Godzilla has been around for a long time. The first movie, Ishirō Honda’s Gojira, stomped onto screen in 1954. It was a harrowing and cautionary tale completely reactionary to the horrors of radiation that had brutally affected Japan at the end of the second world war, and the ripples that remained in the social consciousness.
Over time, the titular Godzilla changed as he was featured in tens of movies, constantly being re-invented. Sometimes Godzilla is a force of nature, and at other times an iconic protector of Japan, facing off against greater threats. Godzilla: Final Wars released in 2004 along with an announcement that Toho would be taking a break from making Godzilla films. It was a fun film, packed to the brim with cameo appearances from fellow daikaiju, and campy Matrix-esque human action sequences. It was a silly romp that put a nice bookend on the franchise’s “Millennium Period”.
But then Godzilla was sent to rest at the depths of the Toho vault, slumbering like the beast itself, ready to wake again when it was needed. The time came 10 years later with the announcement of Shin Godzilla in 2014, helmed by Hideaki Anno as director and scriptwriter, the director of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Eventually the film released in 2016 in Japan, before making its way westward in 2017, this year.
The period between 2004 and 2014 may have been quiet ones for the Japanese behemoth (with the exception of the stellar Gareth Edward’s 2011 American Godzilla). But it was not a quiet period for Japan. In March 2011 Japan was hit by a devastating magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Tōhoku, leading to an equally horrifying tsunami. The Fukushima nuclear power plant was affected by the natural disaster, leading to nuclear meltdowns and radiation leaks — making it the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl