It’s been twelve years since the premiere of the last Godzilla film, Godzilla: Final Wars, a film which featured aliens, super powered humans, a flying drill-ship, and Godzilla himself beating the crap out of nearly every single giant monster from the series’ sixty-plus year history. Shin Godzilla, however, starts the saga once again from scratch with Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Hideaki Anno at the helm as the film’s writer and director.
Shin Godzilla takes place in a world that is completely ignorant of giant monsters in general and Godzilla specifically. Because of this, the existence of Godzilla is played completely straight. At first, before the reveal of the monster proper, the characters refuse to even humor the idea that the disturbances in Tokyo Bay could be attributed to a living creature. Even after discovering that Godzilla is a living thing, they have no reason to believe that it can live on land.
While we, the viewers, know about Godzilla due to his prominence in our cultural consciousness, the film’s heroes view the creature as a mystery to be solved: “What is it?” “How was it created?” “How does it work?” And, most importantly, “How can we beat it?”
Unlike in the previous films in the franchise, Godzilla doesn’t begin the film as a walking machine of death on a massive scale–well, not quite as massive of a scale, anyway. At first, we see a juvenile Godzilla that has not yet finished growing. He can’t stand, has massive gills and eyes suited for life underwater, and lacks developed forelimbs. He sticks to rivers and roads, acting more like a lost animal than anything else.
This makes Godzilla seem like a bumbling child at first, unaware of the strange new world he has entered into. None of his actions seem malicious; rather, he just seems confused. Of course, once he grows to his full adult size, however, Tokyo burns.
Many films have shown off Godzilla’s thermonuclear breath, but Shin Godzilla is the first film I’ve seen where it seems truly apocalyptic in power. Sometimes it is a thin beam of unstoppable energy cutting through skyscrapers like they aren’t even there. But its other form, unfocused fire breath, is even more devastating. Aimed at the ground, the fire breath flows down the streets in waves, breaking windows and burning anything inside. This power leaves no doubt that Godzilla is a walking WMD that must be stopped at all costs.
All that said, Shin Godzilla is far more than disaster porn. When it comes down to it, it is more a political thriller than anything else. The first act of the movie is almost entirely a string of committee meetings as word of the unidentified phenomenon in Tokyo Bay spreads throughout the government. We are introduced to dozens of characters at different levels but, at first, none stand out as the film’s protagonist. We simply follow the decision-making process.
This portion of the film is a clear critique of the Japanese government. Even as the disaster grows and the body count rises, the endless meetings continue. Whenever a decision point is reached, the buck is passed until it reaches the Prime Minister himself, who ultimately chooses the politically safest option.
The film overall shows a top-down look at the appearance of a giant monster in the modern world. Only in passing wide shots do we see how civilians are dealing with the conflict. There are no everyman characters in the film to latch onto, just those in power.
However, a main character does eventually appear out of the throng of politicians and researchers in the form of Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, the first man to suggest that Godzilla is a living creature and not a naturally occurring phenomenon. As the crisis continues, he is put in charge of unraveling the mystery that is Godzilla by heading the team of researchers tasked with finding a way to stop the creature. Yet his job is made all the more complicated with the introduction of Kayoko Ann Patterson: Special Envoy for the President of the United States.
In the world of Shin Godzilla, Godzilla isn’t just a Japanese problem, but a worldwide one, and political intrigues abound. Any number of countries are looking to exploit the island country in its time of need. The Russians and Chinese suggest annexation to deal with the monster and only the US stands between them and Japan.
This puts the Japanese in a precarious situation. Accepting help from a foreign power is a blow to Japan on the international stage. And as it becomes increasingly unclear if Japan alone will be able to defeat Godzilla, several countries pressure the US into performing a nuclear attack on the monster–giving Japan and its US allies a ticking clock to battle against as well as Godzilla himself.
Like with the original Godzilla film, Shin Godzilla carries a strong anti-nuclear message. And like his classic counterpart, Godzilla is revealed to be a monster of our own (accidental) creation. He is nuclear destruction made flesh–almost as if the earth itself is seeking retribution for the harm humanity has done.
As you’d likely expect given the film’s director, Shin Godzilla shares a lot with Evangelion in presentation. The film is full of close ups and medium close ups–far more than in most mainstream films. It is likewise often shot from unnaturally low or high angles or with a slight Dutch angle twist to the frame.
But the most telling similarity to Evangelion is the soundtrack. There are more than a few tracks ripped straight out of Anno’s seminal work and reused in this film. That said, they perfectly fit the tone of the film. There is also a large portion of classic Godzilla music used alongside the Evangelion songs–as well as a few remixes for each.
All in all, Shin Godzilla is a bit of an odd film. The lack of a main character for its first act and the fact that the majority of the film is spent in committee meetings should make for a confusing, boring film. However, it is anything but.
While never even getting close to the complex philosophical musings of Evangelion, Shin Godzilla has far more thought put into it than your standard disaster film. But most importantly, it plays the appearance of a giant monster totally straight: from the “hows” and “whys” of its existence to the political implications of such a world changing event as the appearance of Godzilla.
If you are a Godzilla fan or an Evangelion fan, you won’t be disappointed with Shin Godzilla. And if you aren’t, it all comes down to one question: “Do you think a serious thought experiment about a giant monster attacking Tokyo sounds like a fun film?”
Shin Godzilla was released in Japanese theaters on July 29, 2016. It is scheduled for a Western release in late 2016.