SHIN GODZILLA (2016)
(Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi)
(Written by Hideaki Anno)
(Starring Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi and Satomi Ishihara)
Plot: The Japanese Government struggles to maintain control when a giant, radioactive monster attacks their country in this remake of the original classic. Also known as “Shin Gojira” and “Godzilla: Resurgence“.
I’ve been a Godzilla fanboy since I was a kid, beginning my journey on Kaiju Island with “Godzilla 1985” and immediately following it with…”Godzilla’s Revenge“…Tragically, despite being able to remember the circumstances surrounding both of those viewings, I cannot recall how I felt about going from ‘terror incarnate‘ Godzilla to ‘plays volleyball with Ebirah‘ Godzilla in such a short time period without any warning. But I loved them both and nostalgia continues to protect “Godzilla’s Revenge” from the wrath of my ‘inner-critic’, who tries to explain to me why it’s the worst entry in a franchise that spawned some pretty shitty entries. My fanboyism runs that deep and I would be overcome with excitement every time Godzilla would return to the cinema, especially if it was on the big screen. I counted the seconds until I was in the theaters, ready for the opening credits to begin for “Godzilla (1997)“, “Godzilla 2,000” and “Godzilla (2014)“, as I was too young to experience the other ones that got theatrical releases in the U.S. Yet none of them came close to matching the anticipation I felt for “Shin Godzilla” and no amount of re-watching trailers, listening to the soundtrack, locating pieces of footage or trivia or analyzing every single review available online could quench my thirsts. I literally had sleepless nights, because I NEEDED “Shin Godzilla” inside of me. I suppose my obsession probably stems from a lot of things, but mostly the combination of an awesome viral campaign and creative risk taking. Director Hideaki Anno (“Neon Genesis Evangelion“) was a daring and strange choice for Toho, but a fascinating one who might be the shot of wild imagination that the franchise needs at this point. The crazy monster design and rumors of Godzilla’s capabilities seemed to confirm that whether the final product was good or bad, at least it would be interesting and unique. The trailers were also awe inspiring, thanks to that haunting music composed by Shirō Sagisu, so everything seemed designed to get me pumped up. I was furious when I realized that the ‘week long’ limited release really translated to three days, one showing each…in only a few theaters…I did manage to secure tickets in time though, even if I was forced to endure some pretty crappy seats, but do you know what? None of that mattered by the time I saw the Toho logo. I cannot describe the joy I felt as I watched this on the big-screen, although I can describe the despair everyone sitting near me felt when they realized I was not wearing any pants. I was that happy and when I get happy, things get sticky…and “Shin Godzilla” made a lot of things get sticky.
I had heard that “Shin Godzilla” was a little slow paced, with many comparing its withholding of the titular monster to “Godzilla (2014)“‘s teasing, but I thought it moved a lot more quickly than even the more action packed Kaiju flicks. Yeah, Godzilla himself has a limited amount of screen-time, but his presence is felt in every scene and he actually emerges in the very beginning. “Shin Godzilla” is less about a monster rampaging in Japan though as much as it’s about the Governments’ reaction to a monster rampaging in Japan. In the original “Gojira“, Godzilla was a metaphor for the dangers of Nuclear War, with much of the imagery being designed to evoke memories of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Shin Godzilla” has traces of that, but is drawing most of its inspiration from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Tsunami which lead to it. Japanese audiences will probably be a lot more in tune with this subtext than their western counterparts, but even I noticed how much Godzilla’s first attack resembled a Tsunami and how he apparently leaks radiation- with other connections to the real life event having to be explained to me. The film satirizes the Governments’ documented poor response to the disaster, although it somehow pulls this off without presenting the administration as corrupt or stupid. They’re just being restricted by a lot of bureaucratic red tape and it’s actually pretty funny watching them randomly change rooms or call press conferences, possibly just because that’s the one thing they can seem to do in a timely fashion. The writing is very clever, with the dialogue coming across as snappy, witty and authentic. But I was taken aback by how compelling all of this focus on politics really was and I attribute this to the cast.
