The Godzilla franchise is 67 years old. Six decades of a dedicated fan-base that has embraced some of the silliest, wackiest ideas that have ever graced the big screen. Although that statistic is an incredible indicator of the atomic-breathing monster’s legacy, it also brings tremendous pressure on how to keep the character alive.
With this year’s release of Adam Wingard’s glorious Godzilla vs. Kong, a popular question from audiences was ‘Where can Legendary go from here?’ The reality is, Toho has weathered through this very challenge for decades. Godzilla has faced other monsters like Mothra and King Ghidorah countless times through several movies, many of them with similar plots. An outsider would think Toho was doing the same movie over and over, and they’re not entirely wrong. With Godzilla having gone through multiple eras and iterations on screen as well as multiple incidents of low box office ticket sales and theater attendance, the franchise has been through more than one hiatus.
Meanwhile, Godzilla has become a completely different character from what he represented in the original 1954 classic. Today, Godzilla is a hero — an unstoppable force that will always be there to keep the world in balance. He’s a terrifying monster, but he’s one of the good ones. He will come and save us from other planetary threats, and at times, from ourselves. Today, Godzilla has citizenship in Japan and is also appointed tourism ambassador. Though that image today is one worthy of celebration, we can easily forget that the King of the Monsters was once the perfect representation of mankind’s inevitability to destroy and doom itself.
Returning to Godzilla’s Roots
The 1954 original may have been titled Gojira, but the film was very much NOT about him. It was always about the fear of nuclear holocaust. The fear of humanity’s tendency to invent technology that destroys the world. The fear of us doing irreversible damage to the earth. Many casual fans of Godzilla can easily forget that the original story of Dr. Serizawa involved his invention of the Oxygen Destroyer and his fear of governments learning about its existence and their inevitable desires to construct more for war.
In the last minutes of Gojira, the humans don’t exactly celebrate Godzilla’s death. Instead, the tone is one of mourning for the human lives lost. The story ends like a warning, that if human civilization stays its course and continues nuclear testing, we will be forever doomed. It is an ending filled with melancholy and urgent self-reflection.
Of course, Gojira’s very creation and impact is heavily tied to historical events. The film was released 9 years after the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. The director, Ishirō Honda, brought Godzilla to life through his personal experiences from the war and his witnessing of Hiroshima’s destruction. Such ideas and thematic messages are hard to replicate in a remake. Even though Legendary gave a noble attempt in 2014, that film is still largely overshadowed by the pop culture side of Godzilla, where fans are waiting for our favorite lizard to find an enemy to duke it out in a large metropolitan area. In fact, some Godzilla purists have their own eccentric set of requirements whenever a new film drops — a popular one is demanding Godzilla to destroy a pagoda in every movie.
For a new Godzilla film to return to true thematically heavy storytelling, the story once again needs to have something substantial to say. The story needs the bravery to alienate purists whilst modernizing the traditional aspects of the franchise. Once again, the film needs to NOT be about Godzilla.
And then came Shin Godzilla, directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. Not only is it the most challenging of all the Godzilla films, but it pushes the franchise in a new direction that demands further examination. If Gojira was a call to action, Shin Godzilla was the answer to that call, and it came at our most pressing time.
Defying Our Familiarity with Godzilla
On the surface, Shin Godzilla remains traditional and easy to accept from fans and audiences alike. Like the 1954 original, the premise is solely about the sudden appearance of a gigantic creature, resulting in the Japanese government having to form a quick, immediate response. But Anno throws all of our familiarity out the window. All the tropes and aspects of Godzilla that we have become way too comfortable with are gone. It is clear that this is first and foremost Anno’s film.
The first time Godzilla’s face appears on screen, the creature looks more like a mutated fish tumor, with its unblinking eyes, uselessly wobby hands, and top-heavy body flailing its way along the street. The image is ridiculous, unpredictable, yet terrifying in the destructive power for its size. Some purists even theorized at first that the creature wasn’t Godzilla, but the eventual enemy Godzilla would face. Of course, that is not the case.
Ever since the franchise veered into monster rumble territory, Godzilla has developed a wide range of personalities. The Shōwa era films (1954 – 1975), for example, contained several bits of lovable charm in the character. After all, he was played by a man in a funny-looking rubber suit. But even the latest installments by Legendary carried so much personality. The Godzilla from Godzilla vs. Kong, for example, had an incredible amount of attitude and impatience, which makes his clash with Kong so exciting to watch. Even though these creatures clearly did not have any lines, so much was communicated through their eyes. It is this very personality that we have grown comfortable with in Godzilla that Anno and Higuchi have stripped away here.
Here, Godzilla is completely devoid of personality. What we have instead is soulless, unflinching death. Nothing to relate to, nothing to hold onto. Essentially, the film dares us to feel detached and fearful once again of a creature we’ve come to love for so long. Effectively, this places the audience into the same mindset as the characters in the film — we learn things about Godzilla the same time the characters do.
The film begins with the Japanese government discussing an incident that just occurred minutes ago — an underwater volcanic eruption. Quickly and overwhelmingly, we are thrown into a meeting room full of politicians and bureaucrats. Already, the film reveals its first card on what it intends to do, that is to expose and criticize the ineffective system of a bureaucratic government. With Godzilla sprouting his tail out of the ocean in the middle of the meeting, the meeting is abruptly adjourned, only for the scene to cut to another meeting in the Prime Minister’s office… involving the same exact people. This sharp, hilarious blink-and-you-will-miss-it humor is found throughout Shin Godzilla, bearing a strong comical resemblance to other political satires like Dr. Strangelove and In The Loop.
However, once the destruction starts, lives are lost, and radiation is spilled into major cities, we are reminded of what is at stake and how a disaster worsens if nothing is done. Several shots of rubble, piled cars, and floating pieces of houses will bring to mind the horrific pictures of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake/tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown that came afterwards. With Godzilla always representing something bigger than just a giant lizard, the film restores him to his symbolic roots. It was never about Godzilla the character, but about the destruction he leaves behind and the humans attempting to cope and remedy what they have.
A Necessary, Nuanced Portrait of Characters
Which brings me to how Shin Godzilla handles its characters. Though the film does have a central protagonist in the form of Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), it spends an equivalent amount of time with many other faces in the bureaucratic government. Non-stop, text will appear on the screen, informing the audience who is currently speaking and what his/her job title is. In fact, another blink-and-you-will-miss-it joke is found here, where Yaguchi is constantly promoted over the course of the film, and his job title in the text gets longer and longer.
On the surface, none of the text is necessary. Frankly, we are not going to remember every character’s names, just the essential ones like the Prime Minister Seiji Okochi (the late Ren Ōsugi), his aide Hideki Akasaka (Yutaka Takenouchi), and a couple others who are identifiable through their quirks. Furthermore, if you saw the film at an American theater, there would be an extra set of English text that translates the Japanese text, which makes certain shots look hilariously busy-looking. But Anno’s storytelling decision to have everyone’s name and job title on screen contributes to an overarching strategy, that is to create a collective protagonist.
On one end, it is fair to criticize Shin Godzilla as a film for not writing its individual characters to be memorable or full of substance. With the exception of Yaguchi, the film simply never has the time to slow down to help the audience get emotionally invested in any other human during its runtime. On the other end, the film is so fast-paced and more concerned about how a collective people deal with a national threat. The names and job titles are, frankly, just there to offer a wide range of lenses to evaluate this disaster.
But there is another effect Anno achieves with this approach in character. By creating a large ensemble of people instead of a single-protagonist story arc, Shin Godzilla becomes a far more nuanced story that challenges the audience’s involvement and assessment of everyone involved. This idea is further enhanced by Anno’s secondary decision to have no villain in the film. Never once in Shin Godzilla is there a politician who, for personal political gains, ruins someone else’s chances at doing the right thing. Never once is there a human character standing in the way of another.
A shallow “Hollywood” rendition of this script would easily pit the Prime Minister against his aide, or pit Yaguchi against everyone else. After all, it’s always a popular story trend in Western filmmaking to champion the individual over the community. Another easy, cynical attitude would be to make the human characters incompetent. The military can easily be stupid in their handling of how to defeat Godzilla (Exhibit A: Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla). The Prime Minister himself can easily be written as incompetent and unqualified to handle this disaster, leaving up to Yaguchi to fill in his shoes. These kinds of narrative trajectories are incredibly common, but Shin Godzilla never takes these easy routes.
As I mentioned before, the satirical elements in the film do bear a strong resemblance to films like Dr. Strangelove. But while Stanley Kubrick comes at his humans with a tone of “We are all fucked,” Anno gracefully comes at his bureaucrats and politicians with “We need to do better.” In the meantime, Anno paints everyone as people doing what they think is right. The problem isn’t in people making bad choices, but a dated system that existed long before the people currently working in it. By choosing a collective protagonist approach with no villain, and providing the audience a “God perspective” to look down at everyone, we are given a rare privilege and nuance to see what the heart of the problem is and where things need to be fixed. Essentially, the real protagonist of Shin Godzilla is Japan itself, and it is Japan that goes through the film’s three-act story arc.
This idea comes full circle in the third act of Shin Godzilla, but before we get to the finale, we must first understand what truly is at stake for Japan at the end of Act 2.
Japan’s Place in the World
Even though all the events of the film take place in Japan, there is a constant presence of other countries stepping in to assist or even interfere. In the middle of the film’s second act, after the Japanese military is ineffective in stopping Godzilla, they call for the aid of the United States, who proceed with an air-strike plan, forcing several Japanese cities to evacuate their civilians and government personnel.
Of course, the air-strike proves futile as well, as Godzilla unleashes his atomic breath for the first time, resulting in one of the most horrifying sequences in the history of the Godzilla franchise. From a filmmaking standpoint, the craft is immensely beautiful, accompanied by a haunting score from Shiro Sagisu. From a story standpoint, it is the biggest turning point in the film. Occurring just around the midpoint (a pivotal spot) of its runtime, the atomic breath sequence marks a point of no return for the human characters, an urgent plea to wake up and do something, anything.
It is here where the United Nations steps in to determine how to handle the threat. Japan is then informed of a frightening dilemma: if they can’t stop Godzilla within the next few days, the UN will resort to using thermonuclear weapons. The film wisely spends a significant amount of time on this verdict, as we watch every Japanese character slowly take in what that decision will mean for the country. For the first time since 1945, a third atomic bomb will be detonated on Japanese soil, and Japan will be powerless, forced to stand by and allow it to happen.
Now is the time for the people to rise up, not just to save their country from Godzilla, but to also prevent their home from seeing another nuclear detonation. It’s now or never.
And so we come to the climax of Shin Godzilla. Yaguchi leads a team of scientists and political underdogs to form a deep freeze plan to subdue Godzilla. With their own limited resources and support from American drones, the team successfully conducts an operation that freezes Godzilla in his place. An incredible takeaway here is how Anno directs their moment of victory. Just like how Godzilla was once defeated by the Oxygen Destroyer in the 1954 classic, Shin Godzilla defeats its titular monster with no sense of joyous celebration. No swelling music, with people standing up cheering and clapping and shaking each other’s hands. Rather, it’s a quiet room full of people sighing with relief. The Prime Minister’s aide “celebrates” by saying they pulled it off within one hour of the planned detonation.
This is where Shin Godzilla makes a distinct but important departure from the 1954 classic. While the original had Godzilla destroyed, Shin Godzilla only has Godzilla frozen solid. Though the nuclear attack is indeed cancelled, the UN still vows to call it again should Godzilla reawaken, with Japan agreeing to those terms.
At the end of the film, Yaguchi declares that “humanity must coexist with Godzilla,” in a striking shot where he stands next to a railing, with Godzilla frozen solid in the distance behind him. It is a stark contrast to the somber warning Gojira left behind. While Shin Godzilla may be traditional in its premise, it is anything but traditional when it comes to its messages. Anno stresses that even with the destructive power of nuclear weapons, they are things that exist in our world and therefore require our constant attention to keep in check, just like how Godzilla is not eradicated in this film and is now going to be a part of everyone’s lives. In the meantime, the film ends on a positive, forward-thinking message of hope, as Japan “rises from the ashes” and slowly begins to rebuild their home and economy.
Shin Godzilla’s Incredible Reception in Japan and its Legacy
It is no surprise that Japan had such an overwhelmingly positive response to the film. Shin Godzilla was released in theaters on July 29, 2016 and remained in the top ten box office until late September, eventually grossing $75.4 million US dollars in Japan alone. But the critical acclaim didn’t stop there. The film then went on to be nominated for 11 Japan Academy Film Prize nominations and eventually won seven, including Best Director and Best Picture. Let that sink in: Japan gave its “Best Picture Oscar” to a Godzilla movie. Why? How is this possible? Because like the 1954 classic, Shin Godzilla is really NOT about Godzilla.
Remove Godzilla out of the picture and nearly everything about the film still works. This is because Hideaki Anno made a film that, at its core, is really about a country struggling to hold its own. But that’s not all. Any other political drama could easily veer into pure satire or pure cynicism, but Anno’s screenplay is far more nuanced than that. Though it never holds back on its criticisms of Japan’s bureaucratic system, the film is never in favor of tearing down the system. Rather, they are all in service of showing how the system can improve. It is critical of government without ever being anti-government.
If Gojira was a warning about our nature for destruction, Shin Godzilla is a response to how we can be better. It’s a movie about rebuilding and rising, to answer the call for action and a beacon of hope for a country to stand up for itself and firmly hold a place on the world stage with pride.
Shin Godzilla is the 31st installment in the Godzilla franchise. Even after decades and decades of seeing the King of the Monsters on the big screen, Toho proves that there are still fresh and exciting ways to push the franchise forward in new directions, while still honoring the thematic core of the original. Though Shin Godzilla is very much a Japanese film, whose imagery and commentary came straight from the 2011 Tōhoku and Fukushima disasters, its nationalist message translates perfectly to a Western country like the United States — certainly, it’s a message many American politicians stuck in gridlock ought to stop and think twice about.
At the end of the day, even with all the harsh criticisms and satirical analyses of bureaucratic red tape, Hideaki Anno made a very patriotic film, one that lays a bold, empowering groundwork on how we as nations can improve and do better for the people. It just also happened to be a Godzilla film, and the best Godzilla film since the 1954 classic.
Shin Godzilla was released in Japan by Toho on July 29, 2016. It is currently available to rent or stream through Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Vudu, Apple TV and Google Play.
Images: Toho Co., Ltd.