The original Gojira (1954) was something of an anomaly, not only in terms of Monster Movies, or even what would come to be known as "Godzilla movies", but also in its place in director Honda Ishirô's filmography. Gojira's brooding, elegiac tone sets it apart: it was the first Japanese movie that was allowed (by the censors of the American occupation) to make explicit reference to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it had a tremendous cathartic impact on Japanese audiences of its time. Honda's further fantasy films of the 1950's (such as The Human Vapor or Radon or Jûjin Yukiotoko) shared some of Gojira's tragic atmosphere; but as the 1960's went on, and Honda made some of his most popular films, the tone lightened considerably, eventually settling into a determined optimism.
In Honda's universe, the presence of sci-fi threats like giant monsters, alien invasions or rogue asteroids came to serve as a cue for the world's nations to put aside their differences and come together in a united effort. Of course, the ideas for Toho's special effects films weren't Honda's alone; but Honda himself expressed the desire to fill his audiences with wonder and hope, rather than fear and despair. Sometimes, as was the case with Matango: Fungus of Terror, Honda's unwillingness to disturb his audience left his approach at odds with the nature of the script. But in general, the attitude of a mid-period Honda film can be summed up by the final image of Gorath: humanity coming together as one, strapping rocket engines to the South Pole, and literally moving the entire Earth out of harm's way.
That sort of optimism is entirely absent from 2016's Shin-Gojira. It's been replaced by something that makes the grimness of the original seem almost cheery by comparison: politics.
In fact, it is fair to say that Shin-Gojira really is the "new Godzilla": it is completely different from any other Godzilla movie ever made, and viewers who go into it expecting anything like any other entry in the series are likely to be confused and disappointed.
The film opens with a credit sequence modeled directly on the opening of the 1954 film, even re-using the original 1954 soundtrack. All through the film there are direct references to the original Gojira and its successors: locations, script references, musical cues... even the framing of individual shots are meant to call up memories of Honda's film. But the viewer is left with the impression that these literal references aren't simple homages: they may be intended more as satirical reminders of everything that this movie is not.
The action of the film begins with the discovery of a small boat adrift in Tokyo Bay. In case you're wondering: no, there are no zombies aboard. Actually, nobody's aboard: there's nothing on the boat except a small and carefully-arranged assortment of personal effects... just enough to hint that the owner of those effects isn't going to be coming back. The Coast Guard has no time to try to make sense of these cryptic findings, because all at once there's an enormous underwater explosion not far from their position.
The explosion results in damage to the automobile tunnels under Tokyo Bay, and the stranded commuters have to evacuate on foot. There's no real sense of distress among the people — just inconvenience, tempered with a sense of excitement about such an unexpected interruption of the workday. While the first responders struggle to make sense of the emergency, the Japanese government convenes a series of meeting to figure out what must be done to mitigate the crisis.
And they talk. Oh kami-sama, do they talk. Then they form subcommittees to talk some more. They press the Prime Minister for decisions... and while he's very good at clenching his jaw and saying, "Wakatta...!" ("All righty then...!") he's not very good at actually following through. There's only one person in the process — a young, ambitious, but very junior staffer named Yaguchi (Hasegawa Hiroki) — who is paying any attention to social media and what's actually going on outside the corridors of power. He attempts to bring up the obvious fact that there seems to be something moving in the water — some creature in Tokyo Bay — that is responsible for the explosion and the damage to the tunnels. He is repeatedly silenced, and his mentor (Stephen Colbert, sorry... Takenouchi Yutaka) gives him a friendly warning to stay in his place if he doesn't want to embarrass himself.
"Truthiness? You can't handle the truthiness."
(I'm including the audience in that last statement.)
So the PM calls for more meetings — has the monster filled out its official TT-1954 Form for Authorized Stomping of Urban Areas? — and eventually calls a press conference. At the press conference, the PM goes off-script in order to reassure the populace that everything is under control, and that there is no chance of this aquatic monster coming ashore...
... whereupon he gets the word that the monster is coming ashore.
The parallels to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster are obvious: there's an event at sea that has unexpected consequences for the people on shore; the government dithers about it and issues statements that turn out to be totally wrong and totally inadequate; the general public goes about its business unaware that an entire district is about to be rendered uninhabitable. As Japanese satire goes, this is strong stuff: you need only compare Kawasaki Minoru's (pre-Fukushima) Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G-8 Summit!, where the punches were far softer and the attempts at political satire were so broad they often missed the mark entirely. But after about half an hour of committee meetings, we come to a startling realization: this is going to be the tone of the entire rest of the movie. While we get tantalizing glimpses of what's going on in quotidian Tokyo — evacuation attempts that result in puzzled shrugs from the general populace, even as a gigantic monster pops up in the background... casualties that seem to result from the Government's downplaying of the seriousness of the situation... or the mass demonstrations that pop up after Godzilla appears, acclaiming the monster as a new sort of god — we rarely get a view of the human toll the monster takes on Japan, except through the eyes of the bureaucrats.
This makes Shin-Gojira a profoundly Japanese movie, and I'm not surprised its release in the US was confined to a single week for a specialized audience. There's plenty of drama about the rigid stratification of Japanese social and political culture; about the appropriate uses of the Japanese Self-Defense Force; about the prioritization of relief efforts based purely on economic reality; about Japan's uncomfortably subordinate role as a world power after decades of economic problems... We also have a few subtle whiffs of nostalgia for Imperial Japan. Most of all, we're given an enormous cast of characters, none of whom (with the exception of Yaguchi) are allowed to stand out from the crowd, and all of whom (especially Yaguchi, who is often re-introduced with a new bureaucratic title before his name as a straight-faced inside joke) have a personal, career-oriented stake in the efforts to deal with the monster.
