Shin Godzilla: the reboot


I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, of all the Godzilla films I’ve watched, I can recall the exact details of few. I cannot remember, just by looking at the title, which monsters were battling which. I need to look at the slipcase cover to see a picture to remind me which foe Godzilla was battling this time. Or foes, because there’s often more than one. In many ways, I prefer the original premise: a single Godzilla versus the world rather than Godzilla versus other monsters. Easier to keep track of the players that way. But that hasn’t happened in a Godzilla film since 1984. Until now, that is (I trust you have already read part one of this article).

Shin Godzilla posterIn my previous post I wrote about the original Godzilla film, Toho’s 1954 Gojira. This post is about the last (or rather, the latest, not including the recent anime release) film in the franchise.

Toho Studio’s Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence) rebooted the series once more after a 12-year hiatus, again returning to the root story to start afresh. It quickly proved the highest-grossing Japanese film in the series and received critical acclaim in Japan when it was released. It even won Picture of the Year and six other awards from the Japanese film academy.

It didn’t fare as well in the west, where many critics were lukewarm and some even hostile. Indiewire called it Godzilla’s “weirdest movie ever” although it recognized it as “a story about the logistics of dealing with an unimaginable disaster, and how the infrastructure of our society is the last line of defense we have in the face of a real crisis.” Empire magazine called it, “A sometimes shonky mix of puppetry, model-work and performance capture, the creature is still awe-inspiring in its size and city-stomping, skyscraper-roasting fury. Sadly, it also wears itself out quickly and then goes to sleep for an hour.”

That last is mightily unfair, but predictable in a Western review, because the film switches from action to character and theme development, something many North American viewers either dislike or misunderstand (perhaps the days when critics gushed over non-action (aka art) flicks like My Dinner with Andre may be well past us, or maybe it’s just a new generation of online critics who think Bruce Willis or Jason Statham have to be in a film to make it worth watching). But that development is core to Shin Godzilla because it’s not just a monster movie. It’s a subtle political satire and commentary, too.

Okay, maybe not so subtle, but it’s not an in-your-face satire like The Thick of It.

Shin Godzilla Blu-Ray coverIndiewire, recognizes that somewhat, and also comments that, “Much of the po-faced satire might be too specific for foreign audiences…” In fact, much of the Godzilla series is lost on Western audiences (myself included, despite my best efforts) because we are poorly educated about Japanese culture, society, history, politics, religion and mythology. We see their films through our eyes, which are trained by our own films, books, education and culture. Plus we get little to no news about Japanese politics, events, and even fewer editorial opinions from Japanese media that might help us translate some of the context and subtexts of their films.

Neil Genzlinger, reviewing it in the New York Times, commented,

The film is at its best when it’s in parody mode, though it keeps that card too close to the vest for much of its two-hour length. The humor, not the monster, is what you’re left wanting more of.

And Edward Douglas wrote in the New York Daily News,

Unfortunately, “Shin Godzilla” tends to get bogged down in those political discussions after Gojira’s rampage takes out Japan’s prime minister, and everyone else is vying to take over. Even the U.S. military gets involved with trying to stop a monster we don’t actually see for large portions of the movie. Beyond that, there are cultural aspects of the film that might make it harder for American Godzilla fans accustomed to the dubbed movies on TV to get into this dialogue-heavy incarnation.

Both miss the point, methinks. They’re still looking at Godzilla through their own lenses. This new film, in particular, is very Japanese. Those discussions aren’t time wasters: they are the beating heart of the film and contain much of its wit. Overcoming the gluey bureaucracy is as important as – perhaps more so than – overcoming Godzilla. At least the Guardian’s reviewer, Peter Bradshaw recognized,

There are lots of very shrewd and amusing scenes showing Japan’s bickering and sclerotic bureaucracy.

But not everyone missed what may be to me the obvious. MaryAnn Johanson, reviewer at the Flickfilosopher, wrote.

Shin Godzilla is a dryly, bitterly funny satire about the inertia of bureaucracy in the face of fast-moving events that demand an immediate response. So many old men in dark suits sitting around having meetings while citizens run and scream and see their lives destroyed around them in the streets outside! While veteran politicians worried about preserving their positions argue over which agency is responsible for what, relative youngster and party operative Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) puts together a “crack team” of nerds, loners, rebels, and “pains in the bureaucracy” who can actually find answers and get stuff done.

She concludes by saying gleefully, “Godzilla — proper Japanese Godzilla, not a Hollywood riff on it — is back. And it is glorious.” Yes, it is.