There is a sense of urgency in every scene, with every minute being dedicated to the characters desperately trying to find a resolution to this problem, which is difficult when their own policies are either too cryptic, vague or counterproductive when dealing with the situation at hand. You feel their mounting frustrations. There are a few characters who function as protagonists, but you never learn about their back-stories or their home lives and they don’t really have any kind of development arc. We are only seeing who they are based on how they’re reacting to the attacks, which is somehow a lot more interesting and exciting than most human-based subplots in Kaiju flicks. The biggest obstacle every monster movie faces is making its human characters compelling, as nobody watches “Godzilla Vs Gigan” to see a hippie, a cartoonist and his karate wielding girlfriend take on giant cockroaches…although that sounds amazing when I say it out loud…They want to see Godzilla, Anguirus, Ghidorah and Gigan! But the humans usually only interact with the Kaiju indirectly, so “Mothra Vs Godzilla” will have its protagonists convince Mothra to save them and spend the remainder of the running-time doing absolutely nothing. But “Shin Godzilla” is about its characters actively trying to stop the threat, so their screen-time relates directly to Godzilla, making them a lot more interesting. The actors do a great job at conveying nervousness and anger, which builds upon the tension as the stakes continuously escalate. Their fear seems real, so it’s easy to become emotionally invested. The only times I cringed were when the English language was involved, as the western actors were mediocre at best and they chose to cast non-English speaking Satomi Ishihara (Kayoko Ann Patterson) as an American, which leads to some very awkward exchanges. At one point, she is talking with a Japanese character in English, and he seems a lot more comfortable speaking the language than her. Nevertheless, she is a good actress and boasts a lot of charisma, so I could overlook this. The only time the pacing snagged for me was during that breather period between the second and third acts, as I felt like the narrative climaxed prematurely (and I did too). The final showdown was exciting enough to bring me back, but I do think at least 5 or 10 minutes could’ve been shaved off.
We’ve all been hailing Hideaki Anno as the visionary director behind this, probably because he isn’t known for directing those crappy “Attack on Titan” movies, but he shares the directorial credit with Shinji Higuchi. We all tend to forget about him, probably because he is known for directing those crappy “Attack on Titan” movies, but I noticed both of their fingerprints on the finished product. Higuchi was in charge of directing the effects and he re-uses a lot of his techniques from “Attack on Titan“, but they’re a lot more eye poppingly awesome here. The shots emphasizing the scale of Godzilla are awe inspiring, whereas when he tried the same thing with the Titans, it only drew attention to how phony they looked. I’m not sure if budgetary differences were responsible for this apparent upgrade, or if he simply mastered his techniques, but there are a lot of striking visuals. Yet you can tell that Anno was probably the creative mind to Higuchi’s technician, as who else would come up with something as bizarre as Godzilla gushing out blood from his gills for absolutely no reason other than to freak the audience out. Anno’s “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is either a masterpiece of epic proportions or an overrated, pretentious mess depending on who you ask, but we can’t deny that he’s an imaginative individual. You might be upset that Godzilla doesn’t face another monster, but this incarnation of Godzilla can do a lot more than the classic version, so expect your mind to be blown with some of the ‘reveals’. The action scenes are a lot more unconventional than anything we’ve seen in the past, using odd angles, music cues, colors and edits. I loved these stylistic touches, as they helped give the film its identity, but the content is also unusual. Humanity devises a really cool and credible strategy to overcome Godzilla. Anno’s strength is his imagination, yet his weakness also tends to be his imagination- as he’s prone to overloading the narrative with ideas. But he seems weirdly restrained with “Shin Godzilla“, keeping the story relatively simple and never straying too far from the Godzilla mythos. For those who complain about his new powers or appearance, keep in mind that Godzilla turned himself magnetic in “Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla“, could fly in “Godzilla Vs the Smog Monster” and resembled the cookie monster more than his namesake in “Godzilla Vs the Sea Monster“, so the franchise has already crossed this bridge. During the scenes focusing on the politicians, the camera moves swiftly between and around its characters, enhancing the pace and the editing is very reminiscent of Anno. He loves those abrupt, random and stylish edits, but they flow together beautifully. Shirō Sagisu is primarily known for scoring anime, such as “Bleach” and “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and you even get to hear a few of those tracks here. I think he did a great job reflecting the tone, as his music alternated from grim to tragic to inspiring, but I disagreed with how he used some of Akira Ifukube’s classic themes. The sound quality was just so rough and old, as if they literally lifted it from “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” and it didn’t mix well with these modern visuals. They should’ve done an updated composition of that same piece of music, which would’ve been nostalgic without standing out so awkwardly.
