Shin Godzilla Review: Humans Are More Frightening Than Godzilla – But He’s Pretty Terrifying, Too

Even though I am legally blind and have difficulty reading subtitles—it’s virtually impossible at the theater—I had to see the new Godzilla.While I heard this new film was very “talky” rather than action-oriented, I didn’t care. I am a huge fan of the Godzilla franchise. I’ve seen all the previous 30 Godzilla films, even the American 1998 movie, multiple times. They are a special kind of fun for me, and for all their flaws, I feel that they offer a unique experience you can’t get anywhere else. And beneath all the silly and/or spectacular monster battles, there is always a deeper social and political message, which makes them even more compelling. That is especially important in the latest, Shin Godzilla (roughly, “Godzilla: Resurgence”), directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. It was released in Japan in July 2016, but only came to the U.S. this month (October 2016).

One thing I should stress: if you want to see it in theaters, see it now. In most cities, its U.S. run will last only a week. I saw it at the Gateway in Columbus, OH, and I believe it will only play until Tuesday, October 18th.

Caption: On the left, the American poster for Shin Godzilla. On the right, the Japanese poster. Courtesy of IMDB.com.

Aside from the pleasure of seeing the Big G on the screen, the movie plays upon many provocative tensions: the way authorities can both fail and band together for survival in response to crisis; the terror of being caught up in international affairs; the reality of cynical self-interest in the face of disaster; the hubris of Americans and the U.N.; the exploitation of other animals and the environment as a basis for our pleasure—and perhaps our demise.

These “daijaiju” (giant monster) movies obviously require a suspension of disbelief and a certain level of patience—or, perhaps more aptly, an appreciation for something different—to enjoy them. That’s actually a plus for me, because I am not a fan of realism or mainstream dramas, comedies, or action films. Realism is too dull. It offers me little entertainment even if it has depth, and realist-oriented films typically don’t allude to other similar films (something I enjoy in “genre” works), which make them shallow to me, or arrogant, or at least disconnected from those who came before. It’s hard to watch a horror or sci-fi movie without a direct or indirect reference to other horror or sci-fi films. Shin Godzilla may be very different from all previous Godzilla films, except perhaps the very first one, but there are several markers that, unlike the American remakes, plant it squarely within the Godzilla tradition: the iconic roar; the atomic breath; a fascination with trains; the futility of military attacks; the music (very sparse for a Godzilla film) includes some of Akira Ifukube’s classic symphonic pieces from the Showa films; and close-ups of Godzilla’s blank, reptilian glare, juxtaposed with shots of citywide destruction. These are the things we have come to know and love about the G-film.

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Caption: Tokyo in flames. Buildings are silhouetted against a backdrop of smoke and fire. Courtesy of IMDB.com.

My experience of Shin Godzilla is somewhat limited due to the fact since I could barely follow the subtitles, even sitting in the front row. I probably caught 15-20% of the dialogue. And this Godzilla movie is quite dialogue-heavy. Perhaps more so than any other Toho Godzilla offering. But I could generally follow the storyline and character roles based on what snippets I could read, and the visual interactions between characters. Even if the characters don’t have much depth—mostly government officials who struggle with how best to respond to Godzilla’s appearance—the actors put a great deal of emotion into their performances. In fact, I’d hazard to say that, aside from the original, this may be the best-acted film of the franchise. (It’s hard to believe Godzilla has been around for over 60 years, since the original 1954 film. It’s then been over 70 years since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945—and yet somehow we haven’t gotten rid of nuclear weapons, a context that should never be forgotten when watching these movies. It’s too easy to forget the danger to humans and all life on Earth that nuclear technology poses.)

But of course, we watch a daikaiju movie for the monster, right? This film doesn’t disappoint. Godzilla has a very different, very sinister look, and he mutates throughout the film. His iconic atomic breath is even more destructive than usual (they add some twists to it I don’t want to spoil). His skin is also cracked by glowing radiation, a constant reminder of the creature’s nuclear origins. This plays upon Japanese fears over nuclear contamination in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Godzilla movies are always political in that even the silliest of the Godzilla films reference the destructive nature of nuclear technology, the hubris if not futility of military might, and the unacknowledged widespread human and ecological damage wreaked by greed and cruelty. Godzilla is a force of nature as much as he is a product of science and militarism gone amok. He is an unnatural force of nature, or a technobeast of mass destruction. He is a deadlier cyborg than Arnold could ever be.

