Toho’s famous atomic beast, and easily the most recognisable kaiju in the entire world, Gojira first emerged from the waters of outside of Japan to wreck the city of Tokyo on this day all the way back in 1954. In 2016, the day was declared “Godzilla Day” and, as a result, I am also appropriating November 3rd to shine a spotlight on the undisputed King of the Monsters.
Released: 25 July 2016
Director: Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Distributor: Toho Pictures
Budget: $15 million
Stars: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Mikako Ichikawa, Ren Ôsugi, and Mansai Nomura
When a gigantic, hitherto-unknown atomically-charged creature (Nomura) suddenly comes ashore and wrecks the Kamata district of Tokyo, the Japanese government, military, and scientific communities debate endlessly about how best to contain and combat the creature. Their procrastination costs countless lives and their efforts prove futile when the creature spontaneously evolves the ability to stand upright and begins remorselessly destroying its surroundings, threatening the existence of not just Japan but the entire world if left unchecked.
When Gojira (more popularly known worldwide as Godzilla) made its big-screen debut in Godzilla (Honda, 1954), it represented very real lingering fears regarding the threat and consequences of nuclear war. Since then, the titanic monster has appeared in numerous films and been depicted as both a saviour and destroyer of Japan, a protector and an unrelenting force of nature that has become an iconic figure in pop culture over its many decades of cinema. While Godzilla’s first big-budget American debut didn’t quite land as well as producers Toho had expected, the success of the 2014 version inspired the studio to resurrect their famous monster after some twelve years in hibernation. Unrelated to the many Godzilla movies that had come before it, and the ongoing Legendary Pictures films, the film redesigned Godzilla into a terrifying new form, one that would dwarf all previous iterations of the character, and sought to use the creature as a terrifying allegory not just to the threat of nuclear disaster but also natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes while at the same time providing a realistic critique on the ineffectiveness of governments to respond to such devastation events.
I am a pretty big fan of the Godzilla franchise; thanks to a massive marathon that was on television years ago when I was a kid, I can comfortably say that I have seen pretty much every single one of Godzilla’s big screen ventures with the exception of maybe a handful of the early ones. One thing I’ve learned about watching Godzilla films is that they are just as much about procrastination and long-winded side plots as they are about massive kaiju levelling cities and kicking seven bells out of each other. Usually, Godzilla movies involve a side plot revolving around a plucky Japanese report (or two) and/or military figures and scientists; sometimes, they even involve bizarre concepts like time travel and aliens but no matter what type of side plot they choose to employ it all comes down to one word: filler.
Shin Godzilla is rather unique in its use of filler in that the vast majority of its runtime is devoted not to the titular creature but to the seemingly endless debates and meetings within the Japanese governmental body. Prime Minister Seiji Okochi (Ôsugi) and his cabinet are understandably caught completely off-guard when what appears to be an underwater volcano or similar, relatively simple natural disaster floods the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line turns out to be a gigantic quadrupedal creature that flops and flails its way through the Kamata district of Tokyo, leaving buildings destroyed and countless people homeless, injured, or dead, before promptly disappearing back to the sea. Initially, Okochi’s closest advisors and endless swarm of fellow politicians and officials are dismissively of young Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi’s (Hasegawa) instance that the initial phenomena could be a giant creature and that ignorance costs them precious response time and the lives of many. To solve the problem, the government decides to debate the matter, jumping from political opinions, to military options, to the baffled assumptions and confusion of scientists in a desperate bid to agree upon the correct and most appropriate course of action.
Eventually, the United States begins to show an interest when the creature’s radioactivity is discovered to be a very real threat and sends Kayoko Ann Patterson (Ishihara) as their representative to help aid the Japanese government in discovering the creature’s origins. This, of course, leads to yet more debate and procrastination; there was seriously an extended sequence in the film’s first ten minutes or so that saw the P.M. ferried from one meeting to the next and to the next as meetings were organised and adjourned faster than any military action could be agreed upon, and these debates were focused on (almost to the point of parody) at the expense of any other onscreen action. I get it; the idea is to convey that the government is absolutely ineffectual, powerless, and ignorant when it comes to massive disasters. They would rather debate the matter in a committee, lying to the public to calm any discontent and lingering fear over organising any kind of actual military action to avoid causing unnecessary collateral damage. Placing a destructive force like Godzilla into the modern world, where policy and procedure and semantics are often more important than any actual action, makes for a startlingly effective allegory for the ineptitude of the world’s governmental bodies (and politics in general) but it doesn’t necessarily equate to a particularly exciting or engaging Godzilla movie. Characters appear and disappear on a whim and it doesn’t help that very few of them have a chance to stand out thanks to Japan’s strict code of honour and professionalism meaning that people spend more time changing into appropriate outfits, being respectful, and mulling over treaties and documents than actually showcasing any real personality.
The P.M. is hesitant to make any rash decisions out of fear of injuring innocents or causing undue damage, which costs the military perhaps their best chance at destroying the creature before it evolves into its bipedal form and, ultimately, his procrastination and hesitancy costs him his own life and those of his closest advisors. This allows for Yaguchi to eventually step into the role of the lead character after he manages to formulate one last desperate bid to subdue the creature with a coagulating agent. He is able to reach this conclusion thanks to intelligence provided by Patterson, a smarmy and self-aggrandising character with aspirations on becoming the President of the United States. When the many older interchangeable politicians eventually fail to agree on a viable plan of action (or die thanks to their incompetence), the film’s focus falls back onto these younger characters and a gaggle of misfits and scientists, a handful of whom are able to showcase a little more personality beyond spouting nonsense, such as Hiromi Ogashira (Ichikawa), whose pragmatic nature helps her to stand out in a sea of stuffy politicians.
