Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2016)

31. Shin Godzilla
Shin Gojira / Godzilla: Resurgence

It’s a good time to be a kaiju fan. In addition to the big budget sequel to Hollywood’s latest Godzilla movie, new King Kong, Gamera, Pacific Rim, and Power Ranger movies are forthcoming. In to this fray came the announcement the Toho would also be making a new Godzilla film, distinct from the current American series. Better yet, the film would be directed by Hideaki Anno – a nerd savior in certain circles because of his legendary anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion” – and the special effects mastermind behind the Heisei “Gamera” films. The film opened to big box office and rave reviews in its native country. Perhaps because of this, Toho made the unusual move of a speedy American release. Though initially grafted with the unwieldy subtitle of “Godzilla: Resurgence,” the film instead received a limited stateside release under the partially translated title of “Shin Godzilla.” The original Godzilla is back, on the big screen, for the first time in twelve years. You know I was there.

For the first time in Toho’s history, Godzilla received a straight reboot. “Shin Gojira” continues from none of the previous films. Instead, it asks the question of what would happen if Godzilla appeared for the first time in 2016. An underground tunnel in Tokyo is pierced and flooded. The incident is, at first, blamed on an underwater volcanic explosion. The true culprit, a massive aquatic reptile, surfaces soon afterwards. After the monster wades into Tokyo, the government officials go into overdrive to stop him. The creature – dubbed as both Gojira and Godzilla by a rogue scientist – proves immune to most weapons and massively destructive. A crack team of experts assemble, hoping to find a way to stop the beast before the government drops a massive nuke on the city.

“Shin Godzilla” is the strangest Godzilla movie yet made, even beating previous landmarks for weirdness like “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” and “Final Wars.”  Hideaki Anno has essentially made an art house kaiju movie. The film is as much a cultural satire as it is a giant monster movie. The pacing is odd, cutting between long talky sequences and scenes of massive destruction. It approaches Godzilla himself from an almost experimental angle. Unsurprisingly, “Shin Gojira” more resembles Anno’s eccentric anime work then any previous Godzilla flick. Befitting this, Toho has released the film in America as an art house picture, playing in select theaters, in the original language with English subtitles.

But you don’t want to read about that. Let’s talk about Godzilla. Created primarily through CGI, it’s a very different take on the King of the Monsters. Like an anime critter, Godzilla progresses through several forms, evolving repeatedly. His final form is massive, his biggest yet. This gives Godzilla a glacial walking speed, practically moving in slow motion but enormous and unstoppable. Godzilla’s appearance is grotesque, zombie like, his bones and muscles peeking through his reptilian hide. His beady eyes, hook teeth, tiny arms, and serpentine tail create an unnerving appearance. This Godzilla doesn’t have as much personality as previous incarnation. He operates more as a living, breathing natural disaster.

Yet when Anno’s Godzilla gets pissed, you know it. “Shin Gojira” creates some spellbinding sequences of urban destruction. Attention is paid to how much debris the kaiju kicks up. Boats and cars pile up and get tossed around by his movement. Buildings are plowed through, like sand on the beach. Artillery of all sorts harmlessly bounce off him. When big ass bombs do manage to harm him, Godzilla unleashes a staggeringly destructive power. The traditional atomic breath is re-imagined as a hyper concentrated death ray, propelled from a tri-segmented mouth. Buildings are cut through. In a likely homage to the 1954 original, Godzilla reduces Tokyo to flames. (This Godzilla actually does breath fire, for the first time.) Showing off the director’s anime ingenuity, Godzilla is also granted several new powers, shooting his atomic breath from multiple avenues. It’s a staggering display of power, horrifying without sacrificing a certain special effects coolness.

The 2014 American “Godzilla” – which I loved, by the way – was “realistic” in the typical Hollywood fashion. Which mostly meant grafting faux-grit to a still ridiculous story. “Shin Godzilla,” meanwhile, really makes an effort to explain how Godzilla would function in the real world. At first, it’s assumed that such a huge creature would collapse under its own weight, the generally accepted scientific truth. His initial appearances are strange, almost comical, the monster awkwardly waddling through Japan’s cities. The film repeatedly draws attention to Godzilla’s odd appearance, showing off his fleshy gills and massive size. Godzilla’s nature as a living nuclear reactor is made explicit. The creature goes into long inactive periods, resting while it rebuilds its strength. Long scenes are spent explaining Godzilla’ biological function and his molecular breakdown.

This speaks to “Shin Gojira’s” nature as a grounded motion picture. This is most obvious in the story construction. For most of its run time, “Shin Gojira” is a satire about bureaucratic oversight, miscalculation, and in-fighting, the “In the Loop” of kaiju movies. The characters are government officials, figuring out ways to combat the monster, protect the citizens, and reduce destruction. The satire emerges from how bad the departments are at this. The hero immediately believes a giant animal to be responsible for the tunnel collapse. The others dismiss him. After Godzilla reveals himself, scientists assure the prime minister that the monster won’t come ashore. In the middle of his speech, someone informs him that the monster just came ashore. Every step of the military conflict is shown. There’s much debate, over whether Godzilla counts as enough of an aggressor to bring in the JSDF. The order to open fire on the monster passes through a dozen people before being called off at the last minute. Evacuation plans are lingered on.

