SHIN GODZILLA (2016), co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi (who also supervised the special effects), is the first new Godzilla movie to be made by the Japanese since GODZILLA FINAL WARS in 2004 and was released to theaters in Japan in July 2016 and given a limited release in the U.S. in October. (In some listings the film is referred to by its English release title, GODZILLA RESURGENCE.) Coming two years after Hollywood’s most recent attempt to duplicate the success of Godzilla (see my piece of May 25, 2014), this film takes the Godzilla franchise in a completely new and different direction, setting it in the current political landscape of contemporary Tokyo and functioning as if Japan has never seen a giant monster before. How would the Japanese government and its bureaucrats and various ministries react to the appearance of an actual giant monster in Tokyo? What would it take to get the Prime Minister to make timely decisions and get the various departments to work together? This is not an atypical scene from the movie:
If one recalls past Toho monster movies, the Japanese government and military response was generally pretty quick and the evacuation efforts begun early in the crisis.
The new film seeks to craft this reaction in painstaking detail. As such, it spends a lot of time in offices and conference rooms as the various representatives of different departments and ministries meet and discuss options, with constant awareness of public reaction and the need to minimize casualties and property damage, something they quickly learn they can’t control. Each official and bureaucrat is identified onscreen by name and title, as is the location of each meeting and the locations where the monster appears. This means that as the dialogue is exchanged at rapid fire, the bottom of the screen is used for dialogue subtitles while the top of the screen is used for character and location identifications. I sat at the back of the theater I was in (see pic below), so I was able to read both pretty quickly, but it could be a challenge for those sitting closer.
As some of the comments on IMDB indicate, some viewers figured out early on that they should just ignore the subtitles on the top to focus on the dialogue.
Those of us who are familiar with the work of co-director Hideaki Anno aren’t too surprised by this. In his 1998 anime series, “His and Her Circumstances” (aka Kare Kano), the frames were so filled with onscreen text that I often had to watch it with the English dub track on, something I usually try to avoid, so I wouldn’t have to also read dialogue subtitles while keeping track of everything else.
The film’s treatment of the Prime Minister and the various department heads and bureaucrats called in to come up with strategies for dealing with this unprecedented disaster is satirical, at least for the first half-hour. The audience laughed a lot as the characters kept calling for new meetings in new locations with new people, including a panel of quickly-summoned “experts” who don’t prove to be much help.
All this is meant to call up memories of the March 11, 2011 disaster in which an earthquake and tsunami caused massive flooding in Japan and extensive damage at nuclear power facilities, leading to radiation leaks that contaminated surrounding areas, including farmland. According to Wikipedia, there were 15,894 confirmed deaths and 2,562 people missing. There was widespread criticism of the government’s response and lack of preparedness for such a crisis. SHIN GODZILLA seeks to dramatize this state of affairs, but with a giant monster as the cause of the crisis.
Adding to the humor of the first phase of the film is the appearance of the monster in its earliest form. It does look kind of goofy as it ambles about on land, a giant lizard with big eyes, ungainly, overweight, shuffling along in search of who knows what.
But then things start to change. The monster evolves into the Godzilla form we all know and love, only more formidable and destructive than we’ve ever seen it. And the reactions of the ministers and bureaucrats get more serious. The laughs decrease. Questions begin to form about whether to call in help from the U.S. military under the terms of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. An early counterattack by the Japan Self Defense Force is aborted by the Prime Minister (Ren Ohsugi) after evacuees are spotted in the target area.
Later on, the next attempt, with a full-fledged attack by fighter jets, tanks and ground artillery, proves futile. Godzilla just shrugs it off.
This pretty much echoes how the military’s efforts were treated in earlier Godzilla films, but never with as much detail as presented here. And the military hardware here is real, unlike the toy tanks we used to see in these sequences in 1960s Godzilla films, like these:
Through it all, some key characters emerge from among the younger officials involved in the government’s response. We meet Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Chief of Cabinet Secretary (played by Hiroki Hasegawa); Hideki Akasaka, Aide to the Prime Minister (played by Yutaka Takenouchi); and Kayoko Anne Patterson, a bilingual mixed-race Japanese-American and Special Presidential Envoy from the United States (played by Japanese TV star Satomi Ishihara). These three are the main characters and we follow them for pretty much the whole movie. Akasaka and Patterson each have their own agendas, while Yaguchi is the one heroic figure honestly assessing the situation and seeking an effective solution that does the least damage to Japan. He also seeks help from some rather unorthodox corners.
