What do you do when you are tasked with making the 31st movie based on a legendary character with fans worldwide and the crushing expectations of those same fans who have been waiting twelve years for a new Japanese Godzilla film? How do you appeal to those fans, while also creating a piece of entertainment and art that resonates with modern audiences who are not interested in the tokusatsu kaiju legacy built up over the last 60 years? Ever since the announcement of Shin Godzilla it was with mounting expectation that I considered this question, and wondered how director Hideaki Anno (with Shinji Higuchi co-directing) would answer it. Honestly, I was pretty skeptical. I was never a fan of Anno’s most famous creation, the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, and despite trying to get into the show a couple times, I was never motivated enough to finish until several weeks prior to Shin Godzilla’s release, in preparation for the viewing (Interesting, eclectic series for sure). I had an impression of Anno as overly pretentious before finishing watching Evangelion (after I was finished the series, I was impressed… but still thought he was a bit pretentious), and my opinion of Higuchi was even worse after seeing the mostly terrible Attack on Titan films last year, despite my love of the Gamera trilogy. My skepticism deepened with the revealing Godzilla’s new design, which looked a bit like a charcoal-roasted zombie lizard with bug-eyes. I also wasn’t happy with the idea of a new Godzilla movie without any secondary monsters, given that in general I enjoy the monster fights more than merely watching an awesomely powerful beast level yet another city while citizens scream and stream in every direction.
Yet despite my skepticism, when I sat down in that Japanese movie theater for the very first showing Friday morning, July 29, I was cranky with cranked-up excitement. And somehow, despite a number of fairly significant weaknesses in execution, I came away thoroughly entertained by this new Godzilla film, and I also came away honestly surprised and delighted. The movie surprised me with how daring it was, taking the monster character so familiar and transforming him into something shockingly new, but also reflecting modern concerns in Japan in what I felt was a mature, thoughtful manner that touched me and made me think. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the story.
Shin Godzilla is not a sequel, but a complete reboot, so in this universe, no other kaiju has appeared in Japan’s history. We open the story with a mysterious empty pleasure boat in Tokyo Bay. The Japanese Coast Guard are investigating said boat when an underwater explosion of some kind causes a massive burst near the boat, as well as a tunnel collapse and widespread concern that soon reaches the Japanese government. While the mystery of what caused the explosion is being explored, the government conducts endless meetings to discuss the matter, failing to take any meaningful action until after an enormous, mysterious beast emerges from the sea and soon is thrashing through the streets of Tokyo. The Japanese government is lost as to how to respond, and as they twiddle their collective thumbs, the monster grows stronger, then disappears back into the sea. As the governments of the world scramble to learn more about this huge threat, they find some research about the creature put together by a mysterious scientist named Goro Maki, who is the one who gives the beast the name “Godzilla.” Godzilla soon returns more powerful than ever, and the JSDF combined with the military might of the United States cannot stop the monster, which lays waste to much of Tokyo. As the United States begins a plan to nuke Godzilla in Tokyo, Japan scrambles to find an alternative means to destroy the threat, but with the clock ticking there is little time to prepare, and the future of Japan, and indeed the world as well, hangs in the balance.
One of the more surprising aspects of Shin Godzilla is that the story is, in large part, told through what often seems like a never-ending series of meetings and research scenes. Kaiju films from Japan often have long meeting scenes, and said scenes are often pretty dry—as one would expect from sequences in which old, gray-haired men sit around big tables and conference rooms and intone dramatically about the latest threat. For me, though, as I said in my impressions article, the meeting scenes here actually come alive with eccentric camera angles, and rapid-fire urgent line-delivery. The meetings, too, are a commentary on the failings of Japanese government, specifically in regard to the response to the 2011 Fukushima typhoon and nuclear meltdown. The government here comes across as helpless and lost in indecision as their very capital city is razed before their eyes. Back in 2011 there was a lot of unrest as to how the government responded to the Fukushima disaster, and that skepticism of the government is reflected in the events here.
The actual performances holding up the story, though, are somewhat difficult to judge. For one thing, the cast is enormous, with dozens of cameo appearances from Japanese celebrities throughout the film, most of which will fly right over the heads of most Western viewers. Also, since so much of the movie is meetings and scenes of scientists scrambling in makeshift research rooms, character development takes a back seat. Often the characters are reduced to yelling faces as they practically war-chant their reports and dire predictions, often almost directly at the camera as if addressing the audience in the theater. Again, the delivery has a certain energy which I appreciated, but I often wished I could see more of the characters’ personal lives. Unfortunately, there just isn’t time for deep character relations or personal attachments, family, or even romance or friendship. Still, as I also mentioned in my first impressions article, the film is sprinkled with drops of humanity, such as the stink of an unwashed shirt, to a character freaking out and dashing across the room when he discovers something about Godzilla.
