The images of destruction that accompany the monster’s landfall in Shin Godzilla should be familiar to anyone who has lived through a natural disaster, or even watched the catastrophe on the news. Buildings crumble, men try to outrun encroaching flooding and boats invade city streets in a sea of debris. My own experience with disaster is minor comparative to Godzilla encounters and recent calamities (Hurricane Matthew, Japan’s own recent history), but if I ignored the brief glimpses of the kaiju, the early sections of the film felt personally familiar.
Before Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island, expectations here were low. The storm of the previous year, Irene, had been worse than any storm in my lifetime, but the damage was manageable and my family was not displaced from our home, despite living between two canals on either end of the street. We expected the same of Sandy, but an hour or two into the storm my father and I (mom and my sisters had already evacuated to my aunt’s) trudged through rising tides for a mile to get to the car. When Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) steps out of his car during an evacuation effort and looks up to see the towering figure of Godzilla, I remembered what it was to realize the magnanimity of a situation long since out of control. The boats Godzilla pushes en masse through the streets brought to mind images I only knew secondhand: my neighbors who had stayed through the storm reported boats floating down the block, drifting back and forth from house to house. When we finally returned home to begin rebuilding, boats were strewn across my neighbors’ lawns and the first floor of my house was all but totally destroyed.
Areas across the island suffered major power outages and other damages, but areas that hadn’t been hit with a flood struck me as affecting a perverse normalcy. Shortly after the initial Godzilla attack, when the beast has returned to the sea, we glimpse a few of the unaffected areas. That anything can remain untouched by the colossal destruction just witnessed is immediately bizarre, despite being the obvious truth of the situation. The destruction of Shin Godzilla and its aftermath are recognizable to me in ways that other monster movies don’t often achieve.
Yet Shin Godzilla actively works to deny personal, individualistic engagement, from form and design to the narrative. And this, ironically, is key to its power.
Whether out in the middle of the danger or, more often, in a government office, directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi and cinematographer Kosuke Yamada imbue their camera with a distinctly alien POV, so often eschewing human perspective and typical shot-reverse-shot scene structure in favor of a camera that inhabits whatever it likes. A traffic tunnel is filmed from the perspective of a flashing police light and huddled government officials are viewed from within the document they are reading, the text of the document superimposed on the frame. While the movie presents ostensible main characters in Yaguchi and American envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), the inanimate object possessing camera prevents identification with either. Instead, the collected bureaucrats tasked with defeating Godzilla are heroes only as a whole. The great majority of Shin Godzilla is spent with these people who, on their own, are powerless against the threat posed and whose roles are defined by increasingly ridiculous and specific government titles they receive throughout the film.
With those ridiculous titles ever present on screen and a steady stream of jokes, it would be easy to reduce Shin Godzilla to bureaucratic satire. Most of the film is spent in meetings as government officials pose solutions to the Godzilla problem only to be met with bureaucratic roadblocks involving political position and laws stretching back to the dissolution of Japan’s military after the second World War. When orders are issued into a room, a silence falls before one bureaucrat asks “Who were you addressing?” But while the hyper-specific division of labor that prevents action is targeted and blamed for the government’s inability to stop the initial attack, this group of bureaucrats is, as a whole, the film’s singular hero. Rather than simply ask its characters to do better in the face of national tragedy or mock them for poor performance, Shin Godzilla documents the work they do to improve and ultimately triumph. Depersonalizing the disaster and downplaying individual human perspective, this movie instead finds its humanity in idolizing the collective human spirit and its ability to defeat a giant monster.
Spending most of the movie off screen, Godzilla is more a conceptual threat than an actuality. Even when he is physically present, Godzilla’s new design and its realization support the film’s play at alienation. By all accounts, this was a dogged production and the decision to go CGI was a last minute contingency plan. It shows in the quality of a few of the effects. Yet the design of Godzilla, this time a monster capable of instant evolution with forms ranging from goofy to horrifying, is effective at creating a conceptual distance from the monster that that carries meaning while still allowing for Godzilla’s requisite awesome laser breath. Using Godzilla as an act of Brecthian estrangement would be an unexpected left-field choice for most filmmakers, but with Hideaki Anno, whose Neon Genesis Evangelion counts a giant blue diamond among its most iconic monsters, it’s par for the course. With Godzilla free of a single physical shape and allowed to inhabit a few different bodies, we must reconsider the iconic monster not as his own entity but as the phantom of nuclear disaster he once was.
Shin Godzilla is Japan’s first Godzilla film since 2004’s Final Wars, a culmination of a cinematic lineage that had transformed Godzilla from atomic metaphor into giant, monster wrestling lizard. It’s also the first Japanese Godzilla film since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. A reboot in this context demands a contemplative approach echoing the 1954 classic. In that film, Godzilla is an ancient creature awoken by nuclear incident. This new Godzilla thrives on nuclear waste, converting it into energy, and his existence threatens to precipitate further nuclear destruction. That Anno’s approach to the monster is consistently inventive prevents the renewed metaphorical focus from falling into the drab category of the “back to basics” reboot. By constructing this movie around a conceptual monster and focusing on the procedural elements of disaster mitigation, Anno and Higuchi have crafted a politically potent Godzilla movie about catastrophe and the collective human effort to overcome it.
Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi; written by Hideaki Anno; starring Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, and Satomi Ishihara; 120 minutes.