Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Shin Godzilla (2016) [Political Science Fiction]


Despite the fact that Godzilla has been rebooted about six times and remade by American studios twice, Toho Studios has always kept the original 1954 film as the bedrock of the series. No matter what direction the reboot takes, the assumption has always been that every new entry will continue from the perspective of a universe where Tokyo was razed by Godzilla in 1954.

So, despite a lot of hints that Toho's 2016 film was going to be very unique--particularly with the creator of the influential and divisive anime Neon Genesis Evangelion at the helm--it was still a bit of a shock that it would be an actual remake. Even more surprising was the news that Godzilla would be the only kaiju in the film, which hadn't happened in a Toho film since 1984.

However, when one considers what Japan in 2016 is like, it makes a lot of sense to approach the story with what the unexpected appearance of Godzilla would look like now. After all, less than five years earlier Japan experienced the twin tragedies of a tsunami and a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and a lot of Japanese citizens felt the government was utterly ineffective in handling the situation. Not far off from the "heckuva job, Brownie" bungling of Hurricane Katrina in America, in fact. Add to that the fact that Japan is a nation that has largely been stuck under America's thumb since the end of World War II, which has led to a lot of frustration from people who feel the nation needs to be able to stand on its own again.

And this is just the obvious cultural knowledge I've gleaned as a clueless white American nerd whose largest source of knowledge of Japanese society is kaiju movies.

Now, I need to offer a small caveat before I begin. Normally I hate reviewing movies if I have not seen them from minute one to at least the point where the end credits roll at least once. However, this film's American theatrical release was very limited (initially only a week long, though held over at just a few theaters for two more) and also apparently simulcast instead of each participating theater being given film or digital versions. This means that even though I was on time for the showing of the film that I saw, it started a few minutes early and I missed the very beginning. Unfortunately, that was the only showing I could make during its run.

I have, therefore, had to piece together the opening from other descriptions instead of what I viewed with my own eyes. So unlike the rest of the film, if you later see it and discover my plot description is wrong on how the film opens it isn't just because my memory sucks.

Well, the film allegedly opens with the Japanese coast guard finding a derelict yacht belonging to a scientist named Goro Maki floating in Tokyo Bay. I already know that Maki will be significant later, and I know that what follows will also be: something causes a huge geyser in Tokyo Bay and then the undersea tunnel in Tokyo Bay is collapsed and flooded, which was preceded by a red liquid pouring into it. It seems like a volcanic eruption, except for the viral videos that civilians are sharing of what appears to be a living creature moving in the chaotic waters.

I came in as the first of many, many cabinet meetings are held to discuss the disaster. Everyone intends to treat it like a natural disaster, but Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa, playing a very different role from Love & Peace) tries to point out the videos already circulating that prove it's more than that, but nobody wants to entertain that angle.

Rando Yaguchi
However, when an enormous tail rises from the water and multiple professional media outlets get it on video this time. The higher-ups call in experts to have smaller meetings with them, but the experts all have conflicting assessments of the footage that doesn't offer much help. And then the creature begins making its way inland via the river. It collects boats in its wake and pushes them along, causing chaos and panic among the fleeing citizens.

Hiromi Ogashira (Mikako Ichikawa), Deputy Director of Nature Conservation Bureau, is brought in to lend her expert opinion along with several others. Most argue that such a creature could never leave the water without being crushed under its own weight. Ogashira points out that the creature is already supporting its own weight, given it's mostly out of the water and pushing itself along with its hind feet.

Hiromi Ogashira

However, the prime minister chooses to listen to the other experts. While he is assured that the creature cannot come onto land, he is also advised to not mention that when he addresses the press. The PM delivers his prepared speech to assure the country that there is no cause for panic and they have things under control. Unfortunately, he decides to go off script and say there is no way the creature can come on land.

An aide immediately rushes over to inform the PM that the creature has come on land.

Baby Godzilla
The creature is clearly immature or not yet adapted to land. Its long neck is lined with large gills that occasionally leak a red fluid, possibly blood. It has no forearms, just partially formed stubs that wiggle uselessly as it pushes itself along with its powerful hind legs. The creature causes massive damage as it smashes its way through stalled cars and attempts to stand upright on its hind legs only to flop to the ground again.

At one point it rears up onto a building and pushes it over, killing a mother and her young children who had not been able to evacuate yet. Even with the creature leaving so much death and destruction in its wake, the government officials aren't entirely sure if they are allowed to deploy the JSDF to attack it. Eventually they determine that they are able to attack the beast as a means of pest disposal. The call is made to send helicopter gunships to kill it, just as the creature unexpectedly goes through a mutation that turns it into a reddish, dinosaur-like beast with short arms that walks upright.