As for specific characters, the biggest impressions made on me were probably Hiroki Hasegawa as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, and Satomi Ishihara as Kayoko Ann Patterson, Envoy to the United States President. While I really did not like Hasegawa as the over-the-top villain in the Attack on Titan films, here he has calmed down and delivers a performance of quiet, intelligent intensity as the one member of the Japanese government who most quickly realizes the nature of the threat (ie., it’s a freaking monster) and who basically takes the lead of the anti-Godzilla task force. In this film the most emotion he gets to show is frustration and impotent rage against Godzilla, but most of the time he is simply determined to fight, and somehow Hasegawa lends Yaguchi a simple humanity which made him utterly watchable. Ishihara as Kayoko Ann Patterson, though, is embarrassing. She is supposed to be an American, and so she imbues the character with exaggerated swagger and sass while she struggles to speak her frequent but random lines in English. I have seen reports that Ishihara claimed learning her English lines was the hardest part of her role in Shin Godzilla, and it’s evident here, but frankly she never comes across convincingly, even remotely, as an American. She is gorgeous, she adds color to the sometimes stale meetings, but she is not believable in the part.
Numerous smaller parts made good and bad impressions, with good outweighing the bad I would say. For me, having watching a few hundred Japanese movies, it was fun to see many familiar faces, and many of the minor roles are genuinely fun, with some characters (like a somewhat robotic woman who gives her lines with this fantastic emotionless face) coming across as cartoonish yet endearing. Unfortunately, a number of Western “actors” also appear and blunder their lines in the usual odd tone-deaf way seen so often in Japanese cinema. I would say that the Caucasian actors in Shin Godzilla are nowhere near as bad as many I have seen (“Take that, you dinosaur!”), but neither are they good, and their mediocre delivery steals credibility from any scene in which they appear.
As for the monster himself, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi have created a Godzilla here that is so different from previous incarnations that many longtime fans will be spitting fire themselves when they see the movie—and judging from comments I have seen online, many are already upset, including many American fans who have not yet seen the movie. Many are calling “Shin Godzilla” a sort of GINO 2.0 (reminds me of the response to Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), which earned similar ire among some). Depending on your perspective, the criticisms are justified in a way—the depiction of Godzilla here is, if anything, an even more radical departure from Godzilla lore than Roland and Emmerich’s often-despised lizard beast. From my perspective, though, Anno’s radical experimentation is not an altogether negative against the new movie, even though personally I think he takes things a bit too far occasionally.
One of my longstanding grumbles against many of the previous Godzilla films has been that they have often played things too safely, and so we end up with movie after movie with King Ghidorah (Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah ), or yet another Mothra appearance (Godzilla vs. Mothra ), or both (Rebirth of Mothra )… okay, very often both (Rebirth of Mothra III , Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack , Godzilla: Final Wars ). If it isn’t Mothra and King Ghidorah, it’s another incarnation of Mechagodzilla (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II , Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla , Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. —which also has Mothra again!). And even though I like all three of those monsters, I yearn for more new beasties (hurray for Biollante, SpaceGodzilla, Destoroyah, Orga, Megaguirus, and the MUTOs!) or other narrative innovations (Godzilla as an embodiment of the war dead was interesting). Certainly, as my list of original Heisei and Millennium monsters above attests, there have been some efforts to create new monsters for Godzilla, but the overall tendency has been to create the same movies again and again. Thus for me, I love it when the Godzilla movies get inventive—and Shin Godzilla absolutely does that. I am going to get into specifics now, so please, if you don’t want to be spoiled, skip down past the next few paragraphs. If you haven’t been spoiled yet, in my opinion it is much more fun to watch the movie without knowing much about what is coming, so consider yourselves warned—I am not going to spare the spoilers.
