Kids, I am gonna let you in on a little secret: I love giant monsters. I don’t remember exactly when it started, but ever since I have memory I have always been fascinated by the idea of a giant creature smashing the puny constructs of the human society. Naturally, my favorite among them, and who just happened to have a movie released last year, is Godzilla; it might be just me, but there’s something about an unstoppable being who crushes all who stand before him with nothing but his raw, unmeasurable power that is just so incredibly appealing.
I think it goes without saying that when you have an icon of the fame and, pardon the pun, scale of the Big G, there’s an inherent level of both excitement and apprehension whenever a new Godzilla movie comes out; for the casual (and therefore sinful) movie goer it might be just a chance to turn off their brains and watch some destruction porn, but for the true fan it’s the once in a lifetime chance to get a Godzilla movie so good that it actually justifies buying the S.H. Monster Arts Web Exclusives.
I am not exactly ancient, I am about as old as the Heisei era, and yet I’ve been through this song and dance more times than I care to count. Still, after the complete insanity that was Godzilla Final Wars (2004) and the not nearly insane enough Legendary Godzilla (2014), I really, really wanted for Shin Gojira, also known as Godzilla Resurgence in the boring countries, to be quite literally the best movie ever.
Having watched it a few times already, I can say that, well, it kind of is.
So yeah, I liked the film, a lot in fact. I think it says more about me as a person than about the quality of the film when I state that watching it was akin to a spiritual experience, but you know what? Screw it: when I watched this movie I meet God and he had an atomic breath.
I admit that me being a huge fan of the franchise since I was but a child might color my opinion of Shin Gojira a little bit, and while I often preach about the importance of being objective when trying to judge something, I honestly don’t think you can truly appreciate this movie if you are not a fan; while the movie is a true cinematic accomplishment by all means, I think it’s fair to say that Shin Gojira is a fan movie, made by fans and for the fans.
For those uninitiated, these two are the dorks minds behind this film; Shinji Higushi, an SFX maniac who worked on the 90’s Gamera Trilogy, GMK* and those Attack on Titan movies no one ever mentions unless they are talking about Shin Gojira. The other, and arguably the most famous one of the pair, is Hideaki Anno, a man who jumped into the Japanese Pop Culture radar back in the 90’s as the creative force behind Evangelion, a dark comedy about three underage girls who fight Christian symbolism and parental issues using giant robots.
To be honest, I have a very complicated relationship with Hideaki Anno; while I did enjoyed the original Evangelion, it was a bit too pretentious and full of drama for my taste, so I was never particularly compelled to follow the franchise nor watch any of the three dozen alternate endings released since then. That said, I have nothing but the utmost respect for man who has dedicated his life to being the single greatest Ultraman fan to ever walk the Earth.
I realize how bizarre it sounds when I say this about a man whom I have never met and probably never will, but I often think of him and myself as kindred spirits; as unlikely as it sounds, I actually grew up with many of the same shows and franchises as he did, so in a weird way I can actually understand his creative vision even if sometimes I find his style off-putting.
Taking that into account, it should be easy to understand why Shin Gojira was such an amazing experience for me.
Much like the creators of this movie, I basically grew up with Godzilla; from watching the movies to reading as much material as I could find on the Cyber Space (that’s what we called the internet back in the 90’s), I spent a good chunk of my youth studying the grey behemoth. That is why when Shin Gojira decided to completely re-invent the monster from scratch but remained true to all the things that made Godzilla Godzilla, I was ecstatic.
To be clear, I don’t want this to sound like this is a movie that no one but hardcore fans can enjoy. From the directing to the acting to the special effects, Shin Gojira is a genuinely outstanding film that can appeal to anyone even if they are not Kaiju-inclined. That said, the movie is full of small details and callbacks that only longtime fans of the franchise can appreciate; the plot, for starters, is based on Godzilla 1984**, several shots are direct homages to iconic imagery from the franchise and the legendary score by Akira Ifukube makes its presence felt throughout the film.
My absolute favorite example of this is, however, the handling of the ‘Godzilla’ name itself.
I don’t think a lot of people on the western fandom care about this, but the correct Romanization for Gojira is in fact ‘Gozila’. As you can tell, that’s not a particularly badass word, so back when the film was dubbed for American audiences the powers that be decided to change the name in order to make it more appealing, and thus a legend was born.
