Shin Godzilla: A Review

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Before I begin with my review, I’d like to welcome everyone to this new site which, like the movie I’m covering today, is the third reboot of a storied career.  Well, it’s the third site I’ve created, so there’s that.  I decided to name this site “Godzilla Saves” not because it will be Godzilla-centric, but because it’s a terrible pun ala “God Saves”.  I’ll detail more of what this site is going to be for/about in a future post.

I unabashedly, wholeheartedly love Godzilla movies, really any Kaiju (giant monster) movie is right up my alley.  As a child, I was majorly into dinosaurs.  “Jurassic Park” wasn’t a thing back then so I had Godzilla movies to get my giant reptile fix.  A local TV station used to play a random Godzilla movie on Sunday mornings and I loved them all, even the admittedly bad ones.

I don’t want to get too bogged down in lore and mythology, but I’ll give you a brief rundown of the history of Godzilla movies.  They tend to be grouped into ages; The Showa (1954-1975), Hensei (1984-1995) and Millennium (1999-2004).  The Showa era began with the original “Gojira”, which was an ultra-serious meditation on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War 2.  It just so happened to feature a giant radioactive lizard/dinosaur portrayed by a guy in a bulky rubber suit.  It was amazing!  As the Showa period continued, Godzilla would go from antagonist of the Japanese people to anti-hero to almost-mascot.  Godzilla’s look would change as much as his behavior and a very loose continuity was kept.

The Hensei era kicked off with “Return of Godzilla”, which released in 1984.  Instead of dealing with an unruly 21 years of continuity (which at times didn’t make sense), Toho decided to solely acknowledge the original film and keep strict continuity throughout the subsequent films.  Godzilla was once again made an antagonist and more focus was placed on science as opposed to the prior era’s later focus on aliens and magic.  The Hensei era also marked the first time Godzilla was given a concrete origin with him having been a undiscovered dinosaur (Godzillasaurus) that was mutated by radioactive waste.

In 1999, Toho once again rebooted the franchise; however, this era is rather bizarre in structure.  Almost every film in the Millennium series serves as a loose sequel to the original “Gojira” film.  The characterization is all over the place and more effort was put into big monster fights and crazy effects.

America also decided to get in on the Kaiju action as attempts were made to “Westernize” early Godzilla films by trimming down a lot of the culture specific dialogue and famously cramming in new footage of American actor Raymund Burr into the U.S. release of “Gojira” re-titled “Godzilla, King of Monsters!”.  His role was completely superfluous and pretty much renders the original unwatchable.  If you are ever confronted with the Japanese versions or a Western edit, always look to the East.

1998 saw the release of a full-fledged American “Godzilla” movie from TriStar Studios.  It almost destroyed my will to live.  Really, it sucks. If you haven’t watched it, please refrain from doing so.  It stars Matthew Broderick, a giant CGI iguana, a lot of “Jurassic Park” rip-offs, a giant pile of fish, a Godzilla pregnancy test and it’s just terrible.  Fans have even coined the term G.I.N.O., Godzilla-In-Name-Only to refer to the movie’s monster.  Toho refers to the character as “Zilla”.

In 2014, America got another bite at the apple when Legendary Pictures rebooted the entire franchise and released “Godzilla”.  It did well at the box office and with critics; however, it has divided Godzilla fans with there being very little actual Godzilla action.  While I do wish there was more monster in the movie, I was very happy with what we were given.  I have high hopes for the future of the Legendary franchise which will run parallel to Toho’s rebooted franchise but will be related in monster-name-only.

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L to R – Gojira (JP, 1954), TriStar Godzilla (US, 1999), Legendary Godzilla (US, 2014)

At the close of the Millennium Series (and Godzilla’s 50th Anniversary) in 2004, Toho stated that they would not make another Godzilla film for at least a decade.  Despite much interest in the property, they stuck to their word.  Production on a new era of Godzilla films began in 2014.  The new series will break from tradition and not continue from the original film and instead reboot everything.  The resulting movie “Shin Godzilla”, loosely translated as either “New Godzilla”, “True Godzilla” or even “God Godzilla”, was released in Japan on July 29, 2016 to rave reviews and huge box office numbers.  The United States received a limited release which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend.