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Godzilla in this movie comes in several different forms, and the beast changes over the course of the film. Seeing the first form of Godzilla revealed in Shin Godzilla was for me an electrifying moment—perhaps the most shocking moment I have ever had when watching a Godzilla movie, and the movie builds up to the big reveal beautifully. First showing Godzilla’s tail, then showing his back as he smashes his way up through a canal, his head still buried beneath the water and carnage, hiding his face. It’s not until Godzilla makes landfall that we see his whole body—an functionally armless, wriggling beast with huge, fish-like staring eyes, gaping jaws, and undulating gills like gory gashes along each side that pour forth red oozing blood. My jaw about dropped to the floor when I saw him, and tingles went dancing along my spine. Toho kept the early forms of Godzilla secret for good reason—even in the spoileriffic theater pamphlet we only get a blurry picture of this sort of eel-like early version of Godzilla. Then, in one of the weaker CGI moments of the film, the eel-Godzilla metamorphoses into a second red form that stands more upright with tiny grasping claws and that same wretched, open-eyed, cold gaze and jagged, fleshy jaw. The Bandai toys don’t quite do these early Godzilla forms justice, and perhaps they were toned down because they are kids toys. (Note: the eel-like Godzilla is known as Godzilla’s second form despite being the first form we see in the movie, and the more upright form is the third form. Even having seen the movie a couple times, I still think these designations are confusing, but apparently the first form was Godzilla before he comes out of the water. We never get a good look at it.) These early forms of Godzilla have already been compared to the transitional forms of Hedorah and Destoroyah, and I think such comparisons are appropriate. Shin Godzilla is very much an amalgamation of monster designs and ideas over the past 60 years, as becomes even more apparent as the film continues.
The final form of Godzilla, the one seen in all the trailers, is the biggest cinematic Godzilla yet. The design borrows from earlier Godzillas, though with an emphasis on the original—the charcoal skin and general look of the beast’s visage, including the beady eyes, hearkens back to the 1954 Godzilla. The upright stance also makes him appear to be a man in a suit. The ravaged skin suggests the keloid damage that results from radiation exposure, again like the 1954 Godzilla (“Shin Godzilla” also has the original Godzilla’s roar, and some original Akira Ifukube music also occasionally plays in the film during key moments, cementing the connection). Godzilla’s skin is torn and ripped with glowing red flesh visible beneath, which is an obvious nod to the burning Godzilla from Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), but also makes the monster appear like something of a rotting corpse and suggests the enormous flesh-puppet that is the Colossus Titan from the Attack on Titan films.
This new Godzilla also has a host of other abilities. When Godzilla retaliates against the military, his nuclear breath is unleashed, but said nuclear breath is quite different than before. Instead of the sort of ghastly mist from the original film or the blue nuclear beam from later movies, here Godzilla has several breath attacks. The first attack is in my opinion the most visually impressive, in which Godzilla regurgitates what appears to be a smoke-like gas that spreads through the surrounding streets. After allowing the gas to stream far and wide, Godzilla’s breath turns to fire, igniting the gas and incinerating a huge section of the city simultaneously. I was reminded of a much more devastating version of the 1998 Godzilla’s ignitable belches. Then Godzilla unleashes another beam from his mouth, and when he does so, his lower jaw splits apart, referencing any number of more recent multi-jawed meanies, but it reminded me most of the Reapers from Blade 2. This new beam that G spits forth is purple and is much more like a laser than Godzilla’s previous nuclear beams, slicing through buildings and decimating military equipment. Shin Godzilla can also shoot a whole flurry of said purple beams from his back (!!!), which serves as a means to take out bombers and missiles or drones, and can finally also shoot a beam from the tip of his tail (!!!!!). These later permutations of Godzilla’s powers may be references to other monsters like Barugon and his rainbow beam, and some fans have already been comparing “Shin Godzilla” to the Angels in Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, although to be fair most of the Angels are much stranger than “Shin Godzilla”. Still, this Godzilla truly does seem very much inspired by anime—the laser show from the monster’s back and the inexplicable laser-pointer tail would seem much more at home in an animated movie than the often very serious and grim live action Shin Godzilla.
After expending so much energy and obliterating much of Tokyo, this new Godzilla goes into a dormant state to recharge—and that state lasts almost two weeks. Apparently Godzilla’s blood is like a nuclear power source, and when that power gets depleted, he needs to take a long nap. Further, he can reproduce asexually, although he doesn’t really lay eggs, but rather “baby” monsters appear to grow out of his flesh (seen at the very end of the film). Again, the comparisons to Godzilla 1998 are inevitable, but here I would argue that this Godzilla is much more horrific. Finally, Godzilla also apparently causes electronics to malfunction, as a drone sent to gather information on the dormant Godzilla stops working as it approaches him. So Godzilla also seems to have some MUTO abilities, although electronic interference of some sort in giant monsters can be traced farther back at least to the original Gamera film (1965 for those counting), in which the giant turtle disrupted radio signals, or perhaps even to The Giant Claw, in which a giant alien bird could not be tracked via radar because of its anti-matter shield (1957–man I love that movie). So Shin Godzilla, I think very intentionally, draws on a whole slew of other monster films to create something that is nevertheless a quite new monster mash experience.