Amidst all of this pointless, senseless, endless political debate, there actually is a few appearances of Godzilla to be found here and in forms that we haven’t really ever seen before. Sadly, though, there’s a strange hypocritical attitude towards Godzilla in this film; on the one hand, it’s clearly this unstoppable force of nature that threatens Japan and is apparently resistant to all forms of military reprisal and, on the other, the film mocks its name and even the very idea of it as a creature. Sure, a kaiju wrecking downtown Tokyo is an outlandish concept and one that is laughable in its ridiculousness, but in the context of the film it’s actually happening so it kind of feels like mocking the word “tsunami” after the weather formation has decimated an entire city. When it first emerges on land, Godzilla is this strange, floppy beast that lumbers around on four rudimentary flipper-like legs. Though the effects look really good, especially compared to the suits worn in some of the early films (which, to be fair, have their charm and the model and design work used to realise them is admirable), this first form looks really weird and it’s mainly because of Godzilla’s weird, floppy head and unblinking, gawping eyes.
Biologically, it makes a lot of sense of Godzilla to begin in this form, which is much more marine-like and hampered by an overactive metabolism that causes it to soon overheat and retreat to the sea but, in execution, it just looks very goofy and unsettling and I’m not entirely certain why the filmmakers chose to not have the creature blink. Godzilla’s big thing in this film is its ability to evolve; soon into its crawling rampage, it attempts to transform into a bipedal form and, when it finally re-emerges from the sea, it has assumed an upright form that is largely familiar to any Godzilla fan…but dramatically larger and far more menacing than any other Godzilla seen before it. With rudimentary dinosaur-like arms (which are weaker and more useless than any previous Godzilla, being little more than static claw-like appendages for the most part), massive chunky legs, and an ostentatiously-large tail, this Godzilla sports jagged teeth, a rock-like hide, and small, piercing eyes (that still don’t blink; I’m sorry to harp on about it but I don’t really get that choice) in addition to his iconic roar.
Completely resistant to all forms of attack, this Godzilla also boasts the most powerful and destructive version of its atomic breath yet; beginning as a plume of fire, it quickly becomes a devastating purple ray of death that fires from the creature’s gruesome split-jaw. Later, when the American’s actually manage to damage the creature, it starts spewing lasers from its back/fins and even from its tail, making it probably the most diverse and powerful of any Godzilla before despite the fact that it likes to just stand around as still as a statue or plodding slowly forwards with little to no purpose. Eventually, when all other conventional weapons have failed, Yaguchi spearheads a ludicrous plan to stave off an impending nuclear assault by launching a focused and co-ordinated attack on the creature’s head and legs and bury it under collapsing skyscrapers so a series of cranes can inject a coagulating agent into its mouth that, after the deaths of many and even more destruction, eventually manages to literally freeze Godzilla in place. Luckily, its radioactive half-life is conveniently discovered to be surprisingly short, meaning Tokyo can be reconstructed without fear of millions dying from radiation sickness. I find this extremely unlikely and actually quite odd; I would have expected Godzilla’s radioactivity to have been far more devastating in this film considering the climate at the time) but, instead, the creature is anti-climactically stopped just as its rampage was kicking up a notch and the film abruptly ends having wasted far too much of its run time on pointless and frankly boring political discussions.
One of the issues I had with Godzilla (Edwards, 2014) was that the film spent way too much of its time teasing the titular creature and cutting away from Godzilla’s rampage; I got why, as it was a great way to introduce new audiences to the character and to build suspense but, for those of us who are big Godzilla fans, we want to see the actual creature in action not spend all of our time with the human characters. This is, however, the price one must pay for being a Godzilla fan; human characters and side plots always exist in these films and distract from the kaiju action. It makes sense as you want to have characters you can relate to and root for and it helps put the film’s devastation and themes into context but it doesn’t change the fact that the kaiju action is what makes these films so enjoyable. And, in that respect, Shin Godzilla fails quite spectacularly; Godzilla has never looked more terrifying or displayed such incredible power and yet it’s largely just a massive, shambling slab of meat that barely moves and reacts to being attacked not because it’s in pain or enraged but more because that’s what the plot expects it to do. The film just spends way too much time focusing on its critique of government, politics, and red tape than it does actually focusing on Godzilla’s presence and threat, which is a shame as there was so much potential for a big-budget, traditional kaiju film but Shin Godzilla doesn’t really impress much beyond its commendable effects.
What did you think of Shin Godzilla? How did you feel about its pacing and focus? Did you like Godzilla’s redesign or do you feel it strayed a bit too far from its traditional appearance? Were you also disappointed by the film’s lack of focus on Godzilla and commentary on politics or do you feel it did a good job of shaking up the traditional Godzilla formula? What is your favourite Godzilla movie and why? How are you celebrating Godzilla Day this year? Whatever your thoughts on Shin Godzilla, or Godzilla and kaiju films in general, feel free to leave a comment below.