To say I was excited to see “Shin Godzilla” is a severe understatement.  I’ve seen all 28 prior Japanese releases, the two original American films, several cartoons and read countless Godzilla comics.  The one thing I had never done is see a Toho Godzilla film on the big screen. “Shin Godzilla” screened in one theatre, on one day, at one time in my city and I bought tickets a month in advance to see it.  Cheers went up when the original Toho Pictures logo showed and the crowd quieted to an almost reverential silence to see the first Japanese Godzilla film in over a decade.  So, how did it all pan out?  The review ensues…

“Shin Godzilla” begins in a world that has never been attacked by monsters, visited by aliens, built massive robots or whatever other crazy nonsense the previous films contained.  The movie starts with bureaucracy – horrible, soul crushing bureaucracy.  And when you think you’ve had enough bureaucracy, just you wait until Godzilla actually shows up – there is just so much bureaucracy!  We zip from council meetings to cabinet meetings and from conference room to conference room for nearly 15 minutes before anything monstrous happens.

The dialogue is sharp and delivered with such speed that reading the subtitles becomes almost a challenge.  I’d guess that over fifty characters are introduced with exact job titles and descriptions to go along with rapid-fire political banter.  The performances seem inspired by “The Social Network” and the actors read their scripts like they are all racing to get to the next sentence.  Again, this is before the monster even shows up.  When things start going from politics-crazy to monster-crazy, the movie rushes to get in some good, old-fashioned destruction.  SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT…

Godzilla has three forms in this film, the first is downright goofy and if it weren’t for the trademark spine, I wouldn’t even know it was Godzilla.  Even with the visual cue, I kept expecting the monster on-screen to be Godzilla’s rival somehow.  When proto-Godzilla, which has huge googly-eyes, promptly slithers back to the water, I was left wondering what the hell just happened.  Then bureaucracy rears it ugly head again as politicians decide what the hell to do about the monster should it return.

first

Godzilla’s first form.  The horror?

Godzilla pops up again to ruin Japanese “House of Cards” and it gets its second form: a stub-handed, unblinking creature.  At least this form looks more like classic Godzilla. Its skin is scarred and reminiscent of the 1954 version.  The third and final form is more in line with tradition albeit with some new flair. It’s given some red highlighting akin to its appearance in “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah”.

My main complaint with the design would be that during the entire film, Godzilla’s arms never move and the eyes are dull and lifeless.  It’s a weird complaint for a film that classically employs giant rubber suits; however, the old films give Godzilla a lot of character through motion that I felt was sorely lacking.  This monster barely moves mainly just flailing around its tail when it is active.  Somehow over 50 years later Godzilla, this time primarily CGI, looks more rigid and honestly cheaper at times than even the original film.  The somewhat poor effects can be forgiven if the story is on-point and this story is hit-and-miss.

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The arms and hands never move from this position.  The mouth rarely opens, it doesn’t blink and the legs don’t really move.  So, YAY CGI!

Throughout all the various incarnations, the movies mostly have an underlying theme.  In the original “Gojira”, the monster serves as a boogeyman, a stand-in for nuclear war.  The film was made to be a catharsis for the horrors inflicted on Japan at the end of WW2.  Sometimes Godzilla is an allegory for the destruction of the environment, other times Godzilla is treated as a natural disaster.  Godzilla films, for the most part, always have something going on behind the spectacle.

This film is no different as Toho made a film that evokes the horrors of a natural disaster, radiation leaks and the dangers of illegal toxic waste disposal.  The most notable influence is the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and the later earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011.  The narrative can be kind of tricky to navigate as it is very much a Japanese production.  American viewers may get bogged down in the politics if you don’t at least have a tertiary understanding of those tragic events and the bungled aftermath.

