Our Monsters, Ourselves: Shin Godzilla


Shin Godzilla
Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Now in theaters

Capping a season of blockbuster releases that was somehow even more punishingly milquetoast and committee-branded than usual, Hideki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla arrives as the for-adults disaster epic we knew, deep down, we wanted. In political terms, the filmmakers have delivered the most radical—which is to say, America-skeptic—entry in the giant reptile franchise since Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Gojira, full stop. That said: this is a redo that’s unapologetic in its pursuit of “realism,” and therefore Godzilla’s appearances constitute a slim chunk of runtime, inevitably disappointing some. The majority of Anno’s screenplay instead concerns the Japanese politicians on the ground, scrambling to find dignified (and/or expedient) half-measures to deal with a crisis nobody could have predicted in the first place. Similarities between this spectacularized catastrophe, which proceeds with grueling pace, and the 2011 tsunami-earthquake that led to the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown in Fukushima, aren’t exactly buried. The monster’s appearances test the government’s response capability in no time at all, examined in the lens of an ensemble procedural-cum-office comedy that’s both bleak as hell and bitingly hilarious.

The bureaucratic logjam is made manifest from the first moments of Shin Gojira (“Godzilla Resurgence”): a furious litany of characters is introduced, their names and respective departments emblazoned on the screen, yet made impossible to remember in a headlong rush. The symmetry and order of these congregations—which, in their framing, can’t help but recall Anno’s seminal giant monster anime Neon Genesis Evangelion—soon becomes headache-worthy for its insufficiency, the human authorities failing to meet the challenge represented by Godzilla’s attacks time and again. That’s true militarily, as well: while the traditional sequels downplayed political implications in service of tokusatsu throwdowns and the inevitable discovery of a military cure-all, powerlessness is the engine for Shin Godzilla’s plotline, including a dazzling centerpiece where no amount of firepower puts a dent in the creature’s polymorphic skin. Made of pixels and designed to resemble the 1954 monster, there’s nothing cute about Anno and Higuchi’s new rendition: this Godzilla continues to evolve (or “resurge,” as the Japanese title would have it), first from a frilled quadrupedal shark-dog to the more familiar upright-standing lizard with tiny arms, hideous and overbearing in equal measure.

Anti-humanism is not, on its own terms, an aesthetic virtue—but the filmmakers’ decision to focus less on goofy shenanigans and more on the political costs of a Godzilla attack in 2016 is both surprise and a revelation. The appearance of a beautiful, overachieving Japanese-American envoy named Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) begs the question of US interference with a friendly face, as the Americans—otherwise kept offscreen, except for a pair of craggly white hands in a suit—offer their military support, in exchange pressuring the latest interim Prime Minister to drop an atomic bomb on downtown Tokyo to destroy the monster. The ensemble of survivors works together to find a better solution, allowing for a feelgood final act. And yet, for its can-do invocations of Japan’s “scrap-and-build” history, the film aligns with the nationalist current ridden by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a descendant of Imperial war criminals who has called both for re-armament and bolstering the country’s economy with nuclear power, Fukushima be damned. In the end Godzilla is not wiped out, but temporarily frozen on the Tokyo ground—a towering double metaphor for the devastations of WWII and America’s subsequent influence on domestic policy. For Anno and Higuchi’s film to occupy equally pro-sovereign and anti-establishment perspectives means it veers on a profound cynicism, but then these are the times in which Japan finds itself.

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