Pretty much the entirety of the Toho filmography is plagued with weird localization issues like this one, issues that bother literally no one but the most obsessive of Godzilla fans.
Fans like Shinji Higushi and Hideaki Anno.
Which brings us to a scene in Shin Gojira that addresses this decades old discrepancy just because it can: while discussing the origins of the creature in an exposition heavy scene, the lead characters manage to validate both versions of the name by making a callback to the original backstory that was given back in ‘Gojira’, where the creature was introduced as the local God of the Island where it first appeared.
For the regular, non-enlightened people this might sound like an insignificant piece of geek trivia, but for someone like me? This moment in the film was the best sex I’ve ever had.
Of course, the fact that the creators were such huge fans helped to make this incarnation of Godzilla faithful to the decades old lore, but that is far from the only thing that makes this incarnation of the monster so great.
I don’t really want to trash on Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, I thought it was a fine movie, but the handling of the mighty beast left much to be desired. That, I think, stemmed from a weird compulsion to make Godzilla a hero, which is not surprising considering how much of that movie borrows from the Showa era, but history has proven that the King of the Monsters works best when he is a grey, mean, stomping-over-stuff-that’s-not-his machine.
The secret to writing a good antagonist, and let’s not kid ourselves here, Godzilla IS the main villain of Shin Gojira, is to make sure that its actions or just his sole existence motivate the other characters to act. That way, even if he is not currently on screen, his presence can be felt thorughout the story.
If we play the numbers game, ShinGoji spends roughly the same amount of time on screen as LegendGoji, but unlike his American… cousin (?), ShinGoji is the catalyst for every event in the movie and every decision a character makes relates directly to the threat of its existence. This is truly a testament to the talent of Anno and Higushi as directors since they managed to build a movie around Godzilla without actually making the movie about him, a trap that films who feature similarly famous movie icons constantly fall into.
Still, just because there’s less focus on Godzilla this time around, it doesn’t mean that the movie does not try to expand on the lore of the creature itself; ever since the Heisei series, there’s been a conscious attempt at developing the science of Godzilla himself, and while a lot of it is implausible to an absurd degree (“his heart is like a nuclear reactor!”), it’s still surprisingly complex and consistent, and this movie does a good job of expanding on it.
Previous films have established the idea of Godzilla being a creature that feeds on pure energy, and while this is like, a super cool concept, it does leave a lot questions open, particularly the idea of how on earth do you turn all that energy into matter?
Well, Shin Gojira actually takes a crack at this with an answer that is both simple and mind-numbingly complex: to put in on layman’s terms, the membrane around Godzilla’s cells has the capability to synthetize any element or compound it could possibly need by means of a miniature fusion reaction using the hydrogen available in its environment.
I think it’s pretty clear by now that the creators of Shin Gojira knew their Kaiju, but it goes without saying that Godzilla is far more than an invincible monster; ultimately, Godzilla is a vehicle to tell a story, and the purpose of this story is to carry a message for the audience, be it the dangers of nuclear weapons, pollution or messing with Akihiko Hirata.
The power of Godzilla as an allegory for the problems of our society (or more specifically the Japanese society) cannot be overstated, and this movie takes full advantage of that by challenging one of the mightiest beasts of all: Politics.
Look, it is no secret that Shin Gojira, particularly on its first act, lays down some rather harsh criticism on the lacking response of the Japanese Government during the Fukushima incident, and from there the movie takes a plunge at the bureaucracy of the country and how it kind of sucks at what it does. What its surprising is how the overall message isn’t nearly as grim as you would expect from a politically charged monster movie; sure, they do highlight the lack of flexibility and inefficiency of the system in times of crisis, but the final message is not only positive, but surprisingly hopeful.
I am not going to pretend that I understand the entirety of the political context that this movie is loaded with, mostly on the virtue that I am the diametrical opposite of a Japanese person, and make no mistake, Shin Gojira is a profoundly nationalistic movie, but many of the core ideas within the film can easily resonate with anyone, even if they do have heavy political connotations.
