The Japanese government is powerless in the face of the King of Monsters
by MATTHEW GAULT
America sucks at making Godzilla movies. Critics and fans panned Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot for being too plot-driven. It had too many characters, too much dialogue and not enough Godzilla. It also attempted to make the giant nuclear lizard a hero, wasted Bryan Cranston’s time and proved — once and for all — that the West should keep its hands off the kaiju.
Japan’s Shin Godzilla — billed as Godzilla: Resurgence abroad — stomped into American theaters this week and showed the West just how much better Godzilla’s home country handles the beast.
On paper, Shin Godzilla shouldn’t work. There isn’t much Godzilla in it, information flies at the audience at a breakneck speed and the bulk of the film takes place in government cabinet meetings.
But it works. Not only that, it’s easily my favorite in the franchise’s history. Hideaki Anno — veteran anime director and creator of the popular Neon Genesis Evangelion series — is the co-director this time around and his mark is all over the film. That’s for the best.
Shin Godzilla is a disaster movie packaged as a political thriller. It’s a film about Japan, how it views itself and its relationship to America, and how bureaucracy can hamstring a democracy’s response to a crisis.
It’s all of those things — while still managing to be the best damn Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen.
Shin Godzilla starts like a by-the-numbers disaster flick. The Japanese coast guard finds a derelict boat floating in Tokyo Bay and goes to inspect. The sailors discover strange files, an origami crane and a glowing red hole in the ocean itself.
Soon, a Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line tunnel springs a leak and floods. Then something displaces the water from a river off the bay. People run screaming and the government proceeds to sit on its hands and watch.
To figure out what’s going on, Prime Minister Seiji Okochi convenes his cabinet and begins studying the disaster. The ministers preach caution, telling the prime minister that everything will probably be fine, the issue will resolve itself and there’s no need to worry the public.
The young Rando Yaguchi, a low-level official, disagrees. Witnesses to the carnage saw a massive tail floating above the water and posted footage of it to social media. Yaguchi suspects the displaced water, busted tunnel and strange boat all point to a new organism. He believes some unknown beast lurks beneath the waves.
The older ministers wave him off … until Godzilla squirms onto shore and smashes through the city.
The famed kaiju’s new look is jarring at first. It appears … goofy.
Several people in my audience giggled when it showed up the first time. The Godzilla that bubbles out of the water is half-baked. It has the weird, dead eyes of a fish that look almost like cartoon googly eyes, and the monster wiggles on the ground like a worm.
That’s because this new Godzilla hasn’t yet taken its final form. This isn’t just Godzilla, it’s Shin Godzilla, and the new incarnation evolves and reacts to threats.
When the kaiju comes ashore, the prime minister and his cabinet give Yaguchi more attention. Suddenly he’s the hotshot kid who made the only correct prediction of the day. The film then kicks into high gear … but in a weird way.
Shin Godzilla is about meetings and bureaucracy. At one point, the film smash-cuts to an empty room and lingers as aids roll out tables, set down garbage cans, hook up computers and push copiers into place.
Every scene comes with a subtitle explaining which piece of the labyrinthine government the audience is viewing and which official we’re hearing speak. This becomes confusing, especially when American audiences try to read the dialogue’s rapid-fire subtitles at the same time.
Shin Godzilla is a barrage of information. Yaguchi’s title changes and grows throughout the film as he climbs the governmental ladders — and the film lets you know every time. Every piece of military equipment comes with a label, explaining just what it is and what it can do.
Like a live-action Osprey book, the film shows us rows and rows of Type 10 Hitomaru battle tanks, a small fleet of Apache attack helicopters and a few M270 rocket launchers. When Japan’s Self-Defense Forces attack Godzilla, the movie lets us know exactly what pieces of equipment are involved and sometimes even the strength of their various munitions.
Shin Godzilla is a constant info dump of military equipment, Diet officials and places I’m only marginally familiar with. Yet it works. I never felt overwhelmed or bored. It’s as if my struggle to keep up with all the reading mirrored the stress of the officials desperately trying to stop the disastrous march of Godzilla through Tokyo.
It’s also because co-director Anno shoots the movie as if it were a live-action anime. The camera cuts to hands and eyes, pausing on subtle emotional twitches from the characters during ministerial battles. Godzilla moves through the landscape like one of Anno’s disruptive angels from Neon Genesis Evangelion.
This Godzilla is not the benevolent beast of the previous era, but a monster solely interested in survival. It’s a force of nature, a god.
The dramatic tension comes from Yaguchi and the younger generation cutting through the red tape of the Diet to react in good time to the disaster. He recruits the young, the outcast and the strange to study the beast and stop it before it stops Japan.
At every step, the older generation holds back, avoids responsibility and waits to see if Godzilla will just return to the sea from whence it came. It doesn’t and the ministers’ waffling costs some of them their lives.
Tension also comes from Japan’s relationship with the United States. As Godzilla tears across the country and Tokyo fails to handle it, America asserts more and more control over the situation.
At one point, the Pentagon sends B-2 stealth bombers to drop Massive Ordnance Penetrators on the beast — a strategy a U.S. Marine scientist once told me he’d use should America ever need to fight creature.
It doesn’t work and a rattled America decides on a more extreme solution to Japan’s giant lizard problem — one that unsettles Yaguchi and promises to change Japan forever. “Post-war Japan is a tributary state,” one of the characters explains late in the film.
“Post-war Japan extends forever,” his colleague replies.
Those lines hold the heart of this film — a Japanese identity crisis exemplified by Yaguchi’s ambitious desire to toss off both the shackles of bureaucracy, and a friendly yet imposing American ally.