Thursday, May 30, 2019

MotM: Shin Godzilla

I may not be devoting all of my time and effort to covering movies – bad, good or otherwise – these days, but that doesn’t mean I stopped loving them. So once a month, I’ll spread a little bit of that love…

I’m so excited. Tomorrow night, I will be getting all dressed up and going out to see a cinematic event.

What’s that? No, I am not going to see a movie. A movie is something you listlessly watch on an airplane or in between commercials on cable. A movie is mildly entertaining and quickly forgettable. Police Academy is a movie. Olympus Has Fallen is a movie. A movie is something Brett Ratner makes.

No, I’m talking about a Cinematic Event: Something you mark on the calendar, something for which you re-arrange your schedule. It’s a full sensory experience, with popcorn.

That’s right, I’m going on opening night to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

In honor of the long-awaited release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I’m going to cover a different Godzilla title. Though if Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a Cinematic Event and the 1998 Godzilla is a Movie (to put it generously), then this month’s Movie of the Month is a Film…

Toho cracks me up: They sell the rights to Godzilla to an American studio, take a look at what they do, and regardless of whether it’s good or bad, they say, “Yeah, why don’t you let us show you how it’s done.” And in the wake of 2014’s Godzilla, Toho really out-did itself. 

As a sign that they weren’t messing around, Toho promptly signed Hideaki Anno to direct. Anno is best known for creating Neon Genesis Evangelion, a statement that either means absolutely nothing to you or has made you leave this review to immediately track down Shin Godzilla

Things start off as Godzilla movies typically do: with a mysterious boat incident, followed by some kind of issue at a Japanese port. This time, it’s not immediately clear what’s happening at the port (usually the issue is that a giant monster is squishing it), only that a major tunnel has flooded. And instead of following a scientist or some short-shorts wearin’ lad, we follow a pack of government officials as they react to the situation. They’re concerned and they’re taking action, and by that I mean they’re talking fast while striding purposefully to an emergency committee meeting.

That’s right: Shin Godzilla is more or less the Japanese version of The West Wing

Almost, as this is more of a sly satire of modern politics than The West Wing ever attempted to be. You don’t have to be particularly versed in Japanese politics – lord knows I’m not – to catch on to the fact that the film insists on calling out every single person’s title (and re-introducing them as they earn longer and more unwieldy titles), or that nearly every meeting consists of at least five times more people than necessary. Characters spend almost as much time jumping through bureaucratic hoops and mincing over jurisdictional ownership as they do actually addressing the crisis at hand. There’s even a moment where, upon learning that the crisis has become an environmental issue, everyone gets up to relocate to that department’s conference room.

Our protagonist is Yaguchi, a mid-level administrator who is considered to be something of a rebel because of his reluctance to fall in line with the senior advisors. Yaguchi is the first to suggest that, based on some of the video footage eye witnesses have posted online, the incident might be caused by a large marine creature. This ushers in one of the more heavy-handed gags of the film: Yaguchi makes a suggestion, senior leaders contemptuously dismiss Yaguchi’s suggestion, Yaguchi is immediately proven right.

So let’s take a look at that marine creature. Clearly it’s Godz—

Oh, okay.

To be fair, a still of this creature doesn’t do it justice. There is something a bit unnerving about its unblinking face and the way it charges down the avenue, sweeping cars along like a fleshy tsunami (it won’t surprise you that there’s a lot of imagery evoking the nuclear disaster and tsunami that hit Japan a couple years ago).

With the Prime Minister fretting about safety concerns and lack of legal precedent in dealing with a giant creature roaming the city streets, it takes a bit to mobilize a military response. And once one is set up, the creature mutates…

In the film’s most pointed rebuke, Yaguchi is eventually promoted to heading up a task force to address the new threat, assembling a squad of “lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, academic heretics and general pains-in-the- bureaucracy” to work as a flat organization that shares information regardless of title. I imagine you’re thinking this is a sensible approach, but this is clearly a healthy bit of mud in the eye to a status quo married to hierarchical systems.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s talk about Godzilla.

This re-imagining of the character may be the scariest version ever presented. Yes, he has comically undersized arms, but between the design of Godzilla’s face and the mindless lumbering, this feels like the zombie version of Godzilla. And in a showstopper sequence halfway through the film, when the military does strike in earnest… well, without spoiling any surprises, things don’t go as expected.

If I have a knock on this film, it’s that Shin Godzilla can’t quite top the Tokyo assault at the halfway point. But that’s not to say the rest of the film is bad: there’s real time and care (and angst) in the discussions around allowing a U.S.-led coalition drop nukes on Godzilla, the launch of Yaguchi’s plan has legitimate tension, and the final, silent shot of the film is haunting.  

You might be surprised to learn that Shin Godzilla went on to dominate Japan’s equivalent of the Academy Awards that year, taking seven awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It wouldn’t be too surprising after seeing it. Toho clearly wanted to do something different and unexpected with its response to the 2014 Godzilla, and it did – it gave us a worthy successor to the grim 1954 original.

Congratulations, Shin Godzilla: You are the Movie of the Month.


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