Godzilla has never been scarier since his mushroom cloud-shaped head loomed over the fleeing villagers of Odo Island in 1954’s Gojira, a dark and depressing film that thrust the sacred beast of the apocalypse to the forefront of popular culture and kickstarted his 60-plus year movie career. Audiences knew what to expect with every following film in the expansive series, which wavered in tone depending on the era the film was released in. However, several key concepts were always guaranteed: lots of destruction, plenty of chaos, nuanced conversations about the usage of atomic weapons, and pure monster mash fun.
Sometimes Godzilla rose from the depths to punish humanity for their blatant disregard for nature, and other times, he served as Earth’s defender against the forces, monster and otherwise, that sought to destroy the planet and everyone on it. No such defender exists in Shin Godzilla, a 2016 flick and the 29th title in the Godzilla franchise that returns the King of Monsters to his more terrifying roots.
Back in 2016, the franchise remained dormant since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, which under-performed at the box office and put the series on a twelve-year hiatus, the longest one at the time. With the success of the 2014 American reboot, which ushered in Legendary’s MonsterVerse film series, Toho, the company behind Godzilla, decided to make a stand-alone film that harkened back to the franchise’s roots. They approached Hideaki Anno, best known for the anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, to write and direct the film. Shinji Higuchi, a frequent Anno collaborator and the director responsible for the two live-action Attack on Titan films, joined his friend to direct and coordinate the special effects for the sequences involving Godzilla, who, for this time around, was brought to life near flawlessly by computer-generated effects. Their Godzilla is the scariest and most imposing iteration of the gargantuan kaiju ever to appear onscreen.
Like Gojira, a film that embodied the fear over atomic power, Shin Godzilla tells of a near-immortal monster who unleashes atomic hell on Japan while the human characters band together to find a way to defeat him. Shin Godzilla shines because it takes that concept and thrusts it into a modern-day context, focusing on themes of nuclear and natural disasters, Japan’s place in international politics, and government bureaucracy that hinders more than helps in times of emergency and need. The film conveys the feelings of loss and governmental incompetence, specifically in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but angrily think of all the ways the American government completely and utterly failed to protect their citizens from Covid19. After nearly a year of loss and tragedy on epic proportions, they’ve only passed two stimulus bills while millions lose their jobs and housing. They expect their workers to risk their lives with no hazard pay, all while encouraging ignorance of science and fumbling the rollout of vaccines.
However, unlike the real life American politicians who continually ignore and downplay one of the most devastating events of recent history, the fictional Japanese government officials, while being hindered by red-tape and bureaucracy, mean well and want to protect their people from the looming threat of Godzilla. When the horrifying monster begins his rampage, the Prime Minister refuses to engage in combat until every person is evacuated from the area. Unfortunately, the government adheres to policy and procedure in a situation that completely disregards these concepts, and despite their best intentions, they fail and spend most of their time debating and moving from one conference room to the next while the world burns.
Meanwhile, a group of well-meaning and quirky outsiders join forces and launch an investigation over the creature and the best ways to defeat him. The scientists, doctors, artists, idealists, and philosophers are the true heroes of the film. They aren’t tied down by red-tape or chains of command, and they are a reflection of the everyday citizens who step up and volunteer their time in the absence of appropriate governmental response.
This isn’t to say that the government in the film is completely useless. Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), the young Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, serves as the audience surrogate and becomes more and more frustrated as the situation with Godzilla becomes increasingly more dangerous. His challenging of his older peers leads him to assume more responsibility and a direct role in the conflict. Opposite of him is Kayoco Anne Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), the ambitious Special Envoy for the President of the United States. Together, they are the heart of the film, and the actors expertly portray the mixture of emotions of fear, anger, sorrow, and determination these two characters go through.
Despite its massive cast, Shin Godzilla makes every person memorable and two-dimensional, and even minor characters get a chance to shine. The film still spends time on characters reacting to and watching Godzilla’s many scenes of destruction, but unlike in the 2014 Godzilla and its 2019 sequel, which both spend copious amounts of runtime featuring bland characters staring blankly at a screen, Shin Godzilla expertly balances the human cast with scenes of Godzilla himself unleashing fiery doom. Part of what makes this film so successful is its breakneck pace. Shin Godzilla doesn’t have time to focus on the human drama when one hectic scenario after the other constantly forces the cast to remain on their feet and in the thick of the action.
This film doesn’t feel like two movies in one, where on the one hand, Godzilla rampages through historical landmarks, and on the other, human characters find themselves trapped in pointless storylines that don’t go anywhere and don’t connect to the King of Monsters. The characters of Shin Godzilla all have stakes in the story and everything circles back to the central plot of Godzilla arriving in Tokyo. Much of the drama comes from the government officials responding to the increasingly dire situation with Godzilla, and these scenes are all tense and hectic. Tons of text fill the screen, relaying information on which official belongs to which branch of government. Various talking heads shout over each other. These are desperate people in way over their heads, and their collective silence, shock, and horror whenever Godzilla appears onscreen is most effective and adds to the tension. There’s a lot to keep track of, but it works for the film’s chaotic feel.
But that’s enough on the human characters. Let’s talk about the King of Monsters himself, who, while being one of the best aspects of the film, is also the most controversial. The Godzilla of Shin Godzilla is like no Godzilla before him. The film alters his appearance, origin story, and abilities. Grotesquely misshapen with dead eyes and blood pouring from the crevices of his body, this Godzilla is arguably one of the most disturbing ever seen onscreen. He also evolves several times throughout the film, first appearing as a slithering eel-like creature crushing everything in his path before taking on the massive lurking form that everyone is familiar with. In one of the most hauntingly beautiful and equally horrifying scenes in the film, Godzilla unleashes the true extent of his atomic breath, which changes color and stands out amidst the burning ruins of the city. Unlike any iteration before, this Godzilla also has the ability to shoot atomic beams from his spines and tail and unleashes apocalyptic destruction, the likes of which have never been seen in any monster film before.
Shin Godzilla is a different type of Godzilla story, one which honors the franchise and the movies that came before, all while making unique decisions to help it stand out after over 60 years of similar films. There’s something for everyone to enjoy in this movie, whether it’s the likable characters, a beautiful soundtrack that brings back some of the classic tones of the older movies, or a terrifying and unique designs of Godzilla. Western film critics have a nasty habit of missing the point of this film and criticizing it for being boring and not like the Godzilla they are familiar with.
But ignore them.
Shin Godzilla is one of the most beloved films in the series for Japanese audiences and took home seven Japanese Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
I highly recommend giving this film a go if you’re looking for a well done monster story, and Shin Godzilla is most definitely that.
“Godzilla is the son of the atomic bomb. He is a nightmare created out of the darkness of the human soul. He is the sacred beast of the apocalypse.” —Tomoyuki Tanaka