Mann’s Take: Shin Godzilla

By Will Mann

Is there any movie monster more iconic than Godzilla? When he first terrorized Japan over 60 years ago in the original 1954 film Godzilla AKA Gojira, who would have possibly guessed that this terrifying giant reptile would leave such an endearing and indelible mark on popular culture? That 1954 film has had 28 sequels or re-imaginings made in Godzilla’s native Japan, along with two big-budget Hollywood reboots. (1998’s Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich, was widely seen as a failure. Director Gareth Edwards attempt to reboot the franchise 2 years ago, in contrast, was widely praised by both critics and the general public.) However, despite Godzilla’s legacy and influence, there had not been a Godzilla movie made in Japan since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. There seemed to be waning public interest, but based on the success of Edwards’ reboot (of which there are now 2 sequels planned, including a King Kong vs. Godzilla film), Toho, the original Japanese production company responsible for the franchise, wanted to have another crack at the bat.

The end result is Shin Godzilla, a film that, like its American counterparts, seems to be a total reboot of the Godzilla mythos. The film depicts an emergence from the deep of a radioactive reptile that is originally more snake-like. It wreaks havoc on the mainland, but not before evolving to stand up on its hind legs and returning to the see. As the Japanese government scrambles to come up with a response, the creature, now dubbed “Godzilla”, makes landfall again and tries to make its way to downtown Tokyo. As the Japanese military is shocked to discover that conventional weapons like bullets and missiles don’t work on this mysterious new creature, Godzilla makes it to Tokyo, unleashing cataclysmic damage. With newfound abilities to produce fire and atomic rays out of his mouth, Godzilla destroys much of Tokyo, including a helicopter carrying the Prime Minister of Japan and many members of his Cabinet. With the United States threatening to nuke Godzilla, and Tokyo (albeit fully evacuated) along with him, what’s left of the Japanese government hatches a plan to freeze Godzilla by laying traps for him, then spraying a biological compound in his mouth whenever he’s down. The compound is successful in incapacitating Godzilla, but a quick shot before the end credits roll show that Godzilla might have been in the process of reproducing spawn.

There are a couple of things that really impressed me about Shin Godzilla, the first of which is the premise. I like the efforts the film goes through to make this incident feel as real as possible, which includes realistic depictions of everything from international diplomacy to continuity of government. When the original Godzilla film debuted in the 50s, Japan was just on the cusp of the technological renaissance it currently enjoys. One big update I appreciate was how this film incorporated everything from breaking news coverage to Twitter, cell phones to GoPro, in order to make Godzilla’s destruction, and people’s reaction to it, as realistic as possible. I also like the new, updated look of Godzilla. When he first emerges, he looks pretty damn goofy, but as he mutates and transforms into the Godzilla we all know and love, I found myself really liking what they did to him. He also appears to be more colossal in this film than any other previous version of the character, even the 2014 Hollywood reboot.

For me, I think the element I liked most about the film is the meaning behind it. The original 1954 Godzilla was dealing with Japanese fears of the atomic age, particularly in the wake the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that brought about the end of Japanese involvement in World War II. I found myself really impressed by the fact that this film seems to be feeding on fears and paranoias about Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed. The idea of a government unprepared in the face of disaster seemed to be a metaphor for the earthquake. Shots of Godzilla dragging boats along with him in the water immediately brought back images of the tsunami. And most apparent of all, the fears of Godzilla’s radioactivity and the effects it could have on the general populace force you to recall the Fukushima accident and the uncertain days following the disaster. The nuclear threat is still a thread in the film (the US promises to send a thermonuclear missile to destroy Godzilla, which meets with an obvious skeptical response from the Japanese government), but I was pleasantly surprised that, much like its 1954 progenitor, this seemingly-regular-ol’-monster-movie could have such depth and could comment so effectively on Japan’s very recent history.

However, despite these praises, Shin Godzilla isn’t perfect. Let’s start with the basics: while occasionally the special effects can be pretty good, they never go beyond being… just pretty good. But what’s worse, at some points, they’re downright embarrassing. Like, CGI that looks like it was from the PlayStation 1 era-level of embarrassing. (Although, to be fair, Godzilla has always been in a category with franchises like Star Trek and Doctor Who that never thrived on effects, but that seemingly “cheap” aesthetic is nevertheless part of their enduring charm. Perhaps I should just be grateful he wasn’t played by a man in a rubber suit?) Like I said, I’m glad that this film is more focused on the global impact of Godzilla, which means incorporating foreign actors from countries like the United States and Germany, and having them talk about Godzilla in their native tongues. But at the same time, that’s no excuse for actress Satomi Ishihara’s, playing the role of American special envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson, downright horrible American accent. Finding an American actress that also speaks Japanese would’ve been ideal, as Ishihara’s constant mispronunciation of American English immediately took me out of the movie whenever she spoke in it. The use of subtitles whenever she spoke, despite the fact that she was supposedly speaking English, seemed like a deliberate choice by the film’s translators.
My final two complaints have to do more with story. At first, I really liked where the film was going, and was really affected by how much of an ensemble piece the film was. It was giving me a vibe similar to Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, where a variety of characters comment on a supernatural/sci-fi phenomenon and conflict, which is shown through different contexts and perspectives. But about midway through the film, I started to lament the fact that there wasn’t a main character to focus in on. (Well, okay, a HUMAN main character.) Maybe having a regular, everyday civilian on the ground, the way Tom Cruise’s character is in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film War of the Worlds was, watching all of this unfold would have been a smarter choice. And while the first half of the movie is really interesting and riveting, I’d be lying if I said that I thought those descriptors applied to the second half as well. Basically, everything after Godzilla’s second attack up until the final confrontation with Godzilla at the very end of the film drags. And by drags, I mean drags a lot. Again, while I appreciate attempting to bring in elements of realism into the film, I don’t think it was the best choice to spend so much time having characters attempt to cut through bureaucratic red tape, researching the molecular science behind Godzilla’s abilities, and debating matters of international diplomacy for so long during A FREAKING. GODZILLA. MOVIE.

Shin Godzilla is a really interesting movie. On the one hand, I like just how distinctly modern a reimagining it is, but it’s also nevertheless true to its roots as another adaptation of this iconic character. I like that it takes time and effort to show us the repercussions of what a Godzilla attack would look like. I like the imagery it employs, and the themes it uses, to make viewers recall Japan’s 2011 earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster. But on the other, the special effects vary from “meh” to downright awful, the seemingly “American” character is played by an actress who cannot for the life of her pull off an American accent, there is arguably no main character to get attached to, and the whole thing drags and gets kind of boring in the middle. However, there’s enough to enjoy about Shin Godzilla that I would still recommend you check it out. It’s not for everyone, but if you enjoy the Godzilla concept and want an intriguing reboot made and produced in his native Japan, Shin Godzilla is a worthwhile experience.

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