Teenage Godzilla
The helicopters prepare to fire as the creature stands still near a train track--only for civilians to cross into the path of fire. When the information is passed up the line of command, the PM decides that he is unwilling to allow the civilians to become collateral damage and orders the gunships to stand down. The red creature then charges into the ocean.

Yaguchi decides to set up a task force containing Ogashira and several scientific experts. The group jokingly refers to themselves as misfits, but they're misfits who know what they're doing. Ogashira hypothesizes that the creature may be somehow powered by internal fission, which seems ridiculous until a scan of the region the creature rampaged through is shown to be radioactive. A possible break in the case is dropped into the research group's lap by a special American envoy, Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), who also happens to be the daughter of an American senator. She has brought the notes that Goro Maki had been working on before he disappeared. All she asks in return is for the US to be allowed to assist with the research and be allowed access to the group's data.

Kayoko Ann Patterson
Maki was a zoologist studying the effects of radioactive contamination on sea life. He became especially concerned about the effect it has on one ancient organism. What that organism started out as, his notes don't say, but he christened its mutated form "Godzilla," after a legend on Ohdo Island. One of the researchers points out that in Japanese the creature is "Gojira", while another jokes that it makes sense that Maki would put "God" in the creature's name.

Well, there's little time for jokes when Godzilla returns to Tokyo, now nearly 400 feet tall. The massive beast moves much more slowly than its earlier forms, but its sheer size means it cuts an even bigger swath of destruction.

Adult Godzilla
The JSDF is mobilized to attack Godzilla. Tanks, helicopters, and bombers are sent after the creature. However, to the horror of all involved, the creature is completely unharmed. It doesn't even seem to notice their assault and several tanks are crushed by the beast before they can flee. The US offers military support, which doesn't sit well with many in the cabinet, but the PM recognizes that they don't have much in the way of a choice.

As night falls, the US sends a squadron of B-2 bombers to attack the creature. The first plane's bombs strike Godzilla among its dorsal plates and it turns out the creature is not so invulnerable there, as the bombs draw blood and clearly hurt the creature. Unfortunately, they also piss it off and the creature's plates glow with purple energy as it seems to give off a strange gas. Then flame pours from its mouth, igniting the gas--only for Godzilla to unhinge its lower jaw as the flame turns into a concentrated purple, laser-like beam. Godzilla turns this beam upward and uses it to slice the offending plane in two like a hot knife through butter.

Laser Breath
The other bombers move in for payback, but the creature surprises everyone by suddenly firing multiple laser beams from its dorsal plates that obliterate both the bombs and the bombers. Godzilla then turns its beam back on the city. Buildings are sliced apart and collapse and the creature also destroys the helicopter that was meant to take the PM and several higher cabinet members to safety.

Tokyo becomes a sea of fire as the creature vents its rage on the city. However, soon the beast's laser beam turns back into flame as it runs out of energy. Once spent, the creature goes into hibernation in the middle of the city like an ominous living statue.

Tokyo in Flames.
As the American scientists help the research group study Maki's notes, they become convinced that the creature poses a threat to the entire world and should be destroyed at once. So the US and the UN are already informing the new prime minster--an agriculture minister who was the most senior politician still alive--that nuclear weapons will be used to destroy the beast before it becomes active again. When a search team in Tokyo discovers a chunk of flesh blown off of Godzilla during the bombing run that appears to be alive and maybe even growing wings, well that just seals it. The creature's spawn cannot be allowed to mature and spread.

Luckily for Japan, Patterson cannot abide the thought of her ancestral nation having nuclear weapons dropped on it for a third time. Even knowing it may jeopardize her future political ambitions, she uses all her connections to buy Japan time to come up with an alternative plan. It has been determined that Godzilla will need several days to replenish its energy, so the Japanese government is allowed to use that time to come up with an alternate plan. Luckily, they already have one in mind thanks to the data collected on Godzilla and Maki's research notes, but they're going to need the Americans to help with it...

Patterson and Yaguchi discuss the future
A lot of people have been referring to Shin Godzilla as the most divisive of Godzilla films. I say that's nonsense, because I haven't encountered a Godzilla film that wasn't divisive. Two years ago, fans were bickering about the quality of Legendary's Godzilla, twelve years before that it was arguments about Godzilla: Final Wars, and the upcoming sequel to the American Godzilla will likely be just as divisive.

I bet we'll still be having the exact same complaints about that film, too: that there isn't enough Godzilla, that the human story isn't good, etc.

