Godzilla’s original debut was frightening; his cloud-shaped head loomed over the fleeing villagers of Odo Island in 1954’s Gojira, a dark and depressing film that made the sacred beast of the apocalypse a household name and kickstarted his 60-plus year movie career.
Sometimes Godzilla rose from the depths to punish humanity for their blatant disregard for nature. Sometimes he served as Earth’s defender against monsters and aliens seeking to destroy the planet and everyone on it. No such defender exists in Shin Godzilla, a 2016 flick and the 29th title in the Godzilla franchise that returns the King of Monsters to his more terrifying roots.
The franchise remained dormant since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, which under-performed at the box office and put the series on a twelve-year hiatus. With the success of the 2014 American reboot, which ushered in Legendry’s MonsterVerse film series, Toho, the company behind Godzilla, decided to make a stand-alone film to honor the franchise’s roots. They approached Hideaki Anno, best known for the anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, to write and direct the film. Shinji Higuchi, a frequent Anno collaborator and the director responsible for the two live-action Attack on Titan films, joined to direct and coordinate the special effects for the sequences involving Godzilla. The Godzilla they created is the scariest and most imposing version of the gargantuan kaiju ever to appear onscreen thanks to spectacular special effects.
Like Gojira, a film embodying the fear of atomic power, Shin Godzilla follows the story of a monster who unleashes atomic hell on Japan while the human characters find a way to defeat him. Shin Godzilla shines because it takes the concept and thrusts it into a modern-day context, focusing on themes of nuclear and natural disasters, international politics and government bureaucracy.
Japan is threatened not only by Godzilla, but by the world powers who consider using nuclear weapons on the nation to defeat Godzilla.
A plotline follows the Prime Minister as he oversees the safety of the civilian population while the threat of Godzilla becomes more apparent. When the horrifying monster begins his rampage, the Prime Minister refuses to engage in combat until every person is evacuated from the area. Unfortunately, the government adheres to policy and procedure in a situation that completely disregards these concepts, and despite their best intentions, they fail and spend most of their time debating and moving from one conference room to the next while the world burns.
Meanwhile, a group of well-meaning and quirky outsiders join forces and launch an investigation over the creature and the best ways to defeat him. The outsiders are the true heroes of the film. They aren’t tied down by red-tape or chains of command, and they are a reflection of the everyday citizens who step up and volunteer their time in the absence of appropriate governmental response.
This isn’t to say that the government in the film is completely useless. Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), the young Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, serves as the audience surrogate and becomes more and more frustrated as the situation with Godzilla becomes increasingly more dangerous. His challenging of his older peers leads him to assume more responsibility and a direct role in the conflict. Opposite of him is Kayoco Anne Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), the ambitious Special Envoy for the President of the United States. Together, they are the heart of the film, and the actors expertly portray the mixture of emotions of fear, anger, sorrow, and determination these two characters go through.
Despite its massive cast, Shin Godzilla makes every person memorable and two-dimensional, and even minor characters get a chance to shine. The film still spends time on characters reacting to and watching Godzilla’s many scenes of destruction, but unlike in the 2014 Godzilla and its 2019 sequel, which both spend copious amounts of runtime featuring bland characters staring blankly at a screen, Shin Godzilla expertly balances the human cast with scenes of Godzilla himself unleashing fiery doom. Part of what makes this film so successful is its breakneck pace. Shin Godzilla doesn’t have time to focus on the human drama when one hectic scenario after the other constantly forces the cast to remain on their feet and in the thick of the action.
This film doesn’t feel like two movies in one, where on the one hand, Godzilla rampages through historical landmarks, and on the other, human characters find themselves trapped in pointless storylines that don’t go anywhere and don’t connect to the King of Monsters. The characters of Shin Godzilla all have stakes in the story and everything circles back to the central plot of Godzilla arriving in Tokyo. Much of the drama comes from the government officials responding to the increasingly dire situation with Godzilla, and these scenes are all tense and hectic. Tons of text fill the screen, relaying information on which official belongs to which branch of government. Various talking heads shout over each other. These are desperate people in way over their heads, and their collective silence, shock, and horror whenever Godzilla appears onscreen is most effective and adds to the tension. There’s a lot to keep track of, but it works for the film’s chaotic feel.
But that’s enough on the human characters. Let’s talk about the King of Monsters himself, who, while being one of the best aspects of the film, is also the most controversial. The Godzilla of Shin Godzilla is like no Godzilla before him. The film alters his appearance, origin story, and abilities. Grotesquely misshapen with dead eyes and blood pouring from the crevices of his body, this Godzilla is arguably one of the most disturbing ever seen onscreen. He also evolves several times throughout the film, first appearing as a slithering eel-like creature crushing everything in his path before taking on the massive lurking form that everyone is familiar with.
In one of the most hauntingly beautiful and equally horrifying scenes in the film, Godzilla unleashes the true extent of his atomic breath, which changes color and stands out amidst the burning ruins of the city. Unlike any iteration before, this Godzilla also has the ability to shoot atomic beams from his spines and tail and unleashes apocalyptic destruction, the likes of which have never been seen in any monster film before.
Shin Godzilla is a different type of Godzilla story, one which honors the franchise and the movies that came before, all while making unique decisions to help it stand out after over 60 years of similar films. There’s something for everyone to enjoy in this movie, whether it’s the likable characters, a beautiful soundtrack that brings back some of the classic tones of the older movies, or a terrifying and unique designs of Godzilla. Western film critics have a nasty habit of missing the point of this film and criticizing it for being boring and not like the Godzilla they are familiar with.
But ignore them.
Shin Godzilla is a beloved film in the series and took home seven Japanese Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
I highly recommend giving this film a go if you’re looking for a well done monster story, and Shin Godzilla is most definitely that.
“Godzilla is the son of the atomic bomb. He is a nightmare created out of the darkness of the human soul. He is the sacred beast of the apocalypse.” —Tomoyuki Tanaka
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