Verdict: “Shin Godzilla” is a raucous, wonderful film, bringing back a version of the monster we don’t often see.
It’s about time the Japanese took back Godzilla. Our efforts as Americans to take over the beloved nuclear-feeding sea monster resulted in the sadly (but totally expectedly) disappointing Godzillas 1998 and 2014. It’s high time we officially took ourselves out of the running for most Godzilla love, and there’s no better evidence than this year’s delightful “Shin Godzilla.”
It’s billed in the US as “Godzilla Resurgence,” a title that’s true if we’re referencing the resurgence of a Japanese Godzilla, but isn’t actually related to the story. This reboot finds Japan blissfully unaware of Godzilla’s existence, only experiencing him for the first time when he unexpectedly surfaces in Tokyo Bay. He starts as a Godzilla baby, a floppy, giant-eyed, four-legged creature shuffling around and knocking over buildings as he tries to stand. It’s this adorable version that the Japanese government is shocked to encounter, and they take so long bumbling around, that mini Godzilla has time to evolve before their eyes into the lizard/bear/gorilla creature we know so well.
“Shin” can be translated as “true,” “new,” or “God,” and any of these sum up this destructive Godzilla. He’s got a new style, sporting his traditional dorky giant tail and little arms with some new red streaks and laser spikes–it’s clear after years of trying that even our advanced CGI technology cannot create a “cool” Godzilla– and his Godliness is up for much debate throughout the movie. Immortality is often discussed, and in one scene protesters stand outside a government building shouting, “Save Godzilla! Godzilla is God!”
Monstrous immortality is a favorite topic of co-director Hideaki Anno, who took on this reboot with Shinji Higuchi. Anno is well-known for the classic anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” which pits humanity against giant “angels” that fight people in robot suits (this is definitely his wheelhouse).
But as always, Godzilla is man-made, as powerful as an act of God, but totally our own doing. Unlike more recent Godzilla movies, “Shin Godzilla” takes on a heavier political bent with Godzilla playing the bad guy again, not a savior who fights off King Ghidorah or Biollante when Japan is in trouble. He may not mean harm, but he’s definitely causing a problem by destroying everything.
Where the original Godzilla played off atomic fears after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this Godzilla mixes bomb concerns with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Notably, Godzilla doesn’t spend a lot of time on screen; mostly we see talking heads in the Japanese government as they struggle to decide how to combat him. Sounds boring, I know, but it’s actually quite exciting, as different officials and experts urgently debate, the film cutting between faces as quickly as their hearts are pounding.
Some are money hungry, some only care about their image and others are genuinely concerned with the welfare of the citizens. Together they ineptly start and then stall and then start again, unsure how best to approach the attack while the world watches. Political alliances are earned and spent, with the US (who we later learn caused Godzilla with unregulated nuclear waste dumping) pressuring Japan into an alliance against the UN, the other members of which want all the atomic secrets stored within Godzilla’s genes for themselves. In all scenarios Japan is a scapegoat, something to be trashed and then rebuilt once Godzilla is taken out by any means necessary (read: NUKE ‘EM.)
The non-nuking breakthroughs come from a ragtag team of Japanese scientists and politicians working under the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Yaguchi and American diplomat Kayoko Ann Patterson are the only “characters” who matter, aka the only human faces given any sort of depth or background. They’re not great characters (Kayoko especially, with her stereotypical hair flips and sexy pout), but thankfully we can easily forget them, as the film is more interested in watching the government groan under the thumb of the rest of the world. The old, inept bureaucrats heading the government step aside when the US wants to bomb; it’s the scrappy youngsters who figure out how to prevent it.
“Shin Godzilla” isn’t the greatest movie ever. It can be hoaky and dumb, but it’s fun and has hope for Japan and for humanity at large. It envisions the world paving the way for fresh, caring faces (and probably a sequel) and that’s worth paying for.
NOTE: “Shin Godzilla” is in limited release. Look for it at art houses or on DVD/online.