What we don't have all that much of? Godzilla.
What we do have of our monster is breathtaking and completely new. The emphasis in Shin-Gojira is on making the crisis seem real and believeable: what would it be like, in today's social and political climate, if we had to deal with a new, unexpected, monstrously threatening form of life? "Unexpected" is the key word here, for the conventional Godzilla movie audience as well as for the people of Tokyo.
To the movie's credit, each of the well-known objections to something like Godzilla actually existing in the real world are brought up and at least partially dealt with. Yes, a monster this size shouldn't be able to support its own weight... and yet it does. Yes, a monster this size shouldn't be able to find enough energy to sustain itself... and yet it does, with implications that lead back to the actions of the US as clearly as the original Gojira's origin story. Yes, a living creature shouldn't be invulnerable to human weapons... and yet even this is addressed in a slightly more dignified way than the standard yattering about "Godzilla cells" (now we have yattering about thrombins and Godzilla isotopes).
We first see the new creature in a sort of larval stage; gradually we learn that it is a super-adaptive form of life that deals with its changing environment through direct evolution, not generational change (which, again, seems to be a pointed poke at Japanese politics). Though it eventually turns into something resembling the Godzilla we have all come to know and love, the resemblance is superficial: this Godzilla is the least anthropomorphic, most bestial version we've ever seen — a mindless, primitive force of nature that can't be appeased, can't be communicated with, and probably can't be destroyed1
1. American kaiju-phile purists will probably be dismayed to learn that the word "Godzilla" is of American origin in this version, with the Japanese "Gojira" representing a kanji-fication... but the "God" in "Godzilla" is no longer a false cognate; the name is said to have been coined speficially to combine Ôdo Island mythology with the suggestion that this organism is something that transcends life as we know it.
But if you're coming to Shin-Gojira hoping for the usual city-crushing action, you may be in for a shock. This Godzilla moves at a glacial pace. Until the humans actually try to stop him, he's content merely to trudge along the path of least resistance, leaving radioactive wreckage in his path. He seems to have no purpose in destroying Tokyo. Though the reason for his presence in Tokyo is hinted at — remember the boat from the opening? — as far as motivation is concerned, he doesn't seem to have any. The city just happens to be in his path as he wanders. Ironically, it's humanity's attempts to stop him that result in the greatest devastation. Then, after he uses up his energy defending himself — spectacularly, I should point out — he goes into an extended hibernation. In fact, statis (perhaps even paralysis) seems to be the defining theme of Shin-Gojira: it's the state to which practically everybody is reduced at one point or another.
Thinking of statis, the weakest part of the movie is probably the... the interaction (I hesitate even to call it that, though I certainly wouldn't call it anything stronger) between Yaguchi and the Japanese-American liaison, who goes by the improbable name of Kayoko Ann Patterson (Ishihara Satomi). To American audiences, it couldn't be clearer that she is not actually American... her attempts at Americanisms are more often than not grotesque; and in a cast of people playing career bureaucrats, she stands out as being particularly wooden. This is not entirely her fault: she did not learn until production began that she was going to have to speak some English, and she was not prepared for it. I had thought that the central female character was going to turn out to be the (deliberately unglamorous) Deputy Director of the Nature Conservation Bureau (Ichikawa Mikako). I was mistaken — more's the pity. I was a little disappointed to see the movie falling into the conventional pattern of putting the male lead into jeopardy with an attractive but useless female lead, all the while avoiding any explicit emotional attachment between them. True, Kayoko Ann gets to display a little American remorse over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but her character seems to suggest that you have to be Nisei or Sansei to be sincere about it.
"This would never have happened
if you'd gone to synagogue like a good boy."
2. A giant, nearly immortal creature with the potential to reproduce itself from its own pieces threatens a major city, and they deal with it by... uhhh... oops! Spoiler alert!, only with a cast almost entirely made up of General Greysons. I thought of Dogora, the Space Monster: an awe-inspiring and totally original monster who suffers from a lack of screen-time, in a movie which is otherwise almost all satire (with many references to the love-hate relationship between Japan and the US). I thought of 1984's Gojira (aka Godzilla 1985), which also had a curiously immobile monster, an uninspiring connection between its male and female lead characters, and lots of hand-wringing about Japan's status as a pawn between nuclear powers. I also thought of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, which featured bureaucratic debates about the use of the Self-Defense Force, and a middle act in which the main Monster Threat was asleep in the heart of the city.
But in fairness, there hasn't been a Japanese monster movie like this one before. Judging by the enigmatic final shot of the movie, I'm not sure if there are going to be any more like it, either. I'm not sure where they would go from here: I can't imagine this version of Godzilla taking on an opponent in classic kaiju style.
I sort-of hope he doesn't have to. My favorite giant monster films have always been the ones where it's one creature, or one type of creature — something nobody's ever seen or dealt with before, something that comes with no prior history and no set of expectations. Even if the results are disappointing (and they so often are... I'm looking at you, Varan, and Dogora, and The X from Outer Space), I appreciate the chance to savor the imaginative creature design, without being distracted by all that silly wrestling3
3. I've also never been able to figure out how giant monsters are immune to guns, missles and atomic bombs, but can be severly injured by other monsters' teeth... but that's a different argument.. Certainly the monster in Shin-Gojira is different from anything I expected... to tell the truth, it's taken some getting used-to: the design's a little bottom-heavy, and the tail looks disproportionately long. But on consideration, it's exactly what I would have wanted in a Godzilla reboot: a genuinely scary-looking monster that doesn't just suggest a guy in a rubber suit.