Larva GodzillaSure, we see the big monster stomping around (and destroying) excruciatingly detailled model sets (and CGI constructions): that’s the obvious stuff. And it’s what we watch it for: the vicarious thrill of mayhem and chaos. But there are many other things going on and not just in the background, nor in just this one Godzilla remake. They all have other messages, other cultural tropes, other politics in view. We just don’t see them very well. As the BBC noted:

Kaiju are akin to the children of the “mother of Japan” from the country’s creation myth. Consumed by fire when giving birth to her sons Kagutsuchi (incarnation of fire) and Homusubi (causer of fire), she came to comprise the volcanic lands of this raging, forever tilting archipelago.

Western monster films – American Godzilla films included – tend to put the monsters at the forefront: the centrepiece of the action and interest (the Godzilla-inspired Cloverfield is an exception). The destruction they wreak is a prime focus, often given significantly more attention than the characters.

Other cultures see the stories differently. For example, the powerful 2006 Korean film, The Host, is on the surface about a monster in the sewers that eats people. But it’s also about environmental pollution, the American military presence in Korea, about homelessness, about the inner strength of developmentally challenged people, about arbitrary government responses to crises, and about family values. The monster is the catalyst, but not the focus – the people are.

Shin Godzilla (as well as the original Gojira and many of the Japanese sequels) places the humans at the centre. It is the human reaction and response that matters, not the size of the monster.*** Many Western films are action films, with few gaps, while in Shin Godzilla and many others in the franchise there are longer non-action periods – talking heads scenes – that for our taste are distractions. We want character building to be seen through action, not through intellectualization. The Japanese are, somewhat like their British counterparts: more character-oriented. However, this seems to make Western audiences (and some reviewers) squirm with impatience, eager to get back to the wham-bam monster sequences.

Godzilla may start out as the enemy (perceived or real), but often is redeemed in the films, usually by saving Tokyo or another city from much worse monsters and their depredations. At the end of the 2014 version, for example, Godzilla is affectionately labelled “King of the Monsters” in media reports for defeating the two more dangerous and destructive MUTOs. Its own collateral damage to the cities gets glossed over by an appreciative public. And rather Christ-like, Godzilla arises from the apparent dead to return to its source. Rage, redemption and religion are part of the Godzilla mythos.

Another important element: in sequels to Gojira, Godzilla evolves sentience, even a sense of humour (Godzilla facepalms are common). Not so in the first and indeed this release: it’s brute force, raw, unrestrained nature. But dinosaurs weren’t any more stupid than birds, and evidence suggests they had complex social and parenting behaviours, so I expect at least some feral intelligence in the kaiju. The 1998 Godzilla was craftier than any before or since (much more than the 2014 version), but most just stomp-and-chomp their way around cities. Shin Godzilla is back to basics: smash, crash, roar and lumber. I personally want my kaiju to be a bit more cunning.

Defeating Godzilla has always been more about brain than brawn (less so, perhaps, in the American remakes). Those nerdy scientists who come in to save the day when weapons fail. There’s more honour, more esteem, more glory in outsmarting a smart Godzilla than defeating a brute one with weapon fire. Beating a brute seems too much like shooting helpless animals for pleasure (the “sport” called hunting has always baffled me and struck me as inhumane, cowardly and cruel and not sportsmanlike in any way).

2016’s Shin Godzillavariously translated as “New Godzilla,” “True Godzilla” or even “God Godzilla” but more often as Godzilla Resurgence – was the first Japanese Godzilla film released in 12 years and meant as not only a reboot to the story, but to the franchise. It went back to its roots, pumping the film full of social and political meaning, as well as some pointed criticism (and satire) aimed at the Japanese government for its handling of events after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. This intellectualization over politics and politicians may bemuse Western fans who are not well informed of the background events or their aftermath, but they give the film a commonality that transcends any national aspects: we all know about bureaucratic incompetence and political dithering.

So you can’t simply look at Shin Godzilla or Gojira as simply entertainment: they are also – perhaps subtly – vehicles for philosophic and political thought. They might be platforms for a larger debate about science, nature and atomic energy. Hidetoshi Chiba, a professor at Tokyo’s Digital Hollywood University, told the BBC that

… kaiju are more about the wrath of nature, human hubris and dark immutable forces rather than science gone awry…“Regarding the apocalyptic scenes, they are more likely to be linked to causes that existed before the war,” he says. Scenes of Tokyo’s destruction in the original Gojira surely awakened wartime memories from just nine years earlier in much of its audience. But deeper still may have been a fear of terrifying natural cataclysms. “Most of the [other] monsters in kaiju [also] clearly originate from historical natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, typhoons or earthquakes. [Monster films] do not remind most Japanese audiences of nuclear power or weapons.”

