By now it is commonplace to observe that apocalypse figures so largely in Japanese science fiction because Japan is literally a post-apocalyptic society: the many scenes of civilians evacuating their homes or running from disasters in Japanese cinema are drawn from cultural memory, and frequently add pathos and potency to premises that might seem silly if the focus wasn’t kept so clearly on the people they affect. Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence), the first of a new series starring the venerable monster, keeps the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki front and center, along with echoes of 9/11 and the Fukushima meltdown. Written and directed by Hideaki Anno, it’s not quite as somber as Gareth Edwards’ American Godzilla of 2014, but it’s a serious film: there is none of the kid-friendly pro-wrestling action of the Showa series or the overstuffed craziness of the last Japanese Godzilla, 2004’s Final Wars. The only friendly-yet-sinister aliens in Shin Godzilla are the Americans who promise military aid when Godzilla lays waste to Tokyo, but with strings attached; and will their proposed solution be worse than Godzilla himself?
Shin Godzilla‘s tone is dry, sometimes documentary-like, complete with captions identifying speaking characters (almost entirely professionals: politicians, scientists, military, and first responders) and found footage. The approach is fitting for the story, which centers on an aspiring pol named Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) who fights against both the sclerotic bureaucracy of Japanese government (so concerned with adhering to protocol and passing the buck that little gets done, especially early on) and the machinations of the American and other international forces (whose interest in Godzilla includes the scientific knowledge to be discovered in his unique biology, as well as the economic and military leverage they can exert over Japan).
Yaguchi, young and headstrong, assembles a team of “lone wolves” from all disciplines to stop Godzilla, and their work as a team of equals is an obvious contrast to the hidebound cabinet surrounding the Prime Minister (Ren Ohsugi). Numerous montages of Yaguchi’s team in action borrow the language of low-angle shots, quick cuts, and wicked guitar riffs seen in commercials for businesses that sell “solutions.” The film is thus essentially a procedural, following a combination of political, military, and scientific campaigns, part The War Room and part Apollo 13. The older generation of politicians is represented as well-meaning but too set in their ways to effect much change, and change is what is needed: to stop Godzilla, and to solve the larger problem of Japan’s cultural and economic stagnation. The Americans (including a Japanese-American aide played by Satomi Ishihara) are not portrayed as harshly as, say, the Americans in Joon Ho Bong’s brilliant Korean monster movie The Host, but the Japanese view of America as perpetually occupying or dominating Japan is made quite clear (“The post-war goes on forever,” Yaguchi observes at one point).
Even the naming rights to the monster take on international dimensions: one of the few moments of comic relief involves the difference between the Japanese name “Gojira” and the Americanized “Godzilla,” a sometimes-contentious subject among fans. And speaking of unintentional comedy, Shin Godzilla‘s occasional forays into English dialogue are . . . idiosyncratic, to say the least (one American scientist casually drops “Our nuclear wisdom will be mankind’s savior” into a conversation, which got a few chuckles, from me at least).
That dry tone makes the scenes of destruction all the more shocking when they do occur. Godzilla’s arrival begins with a mysterious eruption in Tokyo Bay that closes down an underwater tunnel and sends geysers of steam skyward. After a series of inconclusive committee meetings, a huge (and supremely weird) amphibious animal appears and waddles on to land, plowing through a river full of boats and streets full of cars, pushing them out of the way as if they were toys. The reassuring evaluation by scientific consultants (as well as the extended treatment of Godzilla’s radioactive metabolism) show the influence of Darren Naish and other “speculative biologists,” if only to tweak their assumptions: the amphibious creature could never support its weight on land . . . until it does. A creature of its size would be unable to metabolize enough oxygen to live . . . unless it were a living nuclear reactor! It’s not even clear at first that the creature is Godzilla: this version of the famous kaiju takes on multiple forms, “evolving” like a Pokémon as it gathers energy.
In his final form, Godzilla has the familiar thick-legged outline (but with tiny, tyrannosaur-like arms and a long tail), but his hide is creased with red lines where he glows from within, giving him a demonic, flayed appearance. Finish the design off with beady, inexpressive eyes (“like a doll’s eyes”) and you have a terrifying (and fantastically huge) take on the character, a perfect update of the original Godzilla‘s vision of the monster as enigmatic, unknowable being and force of nature. Extrapolating on the creature’s radioactive origin and fiery breath, Anno comes up with some truly devastating applications, including focused beams (from Godzilla’s mouth and dorsal spines) that are more like lasers than flame-throwers. The result of Godzilla unleashing this force in the middle of Tokyo at night makes for a tense and unnervingly one-sided battle against military helicopters. The resulting irradiation of parts of the city, and the serious issues of when and how to evacuate civilians, raise echoes of the long displacement that followed the tidal wave and meltdown in Fukushima (like the scenes of evacuating crowds, clips of civilians in long-term shelters strike a deeper chord than they might if they only sprang from the screenwriter’s imagination).
As far as the production goes, Shin Godzilla has the most seamless mixture of CGI and practical effects I have yet seen, comparable only to Edwards’ film (and for the record, Anno isn’t nearly as stingy with footage of the monster as Edwards was); the sound design puts viewers right in the middle of the action (particularly in the theater), and it’s gratifying to hear passages from Akira Ifukube’s original Godzilla music on the soundtrack. Shin Godzilla is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.