Godzilla is back, and doing what it does best: embodying Japanese anxieties about nuclear annihilation. Spank The Monkey approves. (Of Godzilla, obviously, not of nuclear annihilation.)
Any film critic cum armchair psychologist worth their salt knows the story of the original Godzilla movie. It was made in 1954, some nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan was rebuilding itself, but the mental scars left by the levelling of two major cities were still there. Godzilla gave the country a way of addressing those scars without explicitly referring to the A-bomb, or indeed its own culpability: a giant monster brought to life by nuclear testing, and mankind’s futile struggle to control what they’d unleashed.
Godzilla’s returned many times in multiple Japanese sequels, as well as a couple of Hollywood remakes (not to mention the ongoing plans to fold him into the King Kong Cinematic Universe). But it’s always returned as just another monster, without the subtext that made the first film something deeper. Shin Godzilla – the title is just the Japanese for New Godzilla – is a 2016 movie by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi which reboots the franchise by taking everything back to first principles. This film is set in a universe where nothing like Godzilla has ever been seen before: people are baffled when a mysterious force erupts in the middle of Tokyo Bay, and are even more astonished when it comes on land and reveals itself as a living creature.
What sets Shin Godzilla apart from its predecessors is that like the original, it derives its power from real-life events: specifically, the combined earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown that hit Japan on March 11th, 2011. Six years later, the west may have put that date to the back of its mind, but it’s still very much a raw nerve in Japan. Shin Godzilla refers back to that disaster in multiple ways. There are the early sequences when Godzilla isn’t visible as anything other than a tidal wave of water, rubble and wrecked automobiles surging over the coastline, recalling the amateur videos of the real-life catastrophe. There are the government presentations to the public, featuring nervous officials all dressed in matching jumpsuits. And inevitably, there’s the way that much of the horror of Godzilla’s rampage comes filtered through the media coverage.
But there’s one more way in which the events in Shin Godzilla mirror those at Fukushima: the initial response is wholly inadequate. The first half of the film is largely made up of government meetings, in which officials try to discuss firstly what’s happening, and secondly what to do about it. These sequences are edited in a mad rush – it feels like every second shot is overlaid with a caption introducing a new character or telling us which particularly departmental meeting room we’re in – but they’ve led to complaints that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be so talky.
Nevertheless, those sequences have a point – as we move from one big meeting to another even bigger meeting, we keep cutting back to brief sequences of the terror that Godzilla is causing on the streets. And it quickly becomes apparent that the meetings are a darkly satirical parody of the inaction that initially greeted the Great East Japan Earthquake, with politicians more concerned about the way the public might react to a decision than about actually making the decision. To a Japanese audience, the first half of Shin Godzilla is basically The Thick Of It but with all the swearing replaced by a giant monster.
The satirical intent of the first half of the film becomes even more apparent when we finally get to see the monster, after many minutes of only seeing the damage it’s causing. Because it’s hilarious: big googly eyes, a malformed body, only capable of moving around on all fours, feeling like a throwback to the classic man-in-a-rubber-suit days of yore. Thankfully, it doesn’t stay that way: one of the quirks of this particular Godzilla is that it’s evolving at a massively accelerated rate, and becomes more powerful and dangerous as the film goes on.
Inevitably, the response to Godzilla evolves in a similar way: the old politicians and their inactivity are gradually replaced by a task force of self-described nerds, misfits and randos (literally in the case of our hero Rando Yaguchi, played by Hiroki Hasegawa). Many of them are characters we’ve already encountered previously, being ridiculed in those early meetings. As they come to the fore, the second half of Shin Godzilla moves closer to what we’ve come to expect from a film in this franchise, with plenty of urban destruction matched by increasingly ingenious attempts to stop it. But even then, the film has one more pitch-black bit of satire up its sleeve, as the crisis escalates to an international scale and the Americans come in to save the day. Their proposed solution is horrifying in many ways, not least because its implications would scar the Japanese psyche even more than just letting Godzilla run riot.
Gareth Edwards’ 2014 effort probably beats this one in terms of spectacle, and the way it emphasises the sheer scale of the monster: this film is happier working in long shot, showing Godzilla in the distance with a trail of destruction behind it. But for a Japanese audience, it’s a return to the franchise’s roots in more ways than one: raising national concerns, but cleverly disguising them in the trappings of a commercial blockbuster. This goes all the way up to the ending: an uncharitable viewer might assume it’s simply a setup for a sequel, but its precariously open nature is a more realistic depiction of where we are. Shin Godzilla may not be the Godzilla movie everyone wants right now, but it’s probably the one we deserve.
Shin Godzilla is currently playing limited engagements in cities across the UK: see http://shingodzillamovie.co.uk/ for details. A home video release is planned for December.