Okay, Godzilla as philosophy or sociology might seem a stretch for some folks who see the series as nothing more than a kitschy collection about guys in puffy latex suits trampling on model cities. Sure, it was that in some films, but others had more to say, at least if you knew how to look at it. Still, I have to wonder how much a metaphor for nuclear destruction Godzilla remains for the Japanese, more than 70 years (three generations) since Hiroshima. Has Gojira metamorphosed into something else? A symbol of some other enemy, some other event? Become a different, more modern allegory? (Might Godzilla, for example, represent Donald Trump? A lumpy, ungainly body powered by brute, unreasoning strength towards petty, selfish goals… seems to fit…)

Something you can easily forget when you focus on the monster: people die in Godzilla films. In the first film alone, they are drowned, crushed, thrown from tall buildings and towers, eaten, burned alive and irradiated. Children as well as adults. It’s not pretty and not meant to be fun. In later sequels, the human destruction got shuffled to the back stage when the monster-vs-monster scenes took the forefront. In Shin Godzilla, the human cost comes back to remind us what the monster is really all about. As Clarisse Loughrey wrote in the Independent:

In Shin Godzilla, each individual location the creature destroys is dutifully listed in an onscreen caption. These are real neighbourhoods, real homes, and workplaces… Shin Godzilla is about the reality of disasters and how we deal with them, on multiple levels.

Shin GodzillaShin Godzilla also updated the aging film’s monster with both CGI and new puppetry effects, enough to garner an armful of awards and critical acclaim. The monster was not simply a man in a latex suit stumbling clumsily around a stage full of model buildings and cars. Advances in CGI technology mean suitmation will likely never again grace a future Godzilla film.

As Cinespiria noted in its review of the film:

While purists weren’t initially happy with Godzilla being a creation of computer graphics over a rubber suit and more practical effects, I don’t think that anyone can argue against the change after seeing the picture. That is, unless some of these fans wanted something more akin to the sequels. Frankly, we’ve had sequels and rubber suits for over sixty years and it was time for the Godzilla franchise to catch up to the technology available.

Cinespiria also called this the “… best acted Godzilla film that there has ever been. It is also the greatest, as far as scope and cinematography.” Perhaps, but even staunch aficionados admit that many of the previous films deserve the sobriquet cheesy, so it wasn’t a really hard act to follow.

One Godzilla wiki notes how the monster was crafted to look more like the 1954 Gojira, albeit bigger. Much bigger:

The new head design for Godzilla is heavily based on his 1954 design and preserves the traditional maple-leaf shape of his dorsal plates. Unlike previous designs, this Godzilla has countless rows of jagged sharp teeth in his mouth, giving him a much more grotesque, disfigured and savage appearance. His eyes are also much smaller than previous suits. That same day, it was also revealed that the new Godzilla’s official height was 118.5 meters tall, making him officially the tallest Godzilla to appear in a film (about 10.3 meters taller than the Legendary version, mostly due to its longer neck and more upright posture)***

Shin Godzilla was also meant to re-establish the franchise as a Japanese product after two American takeovers. While the 1998 American version has a lot of detractors**, the 2014 version has even more aficionados, many of whom considered it the best of the series and the future of the franchise. The Japanese film industry needed to take it back and make it its own, again. Put the Gojira back into Godzilla. But did it? And was it any good? Well, that depends on your background and what you expect from the film.****

To which I answer: yes, I liked it. But then I like them all in varying degrees. Did I like it better, did I find it superior than others? Yes, but a qualified yes. Superior to many previous incarnations and films after the original, for sure. Qualified by it being a Godzilla film that still keeps its feet firmly planted in the past, even while it reaches for the future of the franchise. Unlike the two American versions, in order to assuage concerns from the Japanese fan base, this Godzilla had to evolve slowly from its predecessors, not make any radical changes in style, shape or behaviour.

But still, the film is brilliant. It’s funny in a very dry manner, full of biting satire and political commentary that any politics junky will get immediately. It speaks volumes about modern Japanese culture, society, manners and bureaucracy without it being abrasive or braggadocio. And the monster… wow. This thing is huge. I mean FREAKIN’ huge. The swath of destruction through Tokyo is jaw-droppingly real. It mixes solid, mockumentary style filming with hand-held jitters that make it seem on-the-spot real (like Cloverfield). It has a cast of hundreds (perhaps thousands), with scenes of crowds of people not just CGI animation.

