Made Overseas: Shin Godzilla (2016)

Hideki Anno, the mad genius behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, made a Godzilla movie.  Well, co-directed.  Shin Higuchi is listed as co-director, and he handled a lot of the special effects.  But thematically I think that Anno took point.

With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound he pulls the spitting high-tension wires down.

Think upon that reality when you consider Shin Godzilla (or Godzilla Resurgence). That very statement makes your mind race through many strange things. He, for example, had already tackled giant beasties and put his own surreal stamp on them. He does do that here, where Godzilla is a constantly evolving super-monster whose adaptations manifest as new powers, and who drips red goo that are certain to evolve into new monsters with frightening features. (The closing scene is classic Anno as well. I had to rewind it to try to figure out what the hell it was that I just saw. Not to spoil anything, but it feels like an understated horror moment in a movie that was more or less traditional kaiju action.)

There’s also lot of silent moments that serve to underline the frenetic action when it happens. It very reminiscent of the last two episodes of Evangelion, where Anno either ran out of budget or was terminally depressed or was on drugs (the explanation changes depending on who you ask). A good amount of the runtime is just colorized black and white photos of powerlines. Now, nothing that exptreme happens here, but there are moments where all you see are just still shots of city scenery. It’s very zen.

They say he’s got to go.

What you might not expect, though, is that Anno basically made “Wes Anderson’s Godzilla.” I imagine even the American distributors felt same way, with the English captions for the places and character names flashing on screen in the recognizable and retro Futura font.

What makes me say this? That Hideki Anno has become Wes Anderson? A couple of things. The color grading, for one. It’s in a retro creamy palette, emphasizing peach and pink and tan and beige. It hearkens back to the early Godzilla movies, where you might open a box and two pixies smile at you in unison. Then there’s the way it’s framed. There are nearly symmetrical longshots whith a character placed at dead center. Others are closeups with the character staring full on at the screen, as if he or she were addressing the viewer. The effects feel handmade, too. We’re back to Godzilla being what seems to be a person in a rubber monster costume, and the vehicles and buildings being tiny miniatures. Wes Anderson only wishes he had a miniatures team that was so involved.

Oh, no. There goes Tokyo.

It’s also one of the funniest Godzilla movies I have ever seen… and I don’t mean in that same way that Godzilla does a happy dance after defeating King Ghidorah. There’s a scene where a council goes back and forth on whether Godzilla can make landfall. The scientists decide it’s highly unlikely as the creature is so large that there’s little chance that it can survive outside the water. The press secretary gets on the news and explains that there’s no need to panic, everything is under control… only to be informed by an aide that the monster has indeed gotten out of the water. Some scenes later the press secretary talks about how that faux pas made him look like an idiot onscreen.

The monster reveal is all sorts of funny, too. We all know what Godzilla is supposed to look like, right? Slightly canine, standing upright, heavy brow. So it’s rather disarming when the monster reveal happens… and he looks like a plucked turkey with googly eyes skidding around on his belly. It is such a strange reveal that I said to myself, “No. That can’t be Godzilla! That’s the monster he fights, right?” It’s plausible. The Gareth Edwards movie started with insectlike monsters that were decidedly not Godzilla. Did Anno start this movie the same way?

Bug-eyed, he looks in on them.

It’s doofy… and kinda terrifying, especially when it slithers over buildings and toppled them like no one’s business. I’ve never liked the Godzilla movies where scientists try to stop the military because Godzilla is a unique and noble beast. Those goddamn tree-huggers! Can’t they see that this monster is destroying everything in its path? What do you mean it’s wrong to try to stop him. HOW ARE YOU GOING TO FEEL WHEN HE CRUSHES A HOUSE WITH YOUR FAMILY IN IT, YOU MONSTERS!

Shin Godzilla acknowledges that the Big G is unique. However, they take a very Jaws-like approach to him: no matter how much you admire the beast, he must nevertheless be stopped. Part of the shift in perspective for starry eyed ecologists to steadfast War on Godzilla may be laid at the feet of one real world event: the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, which caused both a massive typhoon tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima meltdown. Here are the casualty figures: 15,896 deaths, 6,157 injured, and 2,537 people missing. It was the highest recorded earthquake in Japan, and the costliest natural disaster in history. We thought that we humans could weather out any disaster because of our technology and our hubris. However, when this earthquake crippled one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, it … well, it pointed out the folly of man. This makes it hard to sympathize with a creature that has become the embodiment of an uncontrollable force of nature.

Godzilla is no match for the true villains in the movie: indecisive bureaucracy and stifling foreign relations. The first twenty minutes of the movie is generally Godzilla-less (a trend in seemingly all current day Godzilla movies). Instead, we’re treated to board meeting after board meeting. And it’s somehow not boring. (I actually laughed at some of the dry roll calls, where at one point it’s indicated that the Department of Agriculture is absent. It turns out that that’s an important plot point.) At several points it seems like the prime minister could have curtailed Godzilla, and yet indecisiveness and bending to too many departments may have doomed the country. A missile strike on a still fledgling Godzilla is halted when cameras catch two civilians nearby. There must be no casualties as a result of the government, the Prime Minister argues. Now, as ineffective as the government is, it’s shown several times that their hearts are definitely in the right place. They may be making a ton of mistakes, but they were all trying to keep the people safe.

History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.

The other issue, the foreign relations one, came as a surprise to me. I’ve always thought of Japan as a country with a generally favorable place in the world. It’s an economic leader. Tokyo is one of the wealthiest cities. However, Japan — or at least the portion of Japan that share’s Hideki Anno’s world views — sees itself as a puppet country of the United States. The Japanese military cannot make a move without permission from the US, and America will sometimes act on its own volition without asking the Japanese government first.  Unlike Japan, the US seems to be primarily concerned about covering up its own involvement in the creation of Godzilla rather than helping out the citizens.