Hiroki Hasegawa as Rando Yaguchi:
Yutaka Takenouchi as Hideki Akasaka:
Satomi Ishihara as Kayoko Anne Patterson:
Yaguchi is the architect of the “Yaguchi Plan,” which emerges from a team of biologists, chemists and environmental and conservation officers who work overtime to implement it in order to avoid the more disastrous solution demanded by the Americans (more on that later). It involves injecting some kind of coagulant in order to freeze the monster. I can’t give you more details than that because I didn’t quite grasp it. Another viewing should help. But it adds the element of suspense that keeps the film gripping for its entire two-hour length.
The film addresses Japan’s relations with the rest of the world, particularly the U.S. We don’t see the reactions to Godzilla in news reports from around the world nor do we visit the United Nations or offices in other world capitals where the threat of Godzilla would be discussed, something nominally touched on in past Toho monster films. We simply get the Japanese officials’ discussion of their reactions. The only significant non-Japanese presence is that of the Americans, chiefly in the person of Ms. Patterson, but also several American diplomats and military officials in Japan, including Ambassador Lansing, and the participation of American fighter jets and bombers in the various attacks on Godzilla. We also meet one American scientist, Richter, who is shown briefly helping Yaguchi’s task force. There is one brief scene set in Berlin, where we see a trio of German computer scientists who are recruited for crucial help in the Yaguchi Plan. (They speak German, making three languages heard in the film.) The French Ambassador is seen in one quick shot near the end as the acting Prime Minister bows to him in thanks for France’s help on the U.N. Security Council in delaying the drastic solution.
Kayoko Patterson (spelled “Kayoco” in the subtitles) represents American interests, but she has a crisis of conscience midway through the film when she thinks of her Japanese grandmother and the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in the war: “I won’t see a third bomb dropped on the country of my grandmother, who lived through it.” When the other American diplomats evacuate, she opts to stay and offer Yaguchi whatever help she can. Patterson speaks mostly Japanese, but has a lot of dialogue in English. (All her English dialogue was subtitled in the print of the film being shown in the U.S., although it was perfectly clear.) At one point she tells Akasaka, “I’m bad at Japanese honorifics. Can we go informal?” Patterson apparently has ambitions of being elected U.S. President when she reaches her 40s. (The actress playing her was 28 when this was shot.)
When the giant monster is finally named, the first name used is “Godzilla,” spoken by Ms. Patterson reading from documents by a mysterious scientist named Goro Maki who has disappeared but left a treasure trove of notes and research on Godzilla. Patterson claims “Godzilla” was the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s codename for the creature. One of the Japanese officials then reads the name as Maki wrote it in Japanese as “Gojira,” which is how the Japanese continue to refer to the monster throughout the film (and the creature’s name in the very first film about this monster, GOJIRA, from 1954). When the question is asked what “Gojira” means, the official says that on Ohdo Island, it means “God incarnate.” The Prime Minister declares, upon hearing all this, “It’s just as well it originated in the U.S. Now we know what to call it.” This got a big laugh when I saw it. The name “Godzilla” was originally bestowed when Joseph E. Levine acquired the original GOJIRA (1954) for release in the U.S. and shot new footage with American actor Raymond Burr, re-edited the film, dubbed parts of it in English, and retitled the film GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. This all happened 60 years ago. Did Levine have any idea of the legacy he created? If there’s ever a religious cult based on Godzilla, Levine will be the patron saint, having been the man who put the “God” in Godzilla.
There’s some back-and-forth between the Prime Minister and the U.S. President “Charles Ross.” It can get a bit contentious at times. After their first telephone exchange, the Prime Minister tells his cabinet, “A lot of unilateral requests. Typically American.” Later, after Godzilla has become too much of a threat for the Japanese military and its U.S. partners to handle, the U.S. suggests a thermonuclear blast and convinces the U.N. Security Council to issue a formal order for such. This would mean the destruction of Tokyo and would call for the complete evacuation of Tokyo and the surrounding area. After hearing this, the Prime Minister says of the U.S.: “That country foists some crazy things on us.” One official, Izumi, suggests that the U.S. wants a quick solution in order to cover up the fact that they had advance knowledge of Godzilla and he goes on to declare that “the sacrifice of one country for another’s self-gain is deplorable.” When Godzilla goes into some form of hibernation (in the middle of downtown Tokyo), it allows the Japanese two weeks before the blast, not enough time, they think, to evacuate the area and barely enough time to craft the counter-response embodied in the Yaguchi Plan. Eventually, the American military leaves enough personnel in Japan to offer crucial cooperation in order to carry out the Yaguchi Plan.
Would the U.S. in such a situation so blithely order a nuclear bomb dropped on an ally facing such a threat? It is stated that the U.S. fears Godzilla might swim eastward and land in California. Still, I would like to think we wouldn’t embrace the nuclear option so quickly, especially given our history with Japan. I can understand the Japanese still feeling prickly about it 70 years after the atomic bombs were dropped by the U.S. on its soil during the war, but I think we’ve been a good partner with them for much of the time since and we did, after all, give them tremendous aid during the 2011 disaster. They could have been a little kinder to us in the film. I recall another Japanese disaster movie, THE SINKING OF JAPAN (2006), where Japan faced the crisis of sinking entirely into the ocean, and the U.S., while offering plenty of aid, undermines Japan on the financial markets. Here’s what I wrote about that film back in 2011:
The 2006 film does, however show some skepticism about Japan’s position in the eyes of other countries. The Prime Minister, at one point, assumes that, “with our economy gone, America and the other countries are bound to abandon us.” Later, the Minister of Science, acting as de facto Prime Minister, gets upset when she learns that America has begun selling off its Japanese yen and bonds. “They promised us a year,” she complains. “We’ve been cut loose, haven’t we?”
THE SINKING OF JAPAN was directed by Shinji Higuchi, the co-director of SHIN GODZILLA, and it’s a film I like very much, but I’m very sensitive to jabs at the U.S. in recent Japanese films.
To be fair, some Japanese officials in SHIN GODZILLA go along with the nuclear option. Akasaka, for one, thinks they’ll get more worldwide trust and sympathy afterwards and be able to rebuild with international help. If the Yaguchi Plan doesn’t work, all that will be jeopardized. He implies that “Scrap and rebuild” is the Japanese way.
One interesting critique of wartime Japan is uttered by Yaguchi early on when he remarks that “Wishful thinking and armchair theories by the old Imperial Army in the last war led to three million Japanese lives lost. Beware of unfounded optimism.” Later on, Akasaka tells Yaguchi that “Postwar Japan is a tributary state,” to which Yaguchi responds, “Postwar extends forever.” When, late in the film, Ms. Patterson tells Yaguchi that when she’s President and he’s Prime Minister, he’ll be her Japanese counterpart, he responds, “Japanese puppet, you mean.”
While the scenes of men (and some women) in conference rooms, offices, reception areas and computer labs may dominate the screen time and go on too long for some viewers, the special effects scenes showing Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo were quite spectacular and more than sufficient for my tastes. Once Godzilla evolves into his final form, he is truly gigantic, monstrous and destructive. The various artillery and missile assaults barely faze him. The only body fluids to be released are the tons of red effluent discharged from his mouth and what look like gills on his sides at key points in his transformation. When he finally reaches the level at which he can discharge a fiery ray from his mouth, similar to the radioactive flame breath he emits in so many older Godzilla movies, it’s a highly concentrated beam capable of slicing through office towers, planes and tanks with astounding ease. In a few seconds he lays waste to much of downtown Tokyo. When he first let loose, the audience I saw it with applauded wildly. I, however, was a bit unnerved to see so many Tokyo landmarks I’d visited last March go up in smoke. (“Oh no, not Ginza!”) And one of the districts he blasts is none other than Shimbashi, where I stayed for three weeks last March! He can also emit fiery rays from the fins on his back, which knock out a fleet of American bombers seeking to take him down, just after one of the pilots had announced, “It’s payback time!”
