Director: Hideaki Anno
Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Yutaka Takenouchi
Runtime: 2 hrs
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: Encore Films
Opening Day: 25 August 2016
Synopsis: An unknown source causes a catastrophic accident in the tunnels of the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line, leading to irreparable damage and massive flooding. An emergency cabinet meeting is ordered to salvage the situation and discover the cause of the accident. Soon after, a gigantic creature emerges and rampages through town after town, much to everyone’s horror. How will Japan deal with this gigantic “monster” that they know nothing about?
‘Shin Godzilla’ isn’t Toho’s vainglorious attempt at re-capturing the success of recent Hollywood adaptations of its iconic Japanese monster. Quite the contrary, co-directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi know better than try to outdo their Western counterparts in terms of spectacle, and instead have made the astute decision to make a distinctly Japanese ‘Godzilla’ that will most certainly resonate with their home audience, even if it does come at the expense of alienating some non-Japanese viewers without the same cultural or historical context. In fact, we dare say that their film has the unique distinction of being both political allegory as well as real-world horror, and is surprisingly effective on either count.
No other recent event has been so seared in the Japanese consciousness as that of the 2011 Tohoko earthquake and tsunami as well as the consequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, not just because of the hundreds of thousands of people affected but also because it exposed how terribly unprepared the Japanese government was with handling a crisis of such proportions. The parallels here are unmistakable – from an indecisive Prime Minister (Ren Ôsugi) to the frustratingly bureaucratic attitude of his Cabinet ministers to the embarrassing revelation of his poor judgment (such as during a live press conference where Godzilla makes landfall right after he specifically tells the people that the creature will not) – and indeed meant no less than a searing indictment of just how inept the Naoto Kan’s administration was during 3/11.
Yet it isn’t hard to imagine how a movie based solely on such criticism would quickly turn monotonous, not least because the lead characters here are all political/ Government figures – among them, Hiroki Hasegawa’s outspoken and gutsy Deputy Chief of Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, Yutaka Takenouchi’s opportunistic Aide to the Prime Minister Hideki Akasaka, and Satomi Ishihara’s Special Envoy for the United States Kayoko Ann Patterson – and each is defined only in terms of his or her role and ambition in relation to the ongoing calamity. None too subtle is the point, emphatically and unequivocally made, that while politicians wield the ingenuity and authority it takes to manage an unprecedented catastrophe, each is also simultaneously weighting the cost or opportunity of every decision or maneuver to his or her political futures.
Just as illuminating, especially to the Japanese, is the strengths or limits of its military might post-WWII, seeing as how it has never yet seen the need to invoke the use of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) or call in the help of the US military under the US-Japan Security Treaty. Under the pretense of exterminating Godzilla, Anno’s screenplay imagines what it would take not just for the SDF to be activated but also how US intervention would likely come with some strings attached. How and if at all it is meant to play into the current Shinzo Abe’s push for an expansion of the SDF role is quite perceptively left up to the audience’s interpretation, but there is no doubting that the introduction of the United Nations late into the film is meant to demonstrate how powerless nations not on its Security Council may be to resolutions passed by its five members on non-member countries.
Yes, if it isn’t yet clear, there is no intent here to highlight the human dimension of such an event; rather, it is domestic politics as well as the global world order that forms the basis of this re-incarnation of Godzilla. As a reboot, ‘Shin Godzilla’ starts on a clean slate, beginning with an underwater disturbance that briefly makes its way onto shore before going back out to sea, then returning as a much more highly evolved organism that grows and grows ever more fearsome. Fans though will not be disappointed – as with past iterations of Godzilla, this latest version not only has the ability to radiate highly destructive atomic rays from its dorsal fins, it also can set streets of buildings ablaze by spewing fire out of its mouth. It does take time to get used to the new ‘ShinGoji’ design, but rest assured that this beast is every bit as terrifying as it should be.
In fact, that palpable sense of fear is twofold – first, in tying the origins of Godzilla to Japan’s ignominious nuclear history; and second, in showing with utmost realism the wanton destruction of notable landmarks in Tokyo by the monster. The former has to do as much with the United States’ alleged dumping of radioactive waste in Tokyo Bay in the 1950s and 1960s as accusations of Japan’s own disposal of toxic ash from the burning of Fukushima’s nuclear waste into the same waters. The latter, on the other hand, sees entire districts in Tokyo ripped or flattened by Godzilla’s rampage, impressively staged by co-director cum VFX supervisor Anno (also known for last summer’s ‘Attack of Titan’) using a mix of old-fashioned puppetry and modern CGI. In particular, the combined US-Japan military assault on Godzilla along the banks of the Kano River and the finale in downtown Shinjuku is stunning, especially in imagining the magnitude of destruction that Godzilla could inflict on modern-day Japan.
Yet like we said at the start, if the promotional materials have given the impression that ‘Shin Godzilla’ is an action-packed blockbuster like its most recent Hollywood predecessors, you’ll do best to temper those expectations. Sure, there are beautiful sequences of Godzilla wreaking havoc, but because the focus is on displaying different types of political personalities and their responses towards such a crisis of proportions, there is a lot of talking (as well as ‘talking heads’) throughout the film and especially in the beginning. By tapping into the paranoia, fear and frustration of their fellow Japanese following their own recent real-life crises, Anno and Higuchi have made a contemporary ‘Godzilla’ that is sure to roar loud with their home crowd – and by that count, this is as its Japanese title suggests, a new and true incarnation as relevant as it is frightening.
(Not your typical Hollywood blockbuster - 'Shin Godzilla' taps into the paranoia, fear and frustration of the Japanese people post-3/11 to deliver sharp political allegory and chilling real-world horror)
Review by Gabriel Chong