Movie Reviews

Number 4 – “Shin Godzilla” (2016)

 

 

I’m amazed at how divided Godzilla fans are about the newest entry in the series, 2016’s “Shin Godzilla.” It feels like fans are cut right down the middle, with half saying dubbing it “C-SPANzilla” and saying it is a bore, while the other half is absolutely in love with this film. Count me in the “love” portion, because I adore nearly every moment of this movie for one reason or another.

To me, “Shin Godzilla” is a smart, passionate monster movie that has one of the greatest senses of national identity I’ve ever seen. The film blends together a political drama about the bureaucracy of the Japanese government and a terrifying monster thriller that has more than enough twists to keep the film entertaining. This movie also acts as a nostalgic trip for Godzilla fans with its sound effects and music, but never focuses so much on it that the nostalgia is overbearing or forced.

That being said, I do understand where the negative criticism for “Shin Godzilla” is coming from. Fans come to these movies for Godzilla and, like the 2014 “Godzilla,” get little of the monster. On top of that, this new Godzilla is a much different take on the classic kaiju, in terms of design, effects, and abilities. I’ve heard some fans argue this new Godzilla is just as disrespectful as the 1998 American Godzilla’s design. The nickname “C-SPANzilla,” while a bit unfair is fitting in that it focuses a lot on the busy government work that comes with a giant monster attack.

All of these criticisms make sense to me and I see where fans are coming from. With that said, I respectfully disagree with them.

To fully appreciate “Shin Godzilla,” I think you have to look at it from the Japanese perspective and the state of their country at the time of the film’s release. The country had recently been battered by tsunamis that leveled towns and even caused a massive nuclear disaster in Fukushima, yet the government was slow to react, getting around all the red tape and legalities of the situation before anything could be done.

In Japan, there is a massive focus on national identity over personal identity. One of their common phrases is “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” meaning that anyone who tries to stand out or be different from others will be met with resistance and hardships until they join the rest of society. This phrase would never work in America, where individuality is often celebrated and praised. But Japan is a proud country that cherishes its society, not so much its people.

The film was a massive hit in Japan, but lukewarm in the United States and I think I understand why. “Shin Godzilla” focuses on strong Japanese values, including honor, infrastructure and the nation over the people. The Japanese hold onto those values like a tight blanket, while Americans do not necessarily hold the same values as highly.

The Japanese people came out of “Shin Godzilla” loving their country and society, while Americans went in expecting a giant monster movie and got a lot of government officials unable to do anything about a monster. Without the proper context, “Shin Godzilla” will have little to no impact on you.

 

 

I’ve already written up a detailed review of “Shin Godzilla” from last year and my initial thoughts on the film have changed little since I first saw the movie. I’ve rewatched the film a few times since it came out on Blu-Ray and I’m still in love with this well-crafted monster movie. So instead of another detailed review, I’ll go over the aspects of “Shin Godzilla” I loved the most.

For those unaware of the plot, it is a return to basics – Godzilla attacks Japan and the government does its best to deal with the monster.

But the first aspect I love about “Shin Godzilla” is how incompetent and unprepared the Japanese bureaucratic system is at dealing with Godzilla. Where other Godzilla movies would be quick to attack Godzilla and come up with solutions to stop him, this film is methodical, taking out all the urgency of the situation until they’ve fully analyzed everything to come up with the best course of action. The government is cold and sterile about this whole incident, stopping to ask scientists and marine biologists to tell them what type of creature it is, only for them to be completely pointless and waste the prime minister’s time.

This is helped visually by having many members of the government played by geriatrics and old men who have grown tired and see no reason to act quickly. It gives off the impression that these are old men comfortable in the position and power they have now, and don’t wish to jeopardize that by making a crucial mistake with this monster. So they play it safe and easy, not realizing that there personal interests and lack of concern is killing hundreds if not thousands of people.

Yet, at the same time, our main character Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a young buck compared to the men around him and isn’t afraid to speak his mind on any given matter. He’s the first one to suspect that this could be a giant sea creature and not a new geological event. Of course, no one believes him and writes his claims off as insane ramblings until they are told otherwise. Yaguchi always seems to be three steps ahead of every other cabinet member, as he formulates plans to bring the greatest Japanese minds and people together to handle this, while the prime minister has a dozen voices surrounding him, trying to tell him what do, including foreign pressure from America.

 

 

If it weren’t for Yaguchi, the first half of the film would fall apart. Watching the Japanese government stumble over themselves while Godzilla destroys the city is fascinating while Yaguchi is doing is best to make a difference and cut through all the red tape. Without him, it would feel more like a farce as the entire cabinet and Japanese government feel pointless. Watching the competent Yaguchi struggle to get even the simplest thing done with bureaucratic democracy makes for a surprisingly entertaining political drama.

But the only reason these scenes are so captivating is because they are fighting for something bigger than themselves. If this was just any other day for the Japanese government or dealt with a minor scandal, I would be bored out of my mind. Because this is a system that cannot handle a crisis, and they have a giant monster thrust upon them, that makes their incompetence stand out even more.

This brings me to the next thing I love about this movie – Godzilla himself. I have no problem saying this particular Godzilla is my favorite incarnation of the creature since the original, because of how jarring, terrifying and different he is from another Godzilla. Directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi take a lot of liberties with changing his Godzilla, some fans would argue too many liberties, but I feel all of the changes they made were for the better.

