“Shin Godzilla” (2016) re-awakens a sleeping giant of Japanese cinema

Managed to catch this one in a one-night event at a local cinema back in October.  And after 12 years, Toho studios revives the Godzilla brand with a vengeance.

****** SPOILERS!!! ******

This was (at least to my recollection) the most powerful and politically charged Godzilla film since the 1954 (unaltered) original film “Gojira” (the pristine Japanese version; without the American-shot insert footage all over it). It’s also a Godzilla film with much to say about the state of Japanese bureaucracy (the first half hour of the movie is an almost “Brazil”-style political farce), Japan’s role in the world (great line: “Post-war Japan never seems to end”), the environment, and once again, the dangers of nuclear energy, as the disaster at Fukushima obviously weighed heavily on the filmmakers.

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As said above, the first half hour or so of the movie is basically a bureaucratic farce as a mutated sea creature (an ‘evolving’ Godzilla) comes ashore and wreaks havoc… as the bureaucrats quibble over irrelevance ad infinitum.   Beyond the farcical political elements, images of boats flowing into the streets were obviously inspired by the 2011 monstrous tsunami that preceded the Fukushima disaster.  The not-quite-Godzilla-yet creature looks like some kind of wild, angry sea serpent out of Japanese mythology; with gills and wide-fish eyes. Not quite Godzilla perhaps, but a hell of a menace all the same.

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Meanwhile the Japanese leadership is in a state of highly organized chaos; more time is spent deciding which room to have the next part of the briefings in than in how to deal with the giant, rampaging creature (which, at first, they can’t even AGREE on whether it’s a creature or not). This running joke at bureaucracy is funny at first, but ultimately taxing; we get it. Bureaucracy sucks in a crisis. Haha.  The wait through this admittedly amusing but tedious gag is ultimately worth it because the movie and its characters are thrust into action.   And as the creature begins to spontaneously mutate (an ability gained by its feeding on carelessly dumped nuclear waste in the Pacific), the movie begins to pare down to the essentials.  It goes from bureaucratic farce to leaner/meaner disaster movie; of a kind and scale not really done in this series since “Godzilla 1985″(aka “Gojira 1984” in the original Japanese version).   By it’s 4th mutation, the creature finally resembles something a lot closer to the classic Godzilla look and it’s at this point the movie REALLY takes off.

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The characters are colorful and surprisingly engaging; certainly more than in the 2014 US-made movie in which Bryan Cranston was the only standout of that cast.   We see the prime minister finally gets his act together.  A young government official rises to an undreamt-of challenge in a “Designated Survivor”-type story arc.  We see youthful heroes supplanting the stale bureaucracy and taking action.

The metaphor here seems to be that Godzilla acts as both instrument of terror and as a bulldozer for eliminating the worst elements of old Japan’s leadership/bureaucracy and clearing the way for a younger, more decisive generation to rise to the challenge (however unwittingly or reluctantly).  And (as in the original 1954 film) it’s the scientists who save the day, not the troops; as they work tirelessly around the clock to find a way to rid the world of Godzilla and preventing a US-UN led nuclear strike against the temporarily dormant (but still very dangerous) creature.  In fact, this science-sprinkled approach of the movie even manages to sneak in a few long-unanswered G-fan questions; such as how a creature of Godzilla’s size support its own weight, how its skin is so seemingly invulnerable, what are the dynamics of a nuclear-fission powered creature, and how does it ‘cool down’ to avoid meltdown?  It’s nice to see that the movie attempts to throw some real-world analysis at Godzilla, even if it’s forsaken for entertainment, more or less.

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A couple of other issues mar this otherwise sneakily-brilliant movie: an unfortunate bit of casting has a very Japanese actress playing an American-born and raised daughter of a US diplomat (!).  Her American accent is shaky at best, and basically burst the bubble of her character’s believability.   There’s also lots of over-the-top comic style acting in the first half of the movie that threatens of undermine the danger; admittedly, this was by choice, as the style slowly segues into a more serious and gravitas-laden approach as the film goes on.  But this comedic early approach makes the movie a bit of a slow burn.  It almost lulls the audience into thinking they’re watching a keiju-eiga farce.    That would be wrong.

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Godzilla’s devastating encroachment into Tokyo is arguably the most haunting since the ’54 original.  It is powerful to watch; especially on the big screen (this is only the 6th Godzilla movie I’ve actually seen in cinema).  The creature also has new and more dangerous abilities that we’ve NEVER seen in a Godzilla movie before. Not to sound too cliche, but this isn’t quite your granddad’s Godzilla, and I mean that as a compliment. The creatures’ radioactivity is dealt with about as realistically as possible (as possible in a keiju-eiga film anyway).   There are true and dangerous consequences to this giant, radioactive monster plowing through a relatively small island nation.  This Godzilla is as less metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and more about the more recent horrors of Fukushima and the world governments’ seeming impotence to help Japan during a very dark hour.

The characters in this movie come to shed the bureaucracy that failed them and embrace self-determination in order to survive.  And they use ingenuity rather than nuclear weapons to save the day. Most importantly, they also embrace the ideas of a younger, less patient generation that wants ‘post-war Japan’ to come into its own again.

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“Shin Godzilla” is arguably the most ambitious Godzilla movie in 62 years, and once it kicks into high gear, it’s also one of the most powerful.

If you’re a Godzilla fan who can wade through a somewhat slow-burning first half? The movie is very rewarding. One of the best G-movies in a long while.  Indispensable for a true G-fan.

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