Shin Godzilla [2016] – An Interesting Blend of Monster Action and Humdrum Bureaucracy

Shin Godzilla

In the cinematic space of post-World War II Japan, Gojira, the famed seaborne monster, was created to stand-in as a metaphor for the atomic bomb and the destruction it brought upon Japan. Produced by Japan’s famous Toho Studios, Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (1954) was a big box-office hit and in the later years attained cult status. The monster or the weird force of nature is used to put forth an incendiary political statement as well as chronicled the era’s nuclear paranoia. The original Gojira was followed by sequels & spin-offs which weren’t the grim nuclear weapon allegory, but were just loud B-movies. Later in 1984, the reboot happened, followed by more monster combat films which only appealed to small group of mainstream cinema-goers. Many Gojira aficionados have also commented that as Japan’s economy started booming the giant lizard creature was portrayed as less threatening and more or less as a savior for human beings (fighting other giant creatures). Then Hollywood hijacked Gojira providing very poor output. While Toho studios for years insisted on physical or practical effects (technique known as ‘Suitmation’) than CGI, the two Hollywood Godzilla movies extensively relied on special effects and ultimately turned out to be very underwhelming monster flicks.

After 2011 Fukushima disaster, the interest in Gojira was renewed. The question of our man-made world’s fragility and dependence on the uncontrolled nuclear energy became a huge talking point. Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla movie tried to reflect on the post-2001 anxiety and problems in the society, but it eventually couldn’t free itself from constraints of unremarkable storytelling. Soon after the 60th anniversary of original Gojira’s release, Japanese film industry once again cleared its decks to reboot the iconic irradiated lizard monster. Famous anime film-maker Hideaki Anno (creator of Evangelion) and his friend/fellow anime artist Shinji Higuchi’s (‘Attack on Titan’) took the directorial duties in this 31st Godzilla movie titled Shin Godzilla (‘Godzilla: Resurgence’, 2016). The film takes a very pragmatic approach to showcase ‘what would happen if a monster decides to rampage its way through a modern society’. There’s no false moralizing, no evocation of Buddhist philosophies, no romantic or sentimental sub-plots; just wall-to-wall meetings and bureaucratic hand-wringing, often cut to toned-down yet very effective VFX effects.

What if Aaron Sorkin wrote a script for a Godzilla movie which was directed by Steven Soderbergh? That’s the kind of end result we witness in the unpredictably intriguing Shin Godzilla. It opens with guerilla film-making style shots with members of coast guard coming across an abandoned pleasure boat in Tokyo Bay. It is followed by boiling water rising to bay’s surface. While high-ranking members of the government wonder about the cause cause and what should they tell to the public, Deputy Secretary of Disaster Management Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) confidently says that it’s caused by a giant, unforeseen life-form. It seems absurd up until the officials see the footage of a big tail splashing at the bay. To the boardroom people’s dismay, the sea-based creature starts to manure through land like a huge tadpole, only to rapidly evolve and develop legs. It causes incredible fear throughout Tokyo and unexpectedly returns back to the bay. The creature mutates itself by nuclear radiation and leaves a trail of contamination in its wake as if it’s moving nuclear reactor.

When the alleged experts fail to guide Prime Minister in taking the due action, a group of intellectual outsiders, dressed in dark business suits, come together to solve the problem of Godzilla. The young and ambitious Yaguchi is put in charge. The team gets vital Intel from American diplomatic envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), whose grandfather – an expatriate scientist who worked for US energy firm – has left trail of data about the ungainly, metamorphosing monster. Godzilla’s second-date with Tokyo brings more carnage than the first one. It shoots laser and breathes fire to cut-down sky-scrapers and shooter-planes, almost reaching an immortal status in the eyes of befuddled scientists, military men and bureaucrats. US and UN led forces demand for the annihilation of irradiated animal through the same nuclear energy that brought Japan to its knees in World War II. But Yaguchi and his renegade team figure out a scientifically elaborate and less destructive plan to stall the monster rampage.

In Shin Godzilla, the happy-go-lucky or family-friendly monster from the relatively peaceful-era is replaced with dangerous thing emitting purple-colored radiation beam. This freshly surfaced monster becomes a means for Japan to examine its collective psyche and its position towards atomic energy in the post-3/11 tsunami and Fukushima-disaster. Moreover, despite the detailed accounts of Godzilla carnage, the film isn’t just about humans’ running away from the stampeding creature, but also about people facing up and taking accountability for their actions. The very specific Japan-esque social commentary or the strong emphasis on politics (especially about U.S. involvement in other countries’ disputes) may not impact viewers expecting full-fledged monster-action. Anno and Higuchi’s unceasing panel conferences and near-obsessive intention to list out every character’s name, their job title overly tries to satirize the government’s inclination towards following protocol even at grave situations. There’s talk of Americans preferring performance over age, the Japanese hierarchical approach, annoying red-tapes, and we witness Japan’s (mostly unilateral) political ties with United States.

Although these revelations, simultaneously highlights and satirizes the unforeseen challenges in officially tackling the monster’s arrival, directors Anno and Higuchi never go fully into the Strangelove-mode. As proportions of the disaster grow, the fleeting dry humor of Aaron Sorkin-esque approach is pushed to the background. The third-act of the movie is predominantly filled with barrage of words that entirely eschews the human context and sets in a bit of tedium. The final execution of the plan is brilliantly staged, yet it is preceded with too much of stiff scientific and political talks which keep us at an emotional distance. It’s an apt decision to subtract unnecessary sentimental or romance sub-plots from the narrative, but the non-stop boardroom scenes become too excessive for its own good. At times the slow evolution of the plan manages to give us something more engaging than the usual military heroics of American protagonists (in all Hollywood monster movies). Yaguchi or Kayoko’s heroism also doesn’t come from any single spectacular action, but simply hails from the little ideas that unite their modern, cynical societies for the pursuit of greater good.

Higuchi and Anno’s design of the creature was absolutely mesmerizing. The new Godzilla, created by mixture of CGI, motion capture and puppetry, comes across as the depraved real product of man’s lust for war and as the perfect multi-dimensional destructive force than the ridiculous dinosaur-like creature (in Emmerich’s movie). The creature’s initial evolution from amphibious mode to the traditional Godzilla delivers right amount of scary fun. The film-makers’ walk a tight-rope to instill darker tone in the rampaging scenes. While the Godzilla conception is nifty, the inventive effects designed to showcase take down of the creature was very smart. The attempt to neutralize Godzilla in the final scene cleverly reflects the real method taken to cool down the damaged reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The theme music from the original movie was paid homage during the Godzilla’s evolution scene. Akira Ifukube, who composed the music for 1954 Gojira had impeccably complimented to the apocalyptic tone of the feature (he was also responsible for providing sound of monster’s roar –used at one occasion in this reboot – and thundering footsteps).

Shin Godzilla’s (120 minutes) grander political implications sometimes make it frustrating, but thanks to minimalist yet very effective action sequences and sharply focused narrative it sets up the benchmark for new-age monster flicks. Like the old, black-and-white original movie, it asks big sociopolitical questions without wholly diluting the impact of chilling monster action.

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