The early acts of the movie, for example, feature in a rather blunt way how the constant need of government officials to delegate decision making up the command chain to avoid responsibility ultimately doomed their efforts to protect the country. Things escalate to the point that it is almost comical when the Prime minister, the final link, becomes overwhelmed and essentially gives up on the whole “running the country” thing.
In contrast, once the second act kicks in we see how the efforts of our main lead, Rando Yaguchi, prove to be more effective as he believes that when people are united by one will and take responsibility for their decisions and their consequences, even a seemingly impossible task, like defeating Godzilla, becomes possible.
While pondering about the importance of holding people in positions of power accountable for their choices is both super interesting and terrifyingly relevant in our current society, what actually ended up capturing my interest the most was the dynamic between the characters of Rando Yaguchi and Hideki Akasaka, mostly because of the way it subverted my own expectations.
After Rando is introduced, he is quickly established as a free thinking, hot headed politician who is not afraid to go against the traditional order and break a few rules in order to protect the country. Hideki, on the other hand, is presented as a veteran politician, someone who has grown with the system and looks down onto such radical attitudes. In any other movie these two would have inevitably clashed with Hideki being framed as the villain of the film, and while he does feel like that at times, the movie ends up going into a more interesting, albeit not as cool, direction.
While Rando is definitely on the right side of history, during the third act of the movie it becomes clear that while his idealism is good, it is ultimately short sighted. He might be able to overcome this threat, but he might not be able to save the country from the brink of collapse. Hideki on the other hand comes out as a somewhat ruthless individual that is willing to compromise the integrity of his country in order to comply with the demands of a globalist society, something that’s a bit of a touchy subject in Japanese culture***, but in the end his actions ensure that the country will have a future.
It might seem that all of this gets way too far from what a Godzilla movie is, but everything manages to circle back to the original message of the franchise; when the united nations decide that the only surefire way to stop Godzilla is to drop a nuke on Tokyo, all the characters start taking the matters into their own hands to save their country themselves, proving that not even the most advanced organism on earth could stand up to the might of humanity’s combined efforts.
What’s so remarkable about this approach is that while the movie criticizes the political establishment ruthlessly, in the end it becomes clear that the system is NOT the enemy; a system can only be as effective as the people who control it, so the real enemy was neither the archaic Government nor Godzilla, but the culture of individualism and personal success that favored public perception over accountability and delegation of authority over shared responsibility.
Almost ironically, while the movie basically states that tearing down the system is not the real solution, it was only when Godzilla left the country and the government in shambles that the system could be rebuilt for the better.
When all is said and done, Shin Gojira is a truly outstanding film that tackles a modern issue head on through the most unlikely of metaphors, and yet it manages to be far more effective at delivering its message than more “serious” attempts. It is not without its flaws, I think that in repeated viewings the first act of the movie tends to drag a little and the nationalistic tone might feel a bit condescending for some people, but this is still an incredibly thought provoking film that I am sure will stand the test of time.
Also, it has Godzilla in it, so you know, it’s perfect.
If you ask me to rank my top five Godzilla films, chances are that the original 1954 Gojira will not make it to that list for a very simple reason; while that movie managed to spawn one of the most impressive cultural legacies in modern culture, the original film basically exist on a category of its own that none of the following movies really belong to.
The original Gojira was, and still is, one of the most poignant allegories about the dangers of nuclear weapons and their use in warfare. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the point of that movie was never the monster; while the image of the radioactive dinosaur laying waste to a city is certainly iconic, Godzilla is just a metaphor, a vehicle to say the things that needed to be said when they needed to be said.
That’s what makes Shinji Higushi’s and Hideaki Anno’s work stand out from among the other Godzilla films; this is not a story about humans fighting a monster, this is a story about humanity facing a certain destruction and having to overcome their own flaws and limitations for the sake of their society. In that sense, this movie is exactly like the classic from 1954; the message might have changed with the times, but the need for those words to be said has not.
In other words, this movie is truly a Shin Gojira.
* GMK stands for ‘Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack’, because you try to fit that into a sentence without breaking the flow of the paragraph.
**For the record, this is one of my favorite Godzilla movies. Yes, it is the one where Godzilla has funny eyes.
***Go and do some research on the history of Japan after WWII. It’s really interesting.