There are layers within layers. The US-Japan relationship gets one. Nuclear bombs and the legacy of Hiroshima gets one. Japan’s uneasy relationship with its own armed forces and militarism has another. Bureaucracy and inter-governmental bickering. Science and its role in policy making. Generational issues. Gender. International relations. The monster plays a secondary role against the very human, very believable backdrop.

But it all comes down to Godzilla. This one feels like the old Japanese kaiju just re-imagined and on steroids. It even looks like it enough that it’s silhouette is instantly recognizable to even those who aren’t fans of the franchise. It’s not the pseudo-realistic CGI of the American versions, not an attempt to rationalize its anatomy with existing or prehistoric animals. It was made this way to reassure fans and the Japanese public that Toho’s Godzilla is still the main monster. (My only quibble was the kaiju’s strangely large, unblinking eyes, in the larval form and the beady little squinties in the adult)

The special effects are light years beyond the old films, on par with or in some cases better than the American 2014 Godzilla. What you see here, too, is the human devastation, not just the buildings, not just the streets and railways. People die in this film, and although it’s not graphic in showing their deaths, the audience knows it happens. People are in buildings that get trampled, or set ablaze, people run in terror, hiding, trapped, frightened – just like in Gojira.

And because it’s so big, slow, and so powerful, Godzilla’s presence is mesmerizing. But it is not cunning, not sly, not motivated by some vast intelligence: it’s a big (VERY big), slow, killing machine that smashes its way through the city with no apparent purpose, at least none that I could intimate through the dialogue. And it’s impervious to modern weapons. Well, okay, that’s expected. What we get again is the old brains-vs-brawn story, and with it a story very much more about the people than about the kaiju. Again, shades of Gojira.

Yes, I liked Shin Godzilla. No, let me correct that: I LOVED this film and thought it was bloody brilliant, was witty and even funny (if you like political humour). I thought the film was well-paced, had great effects and had a lot more to say that I expected. Well worth watching on so many levels. So yes, Godzilla is back and I’m happy about it.

* My humble collection of kaiju and tokusatsu includes Gojira (1954); Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) – including the Criterion editions of both; Godzilla Raids Again; Mothra vs. Godzilla (aka Godzilla vs The Thing); King Kong vs. Godzilla; Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster; Invasion of Astro-Monster; Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Hedorah); Godzilla vs. Megalon; All Monsters Attack; Terror of Mechagodzilla; Godzilla (1998, USA); Godzilla 2000; Godzilla Tokyo S.O.S.; Godzilla Final Wars; Godzilla (2014, USA); and Shin Godzilla. Of the Gamera films, I have Gamera the Invincible (aka Gamera the Giant Monster); War of the Monsters (aka Gamera vs. Barugon); Return of the Giant Monsters (aka Gamera vs. Gyaos); Destroy All Planets (aka Gamera vs. Viras); Attack of the Monsters (aka Gamera vs. Guiron); Gamera vs. Monster X (aka Gamera vs. Jiger). And the very first Mothra film. Plus I have all 39 episodes of the Ultraman TV series.

** As I mentioned in the previous post, the 1998 American Godzilla was nowhere near as bad as the purists decry, and its production was much superior to many of the middle-period Japanese films. Plus, to paraphrase Muldoon in Jurassic Park, she was a clever girl. But the producers would have been smarter to call it The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms instead, because it had more in common with that 1953 Harryhauser film.

*** In the 2016 film, Godzilla is 118.5 metres (389 feet) tall, which is somewhat shorter than often reported for the 2014 Legendary American release in which Godzilla appears to be (and was widely reported as) 120-150 metres (see my post on why size matters). However, while the 150-metre height was widely circulated at the time, fans argued that it was really 108.2 metres (355 feet), which appears to be closer to the actual height based on what I saw in the features on the second DVD in my copy. So Shin Godzilla is taller by 10 metres.
The height and size of Godzilla are not just scary: they have serious implications for the whole business of sexual selection and urine production: almost 13 million gallons of urine in a day! And we should consider its bowel movements, too, although I can’t find anyone doing a scientific analysis on how much dung it would produce in a day. Plenty, I bet. Enough to block a city street, for sure.

**** I’ll say it again: stop over-analyzing, stop whining and enjoy the ride. It’s meant to be entertaining and fun, not some puzzle for you to solve. If that’s too difficult for you to do, watch something else. And if your appreciation of the franchise is predicated on seeing just one or two of the middle-period films, you really need to watch some others, particularly Gojira, the first.

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