Ishiro Honda’s 1954 monster masterpiece, Gojira, was the quintessential commentary on the then young atomic age. Since, Toho Ltd. (Godzilla’s Japanese film producer) has released no less than twenty-six films with numerous American productions adding to the franchise. The giant radioactive fire-breather has proven a provocative character, and one that can generate plenty of box office revenue. Even though Legendary released a new Godzilla film in 2014, with Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards directing, Toho hadn’t ventured into its iconic monster’s story since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. After such a long absence, it was anyone’s guess what the quality of the film Shin Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla Resurgence) would be. The pre-1975 movies of the Showa period are a mixed bag, running from the terrifying genius of the original to the downright hokey (though warm heartedly nostalgic) Son of Godzilla. Shin Godzilla is, to this critic, one of the best Godzilla films ever made. It skillfully combines the best elements of each period from the franchise’s history. It is a Cold War nuclear propaganda piece. It is a Shinto nod towards respecting the natural world. And, like all the great Godzilla films, it is a sharp political satire.
Let me say first, the Godzilla of Shin Godzilla is not the (sometimes) anti-hero of the Showa and Heisei eras, reluctantly stepping in to save mankind from an even greater monster-sized threat. That was the Godzilla Edwards gave us in 2014, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that portrayal. But, for my money, I want my Godzilla to be a mindless, violent, death machine. That is exactly what you get in director Hideaki Anno’s new film. It is a reboot, so we get to watch a mutating monster crawl out of Tokyo Bay and crush its way through suburban housing districts, evolving into a perfect godlike organism. It doesn’t give a damn who or what it steps on. It’s armageddon on roller-skates, and at each evolutionary stage, it attaches a new set of Swiss Army knife nightmare weapons. Godzilla doesn’t think. It kills. It moves. It rests. It kills again.
What raises Shin Godzilla into the realm of greatness is its savage takedown of Japanese bureaucracy, and its hilarious mocking of international politics (not only, but mostly, the American kind). The star of this film isn’t a person, it’s a system. Hiromi Hasegawa plays Rando Yaguchi, a cabinet secretary to the Japanese PM, and from the beginning tries to deal quickly with the mounting danger from the monster destroying his country. Instead, he finds himself shuffled from boardroom to boardroom in an endless line of pointless meetings and staring down an impotent leader who is racked by indecision. He is joined in his efforts and frustration by Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), special envoy to the United States. Hasegawa is passable as our hero “fighting against the system” but Ishihara is mostly terrible as the American diplomat. In her role as would-be political opportunist turned savior, she mugs at the camera in a barely believable performance. But, this isn’t a movie about characters. Like its monster, Shin Godzilla is a deeply impersonal movie and intentionally so.
Shin Godzilla, at its core, is an examination of the alienating effect of government, and how the failures of human morality often lead to, well, more failures. Don’t get me wrong, the “system” of this film has a soul. It is the soul, the community, and the heart of the Japanese system that makes it so difficult for them to deal with their imminent peril. People are slow, too thoughtful, too inclusive. While it’s easy to laugh at Anno’s vision of parliamentary sluggishness, it is even easier to feel empathy for the people and teams eventually rising to the challenge of defeating the giant lizard. The bit players, the nameless committee members, are the real stars of Shin Godzilla. Notably, Mikako Ishikawa is absolutely brilliant as the Director of Nature Conservation, playing her as an intense, no-bullshit scientist, yet adding depth to what could have been an all too flat walk-on part. The machine of government is not simply a metaphor for the monster it is trying to stop. That would have been too easy. Anno’s screenplay has something much deeper to say about us humans and how we get things done.
Welcome back Toho. You’ve managed to reboot a series with too many variations to count and managed to make one to remember. Shin Godzilla is, thankfully, a true Godzilla film, and one that will be watched and re-watched long into the future. It may feel deceptively cold, but at its rusty mechanical political heart, there is a pulse that still beats…just like the black pulse still beating inside our favorite monster.