polished looking Godzilla movie to come from Japan to date.
Overall, Anno has added a fine entry into the Godzilla series. It might not be a “top 5” level entry, and is sure to turn off some fans for a few of the creative choices, but is enjoyable and has grown on me the more I have been able to watch it (five viewings in for this review).
…now if only they could have addressed the Kayoko Ann Patterson character better…