Shin Godzilla does have some of the most realistic scenes of buildings and trains blowing up I’ve ever seen. The shots cut between vast panoramas of carnage—impressive aerial shots of Tokyo being obliterated, street by street—to closer shots of buildings falling that still emphasize the sheer scale of Godzilla’s havoc, and occasionally to close-ups that zoom in on smaller, more human-level impact. There are definitely some “iconic” shots here, one thing I look for in a good Godzilla film. For example, in one scene, we watch section after section of Tokyo go dark as Godzilla knocks the electricity out, then cut to a close-up of Godzilla’s head, his eyes leering menacingly in front of him while reddish-orange cracks spiderweb their way up his neck. He doesn’t roar, he barely moves, and there is no music. But the juxtaposition of the dark city and the fiery monster is quite striking. Godzilla looks freaking evil here.

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Caption: Head and upper torso of Godzilla glowing with radiation. Courtesy of IMDB.com.

I’m not sure how much they are able to explain Godzilla’s existence since I missed much of the dialogue, but the failings of Japan’s political bureaucrats and the domineering international pressures of the U.S., France, and the United Nations are all implicated in the disastrous response to Godzilla. Although critics have pointed to public attitudes that the Japanese administration handled its response to the triple disaster of tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear meltdown in 2011 poorly, there’s also clear indictment of America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as nuclear testing in the Pacific area. In the film, a Japanese scientist predicts the appearance of a creature born of radioactive mutation, and the U.S. covers it up. When Godzilla does appear, the U.S. President sends Special Envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (an American of Japanese ancestry) to get Japan to share information. When she learns that the U.N. decides to use a thermonuclear bomb on Godzilla (without consulting the Japanese government or people), she vows to stop them, as she does not want another nuclear bomb dropped on the country. (A similar U.N. vs. Japan situation occurs in Godzilla 1985, with Russia releasing a nuclear missile that ends up reenergizing, rather than destroying, Godzilla. The American version notoriously edited the film to make it seem as though the Russians intentionally launch the missile, while the original Japanese version makes it an accident, with a dying Russian trying to stop the launch.)

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Caption: A dying Russian fights to launch a nuclear missile in Godzilla 1985. The subtitle reads: “I’m the only one who can do it.” Courtesy of HK Film News.

Satomi Ishihara does a wonderful job as Patterson, joining a small but memorable number of female leads in Godzilla films. Ishihara took the role without knowing that she would have to speak a number of lines in English (since she is an employee of the American government). She found this difficult, but she does a great job, and it adds that extra touch to the international aspect. Her character also embodies the tensions between loyalties toward Japanese and foreign interests. On the one hand, she vows to protect her country to the possible political fallout of her decision. On the other hand, she voices her hope that she will one day be President of the United States. Whether the U.S. can accept a President who is both female and Asian remains to be seen. But she has some of the best lines in the film (and not necessarily the ones in English).*

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Caption: Satomi Ishihara as Kayoko Patterson. Courtesy of IMDB.com.

While many women in Godzilla films fit within stereotypically gendered roles, a few, like Patterson, play crucial and fearless characters. There is Megumi Odaka as Miki Saegusa, a psychic able to detect Godzilla’s presence, who appears as one of the few recurring characters in several films; Anna Nakagawa in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) as Emmy Kanno, a woman from the future torn between loyalty to her own world and her ancestral home; Misato Tanaka in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) as Kiriko Tsujimori, a hard-as-nails military commander with a personal vendetta against the Big G; and Chiharu Niiyama in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) as reporter Yuri Tachibana, who confronts sexism, an overprotective father, and her superiors’ skepticism as she seeks the truth behind the appearances of several giant monsters. Gender plays a strange role in these movies, especially when we consider the monsters. Godzilla was always a “he” even though “he” laid an egg that hatched into a young Godzilla in several movies (although I think some films implied the egg simply appeared, and was not necessarily the direct offspring of the big Godzilla), and Mothra (who also reproduced by laying eggs) has been alternately referred to as “he” and “she.” Sometimes the dialogue even uses “it” in reference to both of them, especially in subtitles. In Shin Godzilla, the scientists discover that Godzilla can reproduce asexually—which, of course, is a terrifying prospect.