I’m not Japanese, so I can’t say for certain. However, it seems to me that “Shin Gojira” is about government mishandling of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami. Following Godzilla’s razing of Tokyo, the film’s hero angrily curses to himself, over the loss of life that could’ve been prevented. The incident could’ve better controlled, and more lives saved, if the various government bodies could communicate better. As the story progresses, most of “Shin Gojira’s” humor disappears. The film becomes a race against time, to figure out a way to stop Godzilla before a giant nuclear bomb is dropped on him. And, by relation, all of Tokyo. The heroes are determined to make sure another nuke doesn’t fall on Japanese soil. This keeps Godzilla’s essential post-nuclear subtext intact but re-contextualizes it within a modern setting, even if it’s distinctly different set of anxieties. (Though Anno includes his share of “For the glory of Nippon!” shenanigans, he doesn’t let his country off the hook. Godzilla is still the result of Japanese’s nuclear mismanagement.)

The film’s biggest appeal to mainstream, commercial concerns is its collection of heroes. After Godzilla’s initial attack, the government assembles a crew to handle the beast. They are described as outcasts, nerds, and weirdos, given free rein to stop the beast. In other words, a group of plucky outsiders are the people who end up saving the day. Ingenuity and individual creativity succeed where government bureaucracy fails. That final sequence is one of the film’s most exciting, showing novel ways of using Tokyo’s infrastructure against the monster. The solution they cook up is slightly more realistic then the Oxygen Destroyer, the X2, or giant freezing rays. But only slightly. For as concerned as Anno is with realism, he also understands the comic book demands of the kaiju genre.

“Shin Gojira” was successful in Japan, out-grossing “Final Wars” and Gareth Edwards’ American reboot. Yet what’s popular overseas is clearly different from what’s popular in the U.S. From an American perspective, “Shin Godzilla” is a deeply noncommercial film. This is most clear in how talky the film is. Long scenes are devoted to debates and round table discussions. The minutia of the government’s response to the monster is shown in great detail. As the two hour run time stretches on, the endless dialogue scenes become a bit tiring. When the female protagonist is talking with her dad about how these events will affect her future plans to run for president, the viewer’s interest wanes slightly. In truth, Godzilla is only wrecking shit in four scenes. I get what Anno was going for and I admire the effort. Yet I wish “Shin Gojira” was a little less stingy with the monster action and a little more conservative with the political debates.

The film has a huge cast, with over three hundred credited actors. There are few memorable characters. This almost seems like an intentional move on the movie’s behalf, as nearly every character is introduced with their name and job title appearing on-screen. We’re suppose to see the drawn-out, government processes, not the individual characters. Inside the large cast, only two characters emerge as distinct. Hiroki Hasegawa stars as Yaguchi, who has lengthy title of Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. Yaguchi is the only one who immediately grasps what a threat Godzilla is and he leads the attempt to stop him. Hasegawa has a deeply human energy which he contains inside a formal exterior. Satomi Ishihara as Kayoko, the half American envoy from the U.S. president, seems likely to become the film’s otaku favorite. She’s fashionable, trendy, beautiful, and far younger then you’d expect a government official to be. Ishihara is charming and often funny. Moreover, Hasegawa and Ishihara have a nice rapport with one another.

Though he’s best known for animation, Hideki Anno has worked in live action before. His directorial style in “Shin Gojira” is characterized by a documentary like urgency. The scenes of government discussions are terse, focusing on faces and the small rooms. Yet Anno occasionally adds interesting visual flourishes. Such as moment seen from the perspective of a computer monitor. Or the camera drifting away while the heroes discuss nuclear annihilation. For the scenes of kaiju destruction, “Shin Gojira” roots itself to the ground. The kaiju action is usually shown from the perspective of we tiny humans. We see Godzilla’s massive tail swinging over buildings and crowds. Or the tanks and helicopters scurry around him. When the film cuts to a city wide perspective, it’s to give a wider glance at the destruction, a visually shocking maneuver.

It’s currently unknown if Toho plans to create a direct sequel to this film or continue the self-contained story style of the Millennium series. “Shin Godzilla” promises more, by ending on an interesting, somewhat baffling sequel hook. Currently, it looks like the next Godzilla movie will be an animated one, which presents some tantalizing possibilities. I don’t know if I’d like to see another Godzilla movie quite as idiosyncratic as “Shin Gojira,” a fascinating, powerful, but at times frustrating film. To be honest, I also miss the monster versus monster carnage and actors in rubber suits. As a one-off, however, “Shin Gojira” is an extremely interesting experiment, a Godzilla movie truly like no other. [Grade: B+]

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