To go along with the mélange of things Godzilla could be said to represent, there is a healthy dose of fun poked at the ineffectiveness of the Japanese government.  The many, many conferences and department meetings attended by dozens of characters start out as a funny, biting satire on governmental red tape.  However, it goes on so long that it begins to affect the pacing of the film.  While the initial burst of political banter is clever, by the mid-point it becomes parody that overstays its welcome.

The movie sadly wallows in the cinematic sin of telling-not-showing.  Characters talk ad nauseam about how dangerous Godzilla is.  While viewers familiar with the monster understand this concept, very little is shown as to why the entire world is freaking out. Sure it’s a giant monster haphazardly bumping into buildings but it doesn’t seem to be aware of what is going on.  A major indicator of how non-aggressive Godzilla is comes from a scientist who when asked to discuss the monster’s behavior says “He just walks”.

In every instance which Godzilla could be made a major threat, human casualties are mostly avoided through quick, generally off-screen evacuations.  I find it kind of hilarious that “Man of Steel” and “Shin Godzilla” seem to have swapped the problem of dealing with civilian casualties.  While the Superman film drew the ire of fans because the titular character didn’t save people from citywide destruction, this film has millions of people run away before they can be hurt.

superman

Of course this exists!

The real danger in “Shin Godzilla” is the plodding nature of the Japanese government and the hyper-aggressive reaction of the United Nations, notably in the form of the United States military.  Post World War 2, the U.S. and Japan signed an agreement which forbade Japan from having its own army or being able to declare war.  Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution states the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”.  While Japan does have the Japan Self-Defense Force it, in its simplest form, just exists in order to defend itself from internal threats.  Japan, in the movie, cedes most of the control (for not all, but the majority of the movie) to the United Nations.  The movie portrays Japan as very gun-shy.  Even the smallest form of aggression to the invasive monster is deliberated until it is too late to act.

When the U.S. theorizes that Godzilla may sprout wings and attack America, their plan is to nuke Japan again.  This is a huge point of contention with the Japanese government.  Some think it is the only course of action and cite their ability to rebuild post Hiroshima and Nagasaki as evidence for the action.  Others insist that there must be some other solution.

This is a really strong premise and adds a ticking clock to the movie as the U.N. sets a deadline for their strike.  The only thing standing in the way of this plan is a group of ragtag scientists desperately trying to come up with an alternative strategy.  Unfortunately, while all this is happening Godzilla is doing absolutely nothing.  Characters continue to say it is “a perfect organism surpassing man.” There is no evidence on-screen to support this.  In this movie, Godzilla is just a stupid, lost animal.

godzillapalm

This Godzilla gets it.

There are so many abandoned, unsatisfying, uninteresting or unresolved plot-lines going on in a movie that is ostensibly a dumb monster movie with grand aspirations.  There is a missing scientist who may or may not have awoken the creature, possibly even on purpose….FOR REVENGE!!!  He also might have come up with a way to kill it but left the clues in an elaborate puzzle.  What is Godzilla doing?  Why is he coming ashore?  Why does he shoot lasers?  How, after they explicitly say the creature will die if it stands upright, does it just do it immediately?

There are just a slew of seemingly random questions brought up and dropped immediately.  When we do get answers, they are to inane questions, not the big mysteries this universe sets up.  Did the Americans know about Godzilla beforehand?  Well, you won’t really find out.  Do you want to know where the extra server load would come from in the case of the need for massive computing?  Germany.  So, that definitely needed to be a 3 minute scene in this movie.

The film is overstuffed with characters and plot and under-served with monster action.  While I hazard to think I may come off as a dullard who just wants to see “Power Rangers”, let me state that I understand the need to minimize the monster and effectively use the plot.  However, this movie tries to do too much.  It could have served the film to pare down the plot a bit more.

