There may be no character in all of cinema who is more thematically-charged than Godzilla. Without having to utter a single word, the legendary monster has been the harbinger of poignancy and grim allusions to the real world for more than sixty years. He’s been able to don the identities of both hero and villain, and often has fallen somewhere in the blurry realm between them.
In 2014’s reboot by Legendary Pictures, we saw him as an unknowing savior to mankind, fighting off other giant monsters who would have wrought tremendous ecological damage, but only because it was his primal instincts driving him to maintain the balance of nature.
In 2016, Toho (the Japanese production company behind Godzilla’s creation) and director Hideaki Anno (the man behind the Evangelion anime) have placed Godzilla in a very different role for the franchise’s reboot—a frightening monstrosity warped by radioactive waste, who shows no mercy to what humanity and civilization stands in his way.
Much like the 1954 classic Gojira, Shin Godzilla must feel all too real to the people of Japan. Sixty-two years ago, Godzilla was a representation of the horrors of atomic weapons; today, he can be seen as a giant allegory for the terrible disasters that struck Japan in 2011.
Shin Godzilla depicts the titular beast as a walking embodiment of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that soon followed. All of these calamities were linked— the earthquake out in the Pacific Ocean spurred the tsunami to Japan’s coast, which spilled over the island, whose flooding caused the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.
Just the same, Godzilla evolves through different forms over the course of the film, his each new state bringing increased horror to Japan. He first appears as a shambling creature who can mostly just crawl on solid land. His body eventually develops proper limbs that allow him to become bipedal. His transformations culminate in a shape more akin to his classic design, although it’s still grotesque and hideous. This is no lovable, majestic behemoth; he’s a nightmarish mountain of deformed flesh who’s ablaze with atomic energy.
He’s not the only threat to Japan’s safety in the film. Arguably bearing just as much responsibility for Godzilla’s destruction are the indecisive politicians who continually wait too long to act. Shin Godzilla offers an unabashed indictment of bureaucratic sloth, damning real world governments that fixate on semantics and protocol before aiding their own people. The film is loaded with scenes of squabbling politicians whose seemingly-endless meetings accomplish nothing, and allow Godzilla to cause further damage unopposed.
Whether it’s protesting that an initiative will cost too much money, reluctance to risk their reputation, or debating what actions the written law permits, Japan’s leaders find every excuse possible to avoid directly addressing the threat at hand.
These scenes will surely grow tiresome for certain viewers, especially those who find it a chore to read subtitled dialogue. Shin Godzilla doesn’t provide a memorable cast, even if there is a litany of cameos from actors who have appeared in Godzilla films across the decades. Our main lead—a young deputy to the Prime Minister—and just a couple of others are the only characters who figure prominently throughout the duration of the film. Character arcs and subplots are rarities, as are intriguing pasts that shed light on precisely why these men and woman behave the way that they do.
But it doesn’t feel like an outright misstep because the cast at least is authentic. The selfish, ignorant top brass who are more concerned with guaranteeing their privileges and status are just as infuriating as they often are in real life. This makes the audience genuinely root for their underlings, who are making an earnest effort to protect Japan.
The real heroes of Shin Godzilla are those somewhere between the helpless civilians and the highest ranking officials. These middle-of-the-pack advisors may not have the same authority as their leaders, but they still have the power to make a difference. Recognition and reputation aren’t their priorities; what drives them is the desire to see their country prosper for years to come.
The film’s title character, on the other hand, is unforgettable whenever he takes to the screen. Godzilla’s rampages are always harrowing, no matter what state of his evolution process that he’s in.
His clashes with the military are undoubtedly the highlights of the film. It’s awe-inducing to see him wade through hails of missiles and tank shells, refusing to even blink as he’s bombarded with fiery explosions. Your eyes will broaden more than a few times when he fights back, most notably, a certain moment where a bridge goes flying.
Godzilla may not go toe-to-toe with another monster in this film, but he displays some wild powers while decimating Japan’s defense forces—the way he utilizes his classic atomic breath is definitely something that no fan could have anticipated.
Visual effects director Shinji Higuchi—who previously worked on the 1990s Gamera trilogy and the live-action Attack on Titan movies—deserves a lot of credit for the imagery he put together here. The special effects that Japanese cinema produces may not be on the same level as what Hollywood regularly dishes out, but Shin Godzilla makes a very admirable effort to compare with western blockbusters. The film’s action is created through a combination of CGI and practical effects, including models and the suitmation that Japanese monster flicks have been renowned for.
It all works quite well, for the most part. There are a few moments where the props are a little more obvious than they should be; there are also instances where the CGI teeters on being cringe-worthy, but these stumbles are not in excess. Considering that Shin Godzilla was made with a fraction of the budget that your typical Hollywood blockbuster is, its visuals are a huge accomplishment.
The film’s score is an area where Shin Godzilla’s production values are unquestionably upper echelon. It features a host of familiar tunes from previous Godzilla outings, along with a number of new tracks, many of which are suitably dramatic for the scenes of chaos and havoc that they’re assigned to. When it needs to be thrilling, the music picks up its tempo to match the energy on screen, and when it needs to be somber, it provides all sorts of base, grim trumpets and haunting chants to accentuate the chilling devastation that Godzilla brings in his wake.
Shin Godzilla will continue it’s limited theatrical run in the United States through October 18th
+ A chilling metaphor for the catastrophic disasters that have struck Japan in recent years
+ Offers thought-provoking commentary on the way that our governments respond to such calamities
+ Godzilla’s rampages are as harrowing as they’ve ever been in the character’s 62-year history
+ An incredible musical score that perfectly fits the mood no matter what scene is playing out
— Many of the human scenes will feel repetitive and way too talky
— Moments where the special effects don’t hold up can be serious eyesores
Although it’s been nearly five years since the horrific disasters described in this review took place, Japan has a considerable way to go before it has truly recovered. If you would like to make a donation to help those rebuilding from these devastating occurrences, you can do so through the Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund, or any charitable organization who is providing relief to the Japanese people.
Being the giant monster fanatic that he is, Jeff Pawlak saw Shin Godzilla at the earliest showing in town, as he usually does when he checks out a new Kaiju flick that hits theaters. He’s just as eager to jump on Nintendo video games and action/adventure animation, which he also covers for The Geekiverse. Catch him on Twitter @JeffreyPavs to find him regularly talking about all of these topics.
Be sure to keep up with The Geekiverse across social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram. Watch The Geekiverse Show on YouTube and listen to The Geekiverse’s Podcasts on iTunes & SoundCloud today!