Review | ‘Shin Godzilla’ Destroys
Japan has always been somewhat protective of Godzilla. Godzilla (a.k.a. ゴジラ) has been, after all, a Japanese institution since 1954, having starred in 30 Japanese films. In April of 2015, Godzilla was declared a Japanese cultural ambassador, and is largely seen as a (perhaps kitschy) symbol of Japanese pride. In 1954, Godzilla was a clear metaphor for the damage done to Japan by the atomic bomb almost a decade earlier. Over the ensuing decades, however, Godzilla slowly morphed into a tough-skinned reluctant protector of Japan, usually from malevolent aliens and the occasional Mechagodzilla. Today, he is untouched as a pillar of Japanese patriotism.
So when America comes along to claim Godzilla as something of its own, Japan bristles a bit. In the final film of the Heisei era of Godzilla (1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah) the series was effectively ended. In 1998, Roland Emmerich directed his rather notorious American version in an attempt to move the monster stateside. Not only did Japan retaliate by rebooting the franchise with Godzilla 2000 (1999), but they eventually featured a scene wherein the new Godzilla killed off the monster from the 1998 film, claiming that America only thought it was the real Godzilla. It’s famously the shortest fight in the Godzilla series. Japan brought the Millennium era to an end in 2004 with the not-very-good Godzilla: Final Wars.
Then America got cheeky again in 2014, and Gareth Edwards released his own version of Godzilla, again, called merely Godzilla. The 2014 film was an enormous hit in the U.S., and was suddenly beloved by a new generation of fans. More American sequels were announced, as well as a giant crossover with King Kong (a team-up not seen in theaters since 1962). Japan, however, has chosen not to stand idly by for what they may see as a misappropriation of their own cultural ambassador, and has once again retaliated by rebooting Godzilla on their own terms. Now we Americans have our own version of Godzilla lumbering through theaters, but we have to accept that our version is not the “real” version. Shin Godzilla is the real version.
Shin Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla Resurgence) is a proper reboot of the series (beginning the Shin era of Godzilla, incidentally making it the fourth “proper” continuity in Godzilla history). Shin Godzilla takes place in 2016 Japan, and has chosen to ignore the continuity of any previous Godzilla film. The style has changed, too. This is no mere melodrama, but a terse and sterile realist drama of panicked offices and military installations that have to plan, explain, and react to the sudden appearance of a giant fish-like creature in the seas of Japan. The fish-like creature is examined carefully, its biology is sussed over, and there is a lot of debate as to what needs to be done to deal with it. Indeed, the vast bulk of the film is devoted to disaster management and the finer points of organizing a military strike while trying to evacuate over 3 million people from a major metropolitan area.
This approach makes Shin Godzilla the most realistic Godzilla film to date. This is a film less about monster mayhem (although, worry not, there is plenty of that) and more about government aid. In 1954, Godzilla was a metaphor for the atomic bomb. The 2016 nuclear-powered supra-fish (that can evolve, we will learn, at a moment’s notice into an upright Godzilla monster) is clearly a metaphor for the 2011 Fukushima disaster. This Godzilla is the nuclear result of an unpredictable natural disaster, and it moves less like a thinking monster hellbent on destruction, and more like a clueless koi, stumbling and flopping over buildings, unaware of its surroundings. It even has a set of wide, round, unblinking eyes that are deliberately devoid of expression. There is no hate in this monster. It’s just something that has to be dealt with on a practical level. Even when it starts firing purple energy bolts out of its back and leveling entire cities in a matter of minutes.
This new Godzilla is sloppy. Its skin is crinkled and asymmetrical. It sprays fluid and blood haphazardly around itself. It glows from inside, pulsating like a rash. Its jaw unhinges wide, and then splits down the middle, making it look like Godzilla’s face is falling off. It staggers more than marches. It looks boldly unnatural. For the first time in many years, Godzilla looks like a monster again. Like an alien foe. Like a threat. The 2014 version had a good sense of scale and spacial continuity, but this Godzilla is far more frightening. And shouldn’t a giant floppy fluid-spewing monster be frightening? Maybe even ugly?
Shin Godzilla is also about legacy, both of the Godzilla franchise, and the distant generation of bomb sufferers. When Godzilla attacks, one of the few named characters (played by the spunky, English-speaking Satomi Ishihara) mutters something about how wrong it would be to use a nuclear bomb in a populated area, saying that her grandmother still remembers the bombs of 1945. It wasn’t that long ago.
Shin Godzilla also taps into the classical glories of Godzilla by heavily relying on Akira Ifukube’s original musical score, one of the more notable things about the Godzilla franchise. Indeed, it sounds less like Shin Godzilla was re-recording the old themes in a new context, but playing vintage recordings of the original score, un-remixed and untouched. This simple inclusion of the original music links Shin Godzilla more strongly to the Godzilla legacy than any of its visual elements.
Shin Godzilla was released in Japan in July, and had already become one of the most successful Godzilla films in the franchise (including the two American films). On October 11th, it will be released in American theaters as Godzilla Resurgence, and might serve as a deliberate middle finger to Legendary Pictures’ current efforts to Americanize a famously Japanese monster. If one has to pick a side, I side with Shin Godzilla. In the broad scheme, it may be one of the best of all the Godzilla films. Period.
Top Image: Toho
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.