In a movie bogged down with characters, there are a number of standouts. Hiroki Hasegawa, who plays “Rando Yaguchi”, is the closest thing to a main character the movie has.  He is pretty much the only person who sees the initial phenomenon for what it is and not a natural disaster.  When he calls out “giant monster”, everyone thinks he is joking despite amateur footage of the creature already showing up online.

Yaguchi and his ilk represent a new breed of government official and disagree with the staunch, almost lethargic old school Prime Minister and various elder cabinet members.  He is presented as brash, headstrong and almost disrespectful at times.  As the film moves along, he is not humbled but emboldened as the movie becomes a rousing endorsement of Japanese nationalism and innovation.

It is a very interesting concept especially with current (real life) Prime Minister Shinzō Abe making it no secret he wishes Japan to amend the post-war Constitution.  He has been successful in rewriting the language to allow for Japan to assist in external conflicts.  Abe has even recently used the image of Shin Godzilla as a recruitment tool for the J.S.D.F.  The irony being the J.S.D.F. in the film are historically terribly ineffective in their dealings with the monster.  The theme of Japan needing a strong, independent response to the crisis of Godzilla kind of flies in the face of “Gojira” as it preached pacifism over militarism.

Back to the film, through force of will and luck, Yaguchi rises up the ranks in Japanese government over the months this movie takes place.  He is aided by “Kayoko Ann Patterson”, an American liaison of Japanese decent.  Patterson is played by Japanese actress Satomi Ishihara, who is hampered by having to deliver a good portion of dialogue in English.  It is obvious she is not fluent and is speaking phonetically.  The script does her no favors in this regard and also in forcing some of the oddest “American” mannerisms on her.  It comes off as almost a dated parody of American behavior.

Yaguchi eventually forms a task force to investigate a way to halt Godzilla’s exceedingly slow path of destruction.  The task force scenes are really fun especially as the team bonds and tries to solve an absurdly weird problem with equally weird “science”. There is a nice contrast between the old-school governance done in the boardrooms and the loose, erratic manner of the team that Yaguchi heads.  There are a number of interesting characters among the group that Yaguchi refers to as nerds, misfits, and non-conformists.   The best of the bunch would have to be Mikako Ichikawa as “Hiromi Ogashira”, who is the perfect combination of sarcastic and oblivious.

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L to R – Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Mikako Ichikawa

Unfortunately, it is the breaks from the task force scenes and the Godzilla attacks to press conferences and other committee meetings which put a grinding halt to any momentum the movie manages to build. The bloated second act features a lengthy section in which Godzilla takes a nap.  There is a countdown to when Godzilla will be fully powered and ready to go and it is an almost interminable wait.  The original film had a lot of parliamentary scenes; however, it was mostly because of budgetary constraints.

It’s not all bad as there are some astounding action scenes and a lot of comic relief.  Some of the political discourse is engaging and thought-provoking.  The staging of the battles between the military and the monster are awesome and the directing immerses you in the world.  Even the dialogue-heavy scenes are imbued with a sense of energy with quick and fluid camera movement.  Godzilla is given a powerful feel utilizing low angles to show the enormous scale of this particular incarnation of the character.  A scene when Godzilla first employs his atomic breath is nearly mind-blowing.  The film gives the titular character some pretty interesting new powers as well.

lasertail

Yep, laser tail.

I’d be remiss without stating that the most of the music cues are on-point.  When the third form of Godzilla first appears and that classic Godzilla theme blares, my heart beat twice as fast.  And let me tell you, hearing that classic Godzilla roar nearly brought a tear to my eye. It is these touches which, when not handled expertly, can feel like forced fan service but in this movie fit right in.

The final battle is staged immaculately with the humans employing some ridiculous tactics to stop the monster.  I feel like the filmmakers got everything right about the man versus monster scenes in terms of tone and scale.  It is completely ludicrous and when given a second of thought, makes no sense, but it is fun.  The movie is lop-sided as can be, but when it gets things right, it is a sight to behold.