The effects are done with a mix of actors in monster suits, CGI, actual locations, and a few miniature sets. I couldn’t tell where the seams lay. It all looked real to me. The co-director, Higuchi, has done plenty of work like this before. He directed the exemplary FX sequences in all three 1990s Gamera movies, GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995), GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION (1996), and GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS (1999), the trilogy which revived the giant turtle monster that was the Daiei Studio’s response to Toho’s Godzilla back in the 1960s. Here’s something I wrote about GAMERA 3’s special effects in a previous essay:
One of the big distinctions of this film is the way the monster battles are shot. They’re shot from the ground, from the P-O-V of the people caught up in it. So we see Shibuya on a busy Friday night in location footage with lots of extras and then we see their reaction as a new Gyaos lands and Gamera comes flying after it in order to stop it. The two battle it out as crowds flee and buildings, shops and subway stations get destroyed. Later, the big climactic confrontation between Gamera and Iris takes place in Kyoto at Kyoto Station and takes up the last 20 minutes of the movie. These scenes mix location work with special effects work and miniatures and do it so well it’s as if the filmmakers took the cameras on location and filmed a monster battle as it happened. This is a big change from the Godzilla films where we follow the monster into the battle area which is established by sprawling miniature sets in the Toho studio. The human side of it is acknowledged, moreso in some films than others, but the Toho battles tend to be staged from the monsters’ point of view.
In this regard, SHIN GODZILLA is more like Higuchi’s Gamera films than like earlier Toho Godzillas.
The film was co-directed by Hideaki Anno, who’s known for such groundbreaking anime series as “Gunbuster” (1988), “Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water” (1990), “Neon Genesis Evangelion” (1995), and the aforementioned “His and Her Circumstances” (1998). He also directed the live-action film, CUTIE HONEY (2004), a parodic revamp of a 1970s anime series about a sexy cyborg girl with super powers who becomes a crimefighter. One of the big thrills of SHIN GODZILLA for me was seeing actress Mikako Ichikawa again. In CUTIE HONEY, she played the no-nonsense policewoman, Natsuko Aki, who becomes an ally of the title character.
In SHIN GODZILLA she plays the no-nonsense Hiromi Ogashira, Deputy Chief of the Environment Ministry’s Wildlife Division, and a key member of the team working on the Yaguchi Plan. I love the way she spews out technical dialogue at a rapid pace with a deadpan expression. At one point, she asserts that “Gojira is the most evolved creature on the planet” and later, upon hearing the plan to drop a nuclear bomb on Godzilla (and Tokyo), she declares, “Man is more frightening than Gojira.” Ms. Ichikawa plays the entire role without makeup.
There were reportedly lots of cameos by famous people in the film. In looking over the cast list on IMDB, I only spotted two that I know: film director Shinya Tsukamoto (TETSUO THE IRON MAN, TOKYO FIST) as a biologist, and pop star Atsuko Maeda (AKB48) as a refugee. I realized who Tsukamoto was when I thought back to the film; his part is much bigger than a cameo. As for Maeda, I recall one scene near the end in a shelter for evacuees with a young mother and I’m guessing that was her, although it went by too quickly for me to have recognized her. Here is a scene with Tsukamoto, in the gray sweater on the left:
There’s a lot more to say about this film, but I’d urge all of you reading this while the film is still in theaters to rush out and see it post-haste. It’s so popular that the run has been extended and the number of theaters expanded, at least in some regions, although you’ll have to try and figure out where yourself, since the website for the film doesn’t offer a list of theaters and showtimes nationwide. I plan to see it again myself. Here’s a link to Fandango’s page on the film:
Here are some reviews posted on IMDB that I found quite helpful:
ADDENDUM (October 20, 2016): I went back and saw the film a second time and made some corrections above, chiefly in quoting lines of dialogue and attributing them properly. I never did spot Atsuko Maeda.