The fight against Godzilla, too, draws a lot upon earlier kaiju films, especially the original 1954 film. In the original film, an eccentric and anti-social scientist named Dr. Serizawa develops a devastating new weapon (the Oxygen Destroyer), which he ultimately uses to destroy Godzilla while sacrificing his own life. In Shin Godzilla, an eccentric and anti-social scientist named Goro Maki apparently kills himself before the beginning of the film (I have seen different interpretations), but leaves behind his personal boat in Tokyo Bay with research that will eventually be used to develop a weapon to destroy Godzilla. So Anno takes the popular trope and turns it on its head. It isn’t really clear that Goro Maki had the best interests of Japan at heart, either—in fact, one Godzilla fan I found was endorsing a wild theory that Godzilla is actually a mutated Goro Maki! The ultimate means by which Godzilla is dispatched in the conclusion, though, I felt was pretty anticlimactic. A special blood coagulant is developed, to be administered with fire engines through Godzilla’s mouth. In the climactic confrontation, though some of the ending sequences are really spectacular, the actual administration of the super weapon looks like dental work in Godzilla’s mouth, and frankly both times I watched the movie, nothing seemed to be coming out of the nozzles jammed in Godzilla’s maw. It just looks like various tubes are stuck into Godzilla’s mouth as he takes five, which isn’t a very impressive image, and certainly doesn’t match the horror and drama of the Oxygen Destroyer.
Finally, a word about the CGI. As mentioned in my early impressions after my initial viewing, I think the visual effects are often stunning, with a few scenes which are just completely unconvincing. Anno and Higuchi do a great job of capturing the immensity of Godzilla in many of the shots (you can see some of these shots in the trailers), and the scenes of destruction, exploding buildings, helicopters, etc, are usually quite convincing and spectacular, including some fantastic scenes of the military engaging Godzilla (I am a fan of the tanks), and the collapsing buildings at the end. On the other hand, some of the monster’s movements come across as jerky and fast, while the mutation scene looks (to me) really terrible, and a later scene in which trains collide with Godzilla unfortunately looks ridiculous as the trains appear to float in mid-air. The final effects of the blood coagulant on Godzilla also look like something out of a video game—Godzilla doesn’t so much get paralyzed as appear to turn into stone. Still, overall, I was impressed and mostly quite happy with the effects, even if I would have loved to see more traditional suitmation techniques used.
There is so much more to talk about really. I loved the soundtrack, for example. The new songs I thought were appropriately dramatic and exciting, and I was really delighted to hear the classic Ifukube tracks, even though the inclusion of such old recordings feels a tad weird here. The scenes in which the Ifukube tracks are used are appropriate in surprising ways as well. Much could be said about the political commentary of the film, though through both of my viewings I had a hard time following the dialogue and endless speeches, so it’s hard for me to say much here about those things, and other writers can and have done a fine job of commenting on those areas already. On my second viewing of the film, I saw the movie in a DBOX theater (much like I did the first Attack on Titan film). The DBOX experience allows the viewer to adjust the intensity of the chair’s shaking and moving that corresponds to on-screen action, and I turned it up to the max so that I could feel every Godzilla footstep and missile blast. While the DBOX is a bit of a waste for long stretches of the film (there’s really no need for it during the speeches and meetings), it was a lot of fun when Godzilla shows up, and I thought it added a fun tactile feel to the film.
Ultimately I really enjoyed this movie, despite its flaws. While I would have liked to see more interesting and rounded characters, the fact that the movie operates on a sort of governmental response level is also interesting in itself and presents the problem of Godzilla on a sort of national interest level rather than from a personal, on-the-ground scale. The story of a giant monster attacking Tokyo has become an exhausted cliché by this point, but Anno and Higuchi managed to make it new again through their controversial but dynamic and exciting new take on Godzilla and wild, inventive cinematography (the sometimes very weird use of text on the screen does get distracting at times, but, again, I found it interesting and occasionally evocative). Despite some occasional weak CGI, despite some bad English lines, despite the long speeches, this Godzilla really is new, and I think that is a good thing.