This version of Godzilla is an ever-evolving creature that can mutant and change itself to adapt to its current environment, or even create new defenses and weapons to better suit its needs. The first form we see him in is as a giant frilled shark that just learned to use its new legs. Its gills are red and continually spout blood as it learns to adapt to air instead of water. This is a creature that looks like it is in constant pain. His giant unblinking eyeballs and almost playful smile are jarring when you first see them.

Things get even creepier when he starts evolving in the middle of the city, nearly doubling in size and learning to stand up on two feet. Given his failed attempt to stand up in his first form, part of me believes this monster is trying to imitate the humans running away from him, like he’s watching us.

 

 

At the halfway point in the film, we see that Godzilla has evolved once again and is now nearly three times bigger than his last form and this is one of the most chilling monster designs I’ve ever seen. His flesh looks like its bubbling from the inside, glowing bright red like his skin is smoldering, his utterly tiny arms and hands are skeleton-like with little flesh on them, and his tail seems to have a mind of its own including a distorted and warped face.

But the truly frightening aspect of this version of Godzilla is his face, with his tiny eyes you can barely see as the rest of his face dwarfs his field of vision and his messed-up teeth that have no rhyme or reason to them. Anytime this version of Godzilla is on screen, I get goose bumps just from looking at this abomination of life. This is a creature that screams of pain and agony, something that shouldn’t exist, like a nightmare that found its way into our world.

And yet, I still see a traditional Godzilla in this design. Every aspect of Godzilla is there, from the massive tail, to the dorsal spines, this looks like an irradiated dinosaur turned monster. While it feels different from any other Godzilla, this version is different in all the best possible ways. Any changes made to the character of Godzilla is to add to the dread and mystery of this creature, to make him even more haunting than before.

This Godzilla isn’t different for the sake of being different, but to create a more effective and memorable monster.

 

 

As soon as this form of Godzilla comes into the film, the monster scenes take on a whole new life, as we get some brilliant cinematography to showcase how Godzilla is impacting Japan. From shots of Godzilla kicking up massive amounts of cargo containers and buildings to a single take that starts a fair distance away from Godzilla and continues until the camera is underneath him, there is no shortage of wonderful visuals in this movie.

But my favorite scene that emphasizes this Godzilla’s terror is when the Americans send in stealth bombers to blast Godzilla and he evolves to the point to use his atomic breath. The attack comes in three stages, first spreading a flammable gas over the city, then unleashing an unholy amount of flames that brings most of Tokyo down to a blazing inferno, and finally a concentrated beam of energy that he uses to destroy the bombers and slice through most of Tokyo’s skyscrapers. There’s a shot that shows an outline of downtown Tokyo’s landscape as Godzilla lifts his head high into the sky, and we see a purple beam of destruction extend up into the sky with no end in sight. There’s just something so hauntingly beautiful about something like that.

The final shot of Godzilla’s rampage is a background of nothing but massive flames, while Godzilla’s bestial form looms in the foreground, staring directly into the camera as he powers down from his first beam attack.

So not only do we get some fascinating political scenes about a government that is too caught up in the legality of the moment and the red tape, but we have this juxtaposed with a eerie monster that is constantly changing causing untold amounts of chaos and destruction.

This brings us to the third act where another element I love is on display – the pride and the strength of the Japanese people. In my initial review, I mention that “Shin Godzilla” doesn’t have on particular main character and instead makes the country of Japan its protagonist. We get a nationwide response to nearly everything that happens in the movie. Not just the government’s reactions, but also the businesses reacting to the ensuing stock market crash and Japan losing most of its money and funds, to the ordinary citizens protesting about scientists wanting to kill Godzilla instead of studying him. One of the biggest moments of this is when news is leaked that the Americans will be dropping a thermonuclear weapon on Godzilla while he’s recharging in the middle of Tokyo. We get a reaction from nearly every minor character, each of them being distraught and on the verge of tears, learning that their country is about to destroyed in the vain hope of stopping this monster.

 

 

This is something I hope I’ll never have to experience – witnessing my country get ripped apart by nuclear weapons once already, only for it to happen all over again. The film takes on a much more somber and defeated tone at this point, before the remaining members of the government announce that they will not allow their country to be torn apart by nuclear weapons yet again, even if that means going against the wishes and orders of other countries.

And while the scene with Godzilla’s first use of his atomic breath is a wonderfully haunting scene, my favorite moment in “Shin Godzilla” is the final battle against Godzilla, where Japan sends in everything they have to win back their nation. This scene is a little silly at times, but is unbelievably triumphant and so rewarding to witness. The Japanese people think everything out logically, using drones to drain Godzilla’s energy before sending their giant skyscrapers tumbling down on him. All the while, Akira Ifukube’s heart-pounding military march plays that always brings a smile to my face.

This final battle against one of the most powerful and intimidating versions of Godzilla is one of the most exhilarating scenes in the entire series and ends “Shin Godzilla” on the highest note possible.

While I understand the hate “Shin Godzilla” gets, I can’t help but love this movie. It is so different from any other Godzilla film, while still keeping the core elements of Godzilla. The monster is used to say something about the world we live in and told in a way that never feels boring or repetitive, while still being a terrifying monster in its own right. Every scene with Godzilla is visually stunning and the effects are top-notch. By making Japan its main character, “Shin Godzilla” becomes one of the most unique and intriguing monster movies I have ever seen.

 

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