And then it ends with what can only be described as “Meh”.  Instead of doing something daring or fun, the human’s non-nuke plan works just in the nick of time. Godzilla is soundly defeated, not killed, and we get one more political tête-à-tête between Rando and Kayoko.

I like to divide Godzilla movies into four categories; Good-Serious, Bad-Serious, Good-Goofy and Bad-Goofy.  The 1954 film took its material super-serious and was well deserving of its lofty status.  Other films, particularly in the Showa era, couldn’t find the balance of telling a serious story with a giant rubber monster and failed the task.  The Showa era also introduced the Good-Goofy stories such as Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla, where Godzilla fought a robot doppelgänger made by ape-like aliens.  It was ridiculous but amazing in its spectacle.  Unfortunately, the good is sometimes tempered by films like “Son of Godzilla” which feature the offspring of Godzilla who looks like this.

minya

Kill it with nukes!

This film doesn’t fit into any of my scientifically curated categories and kind of meanders between Good-Serious and Bad-Serious.  There are some downright awesome moments, witty banter and harrowing battles.  Unfortunately, when it comes to tone, the film is all over the place. The world it sets up is extremely realistic and serious; however, the odd design choices and ridiculous action are not symbiotic.  There is an almost whiplash quality to the movie.  It wants so badly to be a heady, thoughtful discourse on Japanese politics and a big, dumb blockbuster at the same time.

“Shin Godzilla” is a bold turn away from the recent franchise formula of pitting giant monsters against each other.  There is nothing wrong with having a new take on the creature feature.  The original 1954 version only featured Godzilla, however, the monster was endowed with enough personality that it was a character unto itself, not just a special effect.

All my nit-picking aside, I do think this could be a good starting point for a new franchise.  Godzilla is introduced as an ambivalent antagonist and thankfully not killed off in the end.  I think a sequel could be well-served to introduce another classic creature or give Godzilla a little more personality or a motive.

Toho does not currently have a production date for a sequel. The overwhelming financial success this movie has proven to be should guarantee this isn’t the last time the studio brings back the titular monster.

I love Godzilla and I am not ever going to be completely disappointed in a Kaiju movie.  I was a bit let down, but I think that was in part due to my immense hype leading up to the film.  In the end, I would say I’d rate this a 6/10.

BONUS TIME

  • The film was originally going to be released in North America as “Godzilla: Resurgence”.  No official reason for the change to “Shin Godzilla” was given; however, early speculation was that the failure of “Independence Day: Resurgence” could have been a factor.  It’s been noted that Toho insisted on the “Shin” title.
  • Co-Director Shinji Higuchi worked on another giant monster series serving as Special Effects Director for many of the”Gamera” movies.  He recently directed the live action adaptations of the popular anime “Attack on Titan”.  Hideaki Anno, the other director and head writer, is the creator of the anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion”.
  • This version of Godzilla is the tallest in cinematic history, including the American releases.  It stands 118 meters (387 ft) tall, while the previous tallest Godzilla, Legendary’s 2014 version was 108 meters (354 ft) tall.  1954’s monster stood 50 meters (164 ft) in height.

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  • Filming got underway using a three-man puppet instead of the traditional man-in-a-suit or “suitmation” as coined by Toho.  Apparently the effects were not up to par and Shin Godzilla was ultimately rendered in full CGI using motion capture.
  • There is a bizarre stinger at the end of the movie where skeletal human-like creatures are shown to be protruding from Godzilla’s tail.  I have no idea what this means and it comes completely out of nowhere.  It could be cool, but I’d hate to see human-sized Godzillas wandering around Tokyo.  My best guess is Godzilla is absorbing organic material in order to evolve once again.
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The tail…umm…things.

  • Here is a look at the first two forms that Godzilla takes in the movie.
  • In “Godzilla: Final Wars”, Toho decided to have Godzilla face off against Tri-Star’s Zilla to hilarious results.
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Godzilla throughout the years

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