Review: Shin Godzilla (2016)

When it was announced that Hideaki Anno, alongside Shinji Higuchi, would direct the next live-action, Japanese-made Godzilla movie the question in my mind was: how Shin Godzilla Japanese Posterclosely would it hew to his classic, cult Neon Genesis Evangelion? It seemed like a perfect fit – after all, Evangelion revolves so heavily around the kaiju-like angels that it would only be natural for Anno to step in, and as the Godzilla series has frequently used its giant monsters as not-so-subtle allegories for other issues that it was surely ripe for Anno’s brand of symbolism. The result is the rebooted Shin Godzilla (2016), Toho’s first new movie since 2004’s Final Wars, and coming in relatively hot on the heels of Legendary’s American-made Godzilla (2014).

Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla was an attempt to parse the nuclear bombing of Japan that closed WW2. But after living in Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and its accompanying nuclear disaster, it always felt to me that Honda’s work treated Godzilla – and by proxy, the nuclear attacks – almost like any other natural disaster, albeit one with a very human cause. The particular way that Godzilla emerged from the sea to wreak havoc and cause so much destruction felt inseparable from Japan’s long history with tsunamis. Now, in Shin Godzilla, it would be almost impossible to view the film and its star as anything other than a response to the 2011 disasters.

From the first moment that Godzilla’s initial form slithers ashore and ploughs down narrow rivers and streets, pushing filthy water, boats, and later cars ahead of itself, it’s clear that the film has borrowed much of its visual language from footage of that tsunami. Bystanders watch at a distance, from high ground, in scenes that could be snatched from a YouTube video of that day, still so fresh in Japan’s national memory.

Government bureaucrats – and this movie revolves heavily around them – don the blue jumpsuits and work clothes that Japan’s politicians wore in the aftermath of the disaster to appear as if they were doing something practical in response. For a fair chunk of the film I wondered if Anno and Higuchi had entirely dropped the nuclear connection, but when it arrives it too strongly mirrors the reaction to the Fukushima disaster as people worried about fallout, radiation levels, and the distribution of iodine tablets – I still have the iodine tablets the British embassy handed out to nationals living in Tokyo, never used.

Shin Godzilla
The special effects are occasionally kind of ropey when compared to, say, Legendary’s Godzilla or Kong: Skull Island, but there’s a distinct charm in the very ‘man in a costume’ design of Shin Godzilla even though it’s CGI

Despite all the destruction, Shin Godzilla is far from an action film. It instead functions as a scathing satire of the Japanese government’s response in 2011. Though the film does not play coy with its monster’s appearance, with at least the early form of Godzilla appearing very quickly, most of the running time is devoted to scenes of bureaucrats and politicians struggling to react. Endless meetings, press conferences, closed-door tete-a-tetes: these are the film’s bread-and-butter. Officials are portrayed as indecisive, overly concerned with how their reactions will appear, and completely unable to deal with the tremendous and obvious threat Godzilla poses.

Perhaps most intriguing is the way the government struggles to deploy the SDF (Self-Defence Force), Japan’s nominal armed forces that are heavily restricted by Japan’s post-WW2 constitution. A significant thread running through modern Japanese politics, and particularly championed by the right-wing ruling Liberal Democrat Party, is whether to loosen the restrictions around the SDF. It’s slightly difficult to parse where Anno, and the movie, fall on this discussion, but overall it seems to lean towards at least partial re-militarisation, holding in contempt those who wonder whether they can even deploy the SDF against Godzilla or whether they should be restricted to mere evacuation.

Shin Godzilla larval form
The proto-form of Godzilla when it first makes landfall is fantastically creepy and very, very Anno (or perhaps even a bit Junji Ito). Those glassy eyes!

Once the SDF are in action there are some strong callbacks to Neon Genesis Evangelion – particularly the scenes of SDF tank formations firing fruitlessly on Godzilla, harking back to the very first episode of Evangelion as the UN fires just as fruitlessly on the angel. In another nostalgic twist, the battle scenes make frequent use of a remixed version of the anime’s soundtrack. Unsurprisingly, Shin Godzilla and Evangelion share a composer, Shirō Sagisu.

Shin Godzilla Atomic Breath
Even the final evolution of Godzilla is rather creepy, with a jaw that unhinges and splays apart to breathe its devastating atomic breath

When I caught Legendary’s Godzilla in the cinema way back in 2014 I was rather taken with it, but a later viewing on the small screen didn’t hold up nearly as well. Shin Godzilla feels like a much more faithful re-adaptation of Honda’s original film, updating the nuclear (and disaster) allegory for the 2010s. While trying to avoid spoiling the end of the film, it’s safe to say there is ample room for a continuation of this particular branch of the franchise, but it will apparently have to wait until 2020 after Legendary’s next live-action entry.

Despite a potentially long wait I’m intrigued by where Anno might take things next and how it will continue to reflect modern Japan.

Shin Godzilla / シン・ゴジラ

Directors: Hideaki Anno (screenplay) & Shinji Higuchi (effects)

Japanese Release Date: 29th July 2016

Version Watched: 119 min (Sky Cinema)

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