When Shin Godzilla first revealed its final Godzilla design (since the fact that Godzilla went through multiple stages wasn't officially confirmed prior to the film's premiere), I had a bad feeling I would be among the detractors this time. I thought the design looked silly and like it was trying way too hard to be "scary" and "twisted." Then there were the odd proportions this Godzilla has: T-Rex arms, a tail as thick as its body and three times as long, and its huge thighs make it so bottom heavy that it makes the 1990s suits look like they have chicken legs.

However, like many Godzilla designs it eventually grew on me. And when I saw the creature's larval forms, I thought they looked amazing. What threw me for a loop was finding out that the creature not only shot laser beams out of its back, but from the tip of its tail as well. That sounded as ridiculous as the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon having the creature shoot lasers from its eyes.


I was not, however, as daunted by the rumors that the film was very talky and had very little Godzilla action. Nor did I put much credence in complaints that the film was disturbingly nationalistic. After all, American viewers can express alarm at excessive nationalism in the cinema of other countries when they acknowledge how disturbing it is that Michael Bay has a stupidly successful career.

Upon seeing the film, I found myself among its many raving fans at once. It's true that Godzilla does not have a lot of screentime and the film has so many human characters that I only focused this review on three of them to save myself a lot of time. However, should someone ever make a Godzilla film that is 90 minutes of Godzilla scenes and five minutes of human story, fans will probably complain that that one goes too far.

I loved the human scenes in this and fie on those who don't. For one thing, while the film spends a lot of its time on a cynical satire of the frustrations citizens often feel with their governments, this is a remarkably optimistic film. While I won't reveal the form it takes for anyone who missed the film in its brief theatrical run in the states or whose country hasn't gotten it yet: after the nightmare that 2016 has been I needed a Godzilla film that ends with people and countries working together to get shit done.

In a year that has given us Brexit and the frighteningly likely possibility of President Donald Trump, nothing has delighted me quite like a film giving me a world where Japan and America can work together to defeat Godzilla.

The cast is also amazing. It's no shock that Mikako Ichikawa's character Hiromi Ogashira has become a fan favorite already, though it's hard to put into words precisely why she's so great, and I already knew Hiroki Hasegawa was a damn good actor from seeing Love & Peace earlier this year. I feel Satomi Ishihara deserves a shout-out, as well. It's true that no American audience is ever going to buy that her character is American--there's already memes mocking the poor girl's heavily accented delivery of the inexplicable remark, "Personal service!" However, Ishihara was not informed the role would call for her to speak English until almost the last minute and even with that awkward task thrust upon her, she delivers a great performance and really brings life into a character caught between what is expected of her and what she feels is right. She's also gorgeous, of course.

Though I must admit, I was crushing hardest on Kimiko Yo as Defense Minister Reiko Hanamori.

I tend to have a powerful weakness for women who look like they can kick my ass.
There's also a great biting wit to the cabinet scenes. While it's a bit hard to follow in the subtitled version, one of the subtle running gags is that several times when we come back to a scene with Rando Yaguchi, the caption reintroduces us to him because his title changes constantly over the course of the film. The film also has many amazing uses of humor, my favorite of which I mentioned in my synopsis, but there's many more and yet they never reduce the film to a campy tone. I also have a feeling that the jabs at the Japanese government were incredibly cathartic for Japanese audiences.

It also has to be said that the effects in this film are amazing. Like many, when I heard that the film was going to use almost 100% CGI to realize Godzilla I was skeptical. However, while there are a few missteps--for instance, when we see Godzilla mature into his second form, the CG artists added a ripple effect over his skin that makes the CGI look briefly SyFy Channel-esque--this Godzilla looks like a physical effect in all of his scenes.

The music is a bit of a mixed bag, though, The film uses Akira Ifukube's themes to absolutely flawless effect, but it seems to only have two original themes: the ominous "Persecution of the Masses" that was used in most of its trailers and the enthusiastic theme it breaks out for scenes of people getting stuff done. The latter theme reoccurs over and over, with almost no variation except for the one time it's turned into an electric rock version, It's not a bad theme, but its repetition makes it feel like library music.

Oddly enough I seem to be taking the opposite view of many other fans who liked the movie, as they felt it was the Ifukube themes that didn't fit. There have also been objections to the film's use of Showa-era sound effects, but I enjoyed that as well, and never found them distracting.

