You know we live in strange times when we turn to Godzilla to restore our faith in politics.
That may seem disingenuous coming from an American, as Shin Godzilla is a pointed satire of the Japanese political system. But it’s the truth. Written and co-directed by Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, this latest take on the King of the Monsters places a heavy emphasis on the government’s inability to act quickly in a time of crisis. Nevertheless, Anno refuses to call out the state directly, instead choosing to champion the strength of individuals. His film finds hope in a system seemingly designed to squander it, all the while delivering some truly spectacular monster carnage.
Shin Godzilla is the first Toho-produced Godzilla film since 2004’s delightfully absurd Final Wars. It takes the franchise back to basics with an origin story tailored to the current political climate. This is very much a post-Fukushima Godzilla, and the lion’s share of the film follows Japan’s ministers, scientists and bureaucrats scrambling to coordinate a relief effort before Godzilla can wreak any more havoc. Godzilla has no motive or character here; he’s simply a sea creature mutated by improperly dumped radioactive waste, crawling his way onto land and wandering into downtown Tokyo. He’s an ecological disaster writ large, and his cataclysmic destruction is portrayed as a natural phenomenon of horrific proportions.
Of course, there is a story underneath all the destruction. The film follows Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) as he and others advise the Japanese Prime Minister on a course of action when Godzilla makes landfall and begins making his way toward Tokyo. Yaguchi finds himself reluctantly climbing the political ladder as officials further up the chain of command are killed in the monster’s wake. He teams up with a US ambassador (Satomi Ishihara) who offers him American intel on Godzilla, and plans to leverage her handling of the crisis in a future presidential run. (In a fun little reversal, it’s the Americans who coin the name Godzilla, with the Japanese transliterating it into Go-ji-ra.)
At this point you’ve probably either closed the page out of boredom, or have decided that Shin Godzilla sounds right up your alley. This is definitely not a film for kaiju fans looking for wall-to-wall mayhem. There is plenty of mayhem, and when we get it it’s truly a sight to behold, but that’s not really the game being played here. A majority of the plot takes place in boardrooms and science labs, with a dozen officials huddled around a table hashing out plans and drawing up schematics for how to deal with the giant monster currently laying waste to the city. Characters spout off about policy and ethics at an insanely fast clip, talking over one another and generally accomplishing nothing while countless lives are lost right outside.
Shin Godzilla is less about the radioactive monster that can shoot lasers out its back, and more about Aaron Sorkin-esque walk-and-talks in which characters lament the red tape inherent in the political machine. (Apologies to any children interested in this film. It would likely bore them to tears.) This does bog things down after a while. After the first big battle with Godzilla, the film comes to a complete halt as we enter another round of meetings. Soon, though, the United Nations steps in and introduces a catalyst that kicks the final act into gear. The film finally presents a clearly defined goal for its characters to work toward: Can the Japanese government get its collective shit together and find a solution to the Godzilla crisis before the rest of the world steps in to solve the problem for them?
Whereas the opening and middle acts play as a tacit condemnation of Japan’s past political failings, its final act presents a hopeful reversal. When faced with an ultimatum and the whole world watching, Japan puts on a “Yes We Can” attitude and thwarts Godzilla’s advance through feats of science, engineering and teamwork. It almost feels like propaganda masquerading as a monster movie. If that’s what this is, then it is a damn effective piece of work. It’s the kind of work that actually inspires confidence in humanity. That’s the true hallmark of a great disaster film, and that’s what makes Shin Godzilla utterly unique in the Godzilla canon. In taking Godzilla seriously, the film reminds us how much stronger we are when we all work together.
Shin Godzilla is playing in the US for a limited time. Click here to find a screening near you.Liked This? Share It!