The other actors do a fabulous job as well, especially Hiroki Hasegawa’s as the bold Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, who, after a distinguished and versatile career in Japanese cinema and television, said he was excited to be part of a Godzilla film. Ren Ôsugi as Prime Minister Seiji Okochi also ably plays an indecisive leader who makes several missteps, but in a way that we sympathize with his decisions and struggle. As I believe he says, there is no precedent for Godzilla (in this storyline, this is his first appearance). There is no “how to deal with giant monsters” handbook. What is great about the film’s portrayal of Patterson, Yaguchi, and Okochi is that it allows them to err, or show their more opportunistic side, while still being sympathetic and also doing good. In other words, the film can be critical of politicians without dismissing them as human beings. Too many movies make them out as either villains or heroes (including other G movies), but in this one, there are neither, other than Godzilla himself. But even when he is a villain, Godzilla is also an anti-hero, a reminder of human hubris or warning of even greater catastrophe rather than a being of malice.

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Caption: Hiroki Hasegawa as Rando Yaguchi. Courtesy of IMDB.com.

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Caption: A man (his back to the camera) stares at a scene of wreckage in the aftermath of Godzilla. (I believe it is Yaguchi.) This was one of the most touching moments of the film, as he bows before he departs, as if saying a prayer for all the dead.

In any case, Shin Godzilla is more of a politically-charged disaster film than an action-packed monster rampage, much like the 1954 Godzilla. And that’s OK with me. As much as Final Wars was a fun non-stop monster battle and Matrix-style fighting between humans and aliens that payed homage to earlier entries like Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Destroy all Monsters, there need to be some different approaches to sustain interest in this genre, while still maintaining enough of the old formula to comfort long-time fans. Toho is working on an animated Godzilla slated release for next year. I hope the success of Shin Godzilla brings that movie to the U.S. as well. And drives the continuation of the daikaiju tradition.

*Edit and update, 10/24/16

In my original review, I stated that Patterson said the line, “Men are more frightening than Godzilla.” Well, since the film has been given an extended run in some theaters, including the Gateway here in Columbus, I saw the film again today, sitting back several rows, which actually helped me to read the subtitles more fully (since I didn’t have to scroll across the screen as much with my monocular). It actually appears that Hiromi Ogashira, Deputy Director of Nature Conservation Bureau (portrayed by Mikako Ichikawa), says the line. She’s another strong female character in the film, although not given as much screen time or development as Patterson.

I enjoyed the movie even more the second time around. Despite the heavy dialogue, the action scenes are done very well, and the cinematography is beautiful. It looks like the director and cinematographer put a lot of thought into how the shots would be framed, whether the camera’s on a human, Godzilla, or a cityscape.

I realized though that I hadn’t said anything negative about the film, I also said that it wouldn’t count among my favorites, without explaining why. Well, if I were to criticize it, here would be my points:

  • Another reboot: I prefer when there’s continuity among films in a series. I know that at some point, there needs to be a completely new origin story to breathe new life into an old character, but we’ve seen this so many times it’s a bit wearying. Honestly, this wasn’t a huge gripe for me, especially since there hasn’t been a new film in 12 years since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, but I do hope that future films build on this one.
  • Dialogue interrupts action: I am OK with the film being heavy on dialogue and human interaction, but it did annoy me when Godzilla was rampaging and they cut to humans talking about it. Since there was such little action, it should have been allowed to play mostly without unnecessary commentary by the humans.
  • Human drama: Again, though I was fine with much of the focus being on the humans’ handling of Godzilla, it would have been nice to have a bit more actual drama among them. Some minor subplots like in The Return of Godzilla (Godzilla 1984). There were tensions but these could have gone further, whereas they seemed to have fizzled out after they develop their alternative to nuking Godzilla.
  • *SPOILER ALTERT* The ending: The way the government neutralizes Godzilla felt a bit anti-climactic. It seemed way too easy. Even though it seemed to be a bit muted on purpose–careful of taking on the triumphal tone you see in other Godzilla movies–it’s always a bit of let-down anyway when the military is able to defeat Godzilla, even though in this case it’s explicitly temporary, and the ending shot of creatures frozen in mid-spawn from Godzilla’s tail leaves open the idea that there’s more threats to come. The ending of GMK was spectacular and felt right, despite Godzilla falling to military might (with some help from the Guardian Monsters, of course).
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