As for the film's take on Godzilla, it's not surprising that some fans love it and others have reacted with a level of vitriol on the level that greeted the 1998 Godzilla. To be fair to the detractors for a moment, this is a very unusual take on the character. While it's not stated in the film, apparently Godzilla is actually supposed to be mutated from a frilled shark. Changing his origin from a beast created by H-Bomb testing to one created by nuclear contamination is actually pretty brilliant, in my opinion, as a way of focusing on the fears of modern society when it comes to nuclear disasters. Hell, the graphs showing the radioactive plumes emanating from Godzilla look nigh identical to that (admittedly bogus) image of Fukushima radiation polluting the Pacific.

As for Godzilla being a mutant fish instead of a mutant dinosaur? Well, it's not like it's any less realistic and I always rather enjoy a new take on the Big Guy once I get over my initial shock. Hell, I have to say the scenes of the larval Godzilla awkwardly rampaging through the city are far more compelling, and downright terrifying at times, than anything his more "traditional" adult form does later. The larval Godzilla is also just an amazingly appealing design, a strange mix of the disgusting and the vaguely adorable--so it's not much of a shock that fans all over the world have fallen in love with the silly creature.

It's gross, yet kawaii as hell.
I won't spoil what the Japanese and Americans do to defeat Godzilla, but I do think it's important to address the idea from some fans that it was "too easy." I understand that reaction--indeed that's my reaction to how he goes out in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, despite many other fans adoring that film. However, I think many of them miss the point that the defeat of Godzilla in this film is a tenuous victory. The last shot of the film is a stunning moment of body horror and a marvelous way of suggesting that this is not the end without stooping to a cheap stinger--like the aforementioned GMK.

If there's any fault with Godzilla, it's that having him go into a coma for a huge section of the film really undercuts a lot of the menace they had built up so well to that point. Although, I must admit I have no idea how the ticking clock section of the film would work without that coma and the film does try to show that Godzilla is still waiting to strike again, such as when the skull in the kaiju's tail suddenly cracks open its jaws. (I admit to being shocked when it was officially clarified that the film was not a sequel to the 1954 film, as I assumed the twisted appearance of Godzilla and the skeletons embedded in the tip of his tail would be explained as the bones of sea creatures it absorbed when regaining its form)

There's been a strange need to pit this film against the 2014 Godzilla in much the same way as it was felt necessary to pit that film against Pacific Rim. I feel that comparing these two Godzilla movies is just as silly as I thought that was. Sure, I think Shin Godzilla is the better of the two--largely based on the fact that I found its human story far more engaging--but so what? That doesn't mean I can't enjoy both!

Mothra vs. Godzilla is my favorite Godzilla movie of ever, but that doesn't mean I can't also love the hell out of the clearly inferior Godzilla vs. Gigan. The idea that enjoying one film means you can't enjoy the other is as silly as the annoyingly unending conception that you can't love Star Trek and Star Wars. That's just silly: both franchises have space lizards! There's no reason to choose!

Space lizards make everything awesome.
As for Shin Godzilla, I definitely recommend it to both fans and non-fans. My girlfriend loved it and she's not even remotely as hardcore into Godzilla as I am. Literally, the first words she ever said to me included, "So tell me: what exactly is the appeal of Godzilla movies?" And despite my best efforts, I have never fully succeeded in bringing her into the fold, even though she admitted that many of the films were very good.

So when I say that this movie genuinely moved her, that's high praise indeed.

A face only an action figure collector could love.

This review is part of the Political Science Fiction roundtable, where the Celluloid Zeroes comfort ourselves on the most terrifying Election Day of my lifetime by taking a look at genre films with a political bent.

Checkpoint Telstar gets a load of The Parallax View.

Micro-Brewed Reviews gets caught in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Psychoplasmics wanders into The Mist.

Web of the Big Damn Spider gives us A Report on the Party and Guests.


3 comments:

  1. My blinding hatred for Hideki Anno prevents me from holding any good thoughts about this movie.

    That aside, I feel that any attempt to do a "serious" Godzilla will fail in comparison to the stark power of the original.

    Whereas we always need more kaiju battles. That's why I prefer the 2014 version (even though the human story was pretty dull.)

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  2. The funny thing was that this film seemed to be a complete polar opposite of the Legendary one, which portrayed Godzilla as noble, majestic, and proud while this one makes him a twisted, gruesome horror. It also hapens to be EVEN TALLER than the Legendary one, so there...may be some degree of trying to out-do each other there.

    Also the first form looked like some sort of retarded moray eel, and it was so derpy-looking I literally laughed out loud in the theater when it first appeared. The fact it's awkwardly belly-sliding along like a penguin with that stupid look on its face certainly doesn't help.

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  3. The original godzilla series is one of my absolute favorites. like its an absolute classic and i am glad you used that as a reference here

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