It’s not just the US that Japan seems to be buffeted by. Both Russia and China vie for a say in Japan’s policies once Godzilla emerges. The rise of those two countries in recent years, I imagine, may be fueling Japan’s perception that it has become a second-rate country that mus essentially beg for assistance. Several other countries are involved to provide materiel for anti-Godzilla measures and to placate UN measures that might demolish Japan. There’s a scene toward the end where Japan thanks France for its assistance, and the Japanese Prime Minister bows to the French president. It feels like a two-fold commentary: that Japan is in fact genuinely grateful, but that it is once again subservient to other world powers.

America is personified by Kayoko Anne Patterson (played by Satomi Ishihara), the Special Envoy to the President. (And who has ambitions to one day be President.) She seems far too spunky, outgoing, and impulsive. There are times you just want to cut ties with her because she’s just so bossy and demanding. But when the chips are down, she actually knows how to do her job, pulling strings, getting necessarily information, and authorizing military action. And… she’s also slightly seductive. Which, I assume, is how Japan views America. (And yeah, Kayoko is sort of this movie’s Asuka Langley.)

Godzilla is heading toward Ginza.  Please evacuate soon!

Rando Yaguchi (played by Hiroki Hasegawa) is the Deputy Chief Cabinet secretary who first theorizes that the geological disturbances are caused by a huge freaking monster. The name comes from research documents from a disgraced Japanese zoologist who worked in the US who had studied mutations being caused by radiation. It’s a weird inversion of the real world story. It’s the Americans who had dubbed his theoretical monster as “Godzilla”, while the Japanese retranslate the name to “Gojira”. Yaguchi’s main goal is to stop Godzilla before America — with the support of every country in the UN — nukes Tokyo in a Hail Mary measure. (Is this a commentary on America getting a little too involve in the Fukushima disaster? Or just the US using Japan as a bulwark against Russia and China in general?)

The reactions are some of the best parts of the movie. The US bullies its way into sending stealth bombers on Japanese soil. While apprehensive, annoyed, and frightened at first, the Japanese Prime Minister cheers on when it looks like that the measures are working. Hey, Americans really do know what they’re doing! And then… Godzilla unleashes a power that has never before been seen in previous Godzilla movies. It’s a shock to the characters AND a shock to the audience.

Maybe America doesn’t know everything.

He wades through the buildings toward the center of town.

The movie both adheres to established traditions and subverts several of them.  What makes a Godzilla movie?  Political allegory, wanton destruction, and the military sending wave after wave of fakey looking tanks.  But, man, does Anno surprise you with the Big G.  He (or she?  The monster is reproducing, after all) is an evolving, gooey mess that glows red from its own internal heat.  it’s probably one of the most visceral and organic depictions of Godzilla ever. It adapts to every environment, feeding on nuclear matter and sprouting legs to seek out energy sources.  But at one point the monster stops after it has run out of energy, standing in the middle of the city to recharge until it unleashes it’s next unpredictable attack.  Godzilla probably has as much screen time as the one in the American movie, but it keeps surprising us.  Each appearance feels fresh and meaningful.

And while the monster doesn’t look quite as real as his CGI brother, I argue that that’s part of the appeal.  Being somewhat fake is a feature.  It helps put us in Godzilla’s shoes, and we become that little kid again that just wants to stomp on animal cracker boxes that stand in for tiny buildings.  I was watching footage of the old King Kong vs. Godzilla movie on my cellphone with a 5-year-old the other day.  (The kid is a huge Godzilla nut, and he asked me if he’s ever fought King Kong.  I showed him the evidence.)  Adult onlookers commented on how terrible and fake everything looked.  But honestly… that’s not the point.  The kid was thrilled.  Remember, the movie came out fifty years ago. It’s rare that a movie that old can still hold the attention of kids these days. I had to cut it off half-way because I had to leave… and a week later he demanded we watch the rest of the fight.  And your eyes turn to the miniatures to admire the craftsmanship on display, and how the right camera angles can give you an excellent sense of scale.  I found myself doing the same thing watching Shin Godzilla.

The movie did well in Japan, opening number one at the box office and earning more than double of that new American Godzilla (2014). It ended up being Japan’s second highest grossing film of 2016 (bested only by Toho’s other massive hit that year, Your Name). To put this into perspective, Shin Godzilla made more than Star Wars: The Last Jedi did the following year.

Go, go, Godzilla!

However, there will apparently be no Shin Godzilla 2, thanks to the contract that Toho signed for Legendary to make Godzilla movies through to 2020. Those Americans… they got one over us again! But… so seductive. The current plan should be a familiar and very American one: Toho is going to pursue a shared universe instead.

Sadly, this deprives us of an odd sequel being set up in the closing scenes. Kayoko becomes president of the US, Yaguchi becomes prime minister, they get married and the US and Japan become this massive political superentity… together at last, equals as a mega-global-superpower.  One capable of fighting Godzilla when she returns.

OK, that’s probably not where it was going to go… but I would argue that my version is a far superior one that would likely mirror The End of Evangelion. A giant Godzilla head floating around in red goo. The President and Prime Minister being the last two people on Earth and doing… things. Considering that the next Toho movie after this one is a 2017 animated movie (available on Netflix) that begins with the world taken over by Godzilla, maybe this is exactly what happened.

Shin Godzilla is available on iTunes.

NEXT: Husband and wife team Deng Chao and Sun Li act cute together in Devil and Angel.