Film Review: Shin Godzilla (2016)
The Japanese still know how to do this right.
Shin Godzilla is Toho Studio's 30th incarnation of Godzilla, making it the longest-running and most profitable monster film franchise in the world. One might think that they have run out of steam, but if this iteration is to go by, they still have a few tricks left.
If watched with subtitles, Shin Godzilla could also prove a test of your reading abilities. Each member of bureaucracy, each location, and event is introduced with names and titles while the characters are already talking, that too in a rapid, overlapping style. Once someone has been promoted and a different task force has been formed, they are even re-introduced! This might seem confusing until you realize the reason why the bureaucracy is being depicted so densely: It builds into a mockery of all the designations listed. So many heads - politicians, environmentalists, biologists, scientists, and military experts - talk their heads off but find it difficult to reach a decision, losing precious lives. Like in The Host, people are on their own and the incompetency of modern government is ill-equipped. The director duo's focus on the 'talkie' scenes is intense and they never come across as boring.
The film also partly seems a reaction to the various inferior Hollywood blockbusters starring the eponymous. It seems intent to bring back into focus what the original films were intended as; externalizing the monster of the nuclear attack on Japan. Here too, the US does not come across as the heroes as they would like to think of themselves. In fact, the US government, interested in 'exterminating' the monster remains off-screen giving their commands over the phone. They are not concerned with Japanese life, just the destruction of the monster that might, in the long run, prove to be a danger to them.
This is very different from films like Godzilla: King of Monsters that seemed to have a fetishistic obsession with Nuclear explosions and almost normalised them having its heroes fighting just some distance away from them and escaping unharmed. Japan as a country has gone through it and the ghost still hangs over. So when being spoken about here, it is with the dreaded burden of history.
It all begins with the discovery of a "pleasure boat" in the middle of the ocean. There is no one on board and people speculate if the travelers went overboard.
While they are busy sorting this out, the Tokyo Bay bursts into a geyser of hot water, leading the government to conclude that maybe it is lava underground. Only one man, Deputy Secretary of Disaster Management Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), realizes that this could be a gigantic life form.
As is the norm with the genre, his assertion is laughed off and he is even warned-off by his superior to toe the line. But everyone is shocked into silence when a rather unmissable tail appears in one of the videos.
The rest of the film is mounting various strategies to counter the behemoth while Godzilla does what it does best. All set to Shiro Sagisu's wonderful score that seems to imbibe the grand epic and the bombastic, both.
The cast is sprawling and for those who watch Japanese films, there are some very familiar faces. The characterization is not really deep, but the broad strokes used to describe the characters seem sufficient here. The actors latch on to these broad quirks and make them work. Yaguchi does stand for the common good but he never denies his political ambitions when teased about them. Mikako Ichikawa, a lowly and intelligent employee of the government is appropriately nervous and finds her footing in a new task force that eschews formal designations. There is also some scene-stealing work from Satomi Ishihara as smart US envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson, whose English is worse than her Japanese counterparts. In a film like this, it is hard to say if this is by design.
It is surprising, that with all the satiric undercurrent, Shin Godzilla manages to be genuinely thrilling and frightening.
The first time we see the monster, it comes across as unrealistic. A massive reptile with frozen eyes and open mouth as if it is as astonished to find itself here as we are to see it. Its body is a melding of rubber and CGI that makes you laugh as it chills you. It is the unreal sight that is surrounded by real (i.e. very convincing) destruction around it that creates surreal imagery that is seldom touched in these films.
When it grows before our very eyes (throwing liters of blood in the process from the various deep slashes in its body) it begins to resemble a Godzilla that we have come to know. But even this design is rendered deep black, hiding its eyes. A living creature that it is impossible to relate to. Impossible to kill - just like this franchise.
It is an exciting, involving disaster film whose satiric vein deepens as it progresses. The political ambitions of the hero heighten just as Godzilla increases and reveal its terrible powers. All opportunities are up for grabs.
Directors Hideako Anno and Shinji Higuchi end on a high satiric note when the solution is to freeze the monster indefinitely in its place where it will always loom over Tokyo. It's frozen, not killed, waiting to be revived until the next time Toho wakes it up.