But what about Godzilla himself? When I first saw stills of the new design, I wasn’t really sure how I felt, as it was simultaneously silly and nightmarish. The trailers only continued to inflame my mixed feelings, as Godzilla looked impressive, but seemed so slow and immobile that I wondered if he could really do anything. Well, after having seen movie, I can safely say that I…don’t…like…this updated look…This must be odd to you, as I’ve spent the entire review lauding “Shin Godzilla“, so how can I criticize Godzilla himself? His eyes are completely lifeless, but less like the creepy eyes of a malevolent being such as what we got in “Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All Out Monsters Attack” and more like the creepy eyes of…a puppet…This is especially apparent when Godzilla makes his first appearance, as he starts out with an unrecognizable form that gradually mutates over the course of the film until he resembles the King of the Monsters. I’m cool with this idea, but those f@cking eyes killed so much of the intensity. They make Godzilla’s face look so adorable, rendering the attack almost comical and this really contrasts with the grim 2011 Tsunami inspired imagery. The eyes become a little more tolerable when Godzilla takes his final form, but there are a lot of awkward shots where the eyes kill the illusion that I am watching a living creature. I think this Godzilla is over-designed, with the shrunken arms, seared skin and disfigured jaws stripping him away his character. Godzilla has always had a personality, whether he’s malicious, clumsy, heroic, a loving parent, a genocidal maniac, a noble beast or a bully, in a good movie or a bad movie, in an Toho production or even an American one, he had attributes which made him a real character and not just an effect. This is the first time where I felt like Godzilla was just a prop and while I made an emotional connection to his rampages, I never felt anything towards the monster itself, even though I think it was supposed to be a tragic creature…because his theme song is called “Who will know tragedy?“. I believe the design is mostly at fault, as his facial features are so detailed that his entire head becomes rigid. It was unable to convey any emotion and was it just me, or did Godzillas’ jaw sometimes hang open for absolutely no reason? That kind of stuff once again drew attention to the fact that I was watching a special effect and not a real monster. The shrunken arms means that they can’t use a guy in a suit, which might seem like an upgrade to casual viewers, but it’s at the expense of body language. Godzilla’s mannerisms were pivotal in giving him a personality, but this Godzilla can only stomp forward and look imposing. They used an ambitious alignment of special effects to bring Godzilla life- such as puppets, animatronics, motion capture and digital effects. For all the problems I have with his look, these SFX are pretty consistently solid…ignoring those eyes…I also love what they do with his atomic breath, even though you’re going to have to wait for it (WORTH IT). The miniature work is easily the best that the franchise- perhaps even genre- has ever produced, seamlessly compositing them in with Godzilla and the fleeing humans. The destruction looks very realistic and even the subpar CGI never took me out of the experience, as the camera was always angled in a way to draw attention to something else. It should be noted that my concerns with this Godzilla might change over time, as this version of the monster is intended to be a symbol, not a character. Maybe my fanboyism is more at fault than “Shin Godzilla” itself. Final nitpick: While I liked the gradual reveal of Godzilla in his early form, I feel like they needed a more mesmerizing establishing shot of him when he returns in his final form.
But even though I have issues with the monster himself, the movie surrounding him is pretty awesome. “Shin Godzilla” has heart and vision, along with the skill and resources to make compelling cinema out of them. I loved “Shin Godzilla” and it met my high expectations, even if it’s not necessarily for everyone. The subtitles are very difficult to follow, because the film is dense with dialogue and we have to pay attention to what they’re saying, the character names and occupations being listed on-screen and then you have the Japanese subtitles for when a character speaks English. You might become exhausted trying to keep up, or maybe you just will find the content to be too talky for your tastes. You might not understand the subtext and there have been complaints that “Shin Godzilla” is anti-U.S. I disagree with this interpretation, but for some reason, Americans sometimes think they own patriotism. The movie is definitely is Pro-Japan, perhaps even bordering on propaganda at times, but every film industry does this. You also might not like Godzilla’s appearance or the fact that it’s a hard reboot of the franchise. But I had a strong positive reaction to “Shin Godzilla“, so I am obviously not one of these people.
Violence: PG-13 worthy. Godzilla bleeds and causes mass destruction, but it’s hardly the grisliest entry in the franchise.
Overall: “Shin Godzilla” is in danger of experiencing a hype backlash, but I still adored it. Even my Dad liked the movie and he HATES Godzilla.