This review was originally written in September of 2016. We bring it to your attention today in celebration of Funimation’s blu-ray release of the film, which you can find here.
An anomalous explosion within the Tokyo bay floods an underground tunnel with what appears to be blood. The Japanese government is mobilized as various departments and ministers collaborate to figure out what’s going on. An underground volcano? A steam vent? Bureaucracy stifles government response as strange reports start flooding in from social media: within the steam and boiling seawater there lies a gigantic creature. What is this creature? Where did it come from? More importantly…will Japan be around long enough to find out?
When Funimation announced at San Diego Comic Con that they would be bringing Toho’s latest entry in the Godzilla franchise, Shin Godzilla (alternatively titled Godzilla: Resurgence), to the states, fans were elated. A revival of the classic franchise that first came to the silver screen over 60 years ago, the hype surrounding Shin Godzilla continued to skyrocket when the directors were announced. Headed up by Hideaki Anno (of Evangelion fame) and Shinji Higuchi (who directed the recent live action Attack on Titan film), Shin Godzilla takes us back to the start of the Godzilla mythos by presenting a fresh take on the kaiju’s origins.
Starting from square one is a welcome approach following the numerous botched attempts to modernize Godzilla. Who can ever forget the travesty that was the 1998 iteration of the iconic kaiju – starring Matthew Broderick and this…thing?
Warner Bros. also attempted to reboot the series recently with their 2014 entry featuring Bryan Cranston as the curmudgeonly professor who “told you so”. Neither of these films properly captured the spirit of Godzilla, and was further hamstrung by poor acting and haphazard plots.
Granted, the Godzilla franchise was never a bastion of cinematic achievement – but its influence on monster films is undeniable, and this is where most of the recent Godzilla films go awry: they disrespect that legacy. I’m happy to say that Shin Godzilla is just the revival that Godzilla fans are looking for. Developed by Toho, it features the traditional Godzilla look and feel, and is able to move all of its source material into the age of the internet and social media; all while incorporating some stinging commentary on nuclear proliferation, U.S.-Japan relations and bureaucracy.
As the Tokyo Bay boils and government officials scramble to find answers, we are introduced to Rando Yaguchi. As the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, he’s responsible for coordinating all of the various ministries within the Japanese government, along with his boss – the Chief Cabinet Secretary. After he proves to be useful during Godzilla’s initial attack, he finds himself rapidly rising in rank and is placed in charge of an emergency coalition of “outcasts, troublemakers and nerds” to get to the bottom of what Godzilla is, and how to destroy it.
Hiroki Hasegawa does an excellent job as Yaguchi, reminding us of another key element missing from many of Godzilla’s recent entries: proper acting. When Hasegawa can perform the herculean task of humanizing politicians, you know you’re headed in the right direction.
Yaguchi is partnered with a special envoy from the United States, Kayoko Ann Patterson. The daughter of a U.S. senator, and an ambitious politician in her own right (she appears to be striving for the presidency by the time she’s in her 40s), Kayoko proves herself to be a formidable ally. Representing the weight and influence of the US government, she faces her own internal struggles as she attempts to reconcile her loyalty to her homeland with her career path.
Of course, the real star of any Godzilla movie is the big guy himself. It’s a bit difficult for me to dive into too much detail because I really want you to experience it for yourself, but sufficed to say that this Godzilla earns his title of “God Incarnate”. The awe and dread that he instills is undeniable, and the carnage and destruction he wreaks on Tokyo is glorious to behold.
If you’re a fan of Evangelion, you’re likely drawn to this iteration of Godzilla due to Anno’s involvement with it – I would invite you to take a good listen to the soundtrack as well. You’re likely to hear some familiar tunes during the clashes with Godzilla. If you aren’t familiar with Evangelion, you’re still in for quite a treat, as the music aptly captures the frenzy and intensity of a clash with a gigantic monster.
You could certainly enjoy this film (clocking in at just under 2 hours) as your standard giant monster, popcorn munching entertainment. However, if you’re familiar with the history of Godzilla as political commentary, it delivers on that front as well. Many have written before on the original Godzilla film as a commentary on the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki… rather bold considering that for Japanese audiences watching the premiere in 1954, those bombings were less than a decade old. There are also interpretations of Godzilla as the spirit of Japanese soldiers who served in World War II as the nation of Japan seemingly moved on with its collective life without paying proper respects. Shin Godzilla brings these topics and others to the forefront with dialogue that actually calls it out.
At one point Yaguchi chastises a colleague who is confident that the SDF will defeat Godzilla handily stating “Armchair theories and overconfidence cost us 3 million lives…” referring to the defeat of Imperial Japanese forces in World War II. During a conversation with his friend and mentor Akasaka, Yaguchi adamantly disagrees with a proposed nuclear strike on Tokyo. Akasaka replies “Scrap and build worked for this country before. We can do it again.” Referring to the economic growth that Japan enjoyed following its utter and complete destruction at the hands of the United States in the final months of World War II.
Layered within these references are further reflections on modern Japanese society – a post Fukushima Japan that is hyper-aware of radiation sickness. A world that utilizes the powerful tool known as Social Media – capable of taking uploaded raw video of a “mysterious creature” and having it seen by millions within moments of the event taking place.
As a scholar of Japanese history I really enjoyed seeing these political issues, past and present, addressed within this larger framework. As a fan of Godzilla movies, I think Shin Godzilla does a tremendous job of revitalizing the franchise. Overall, a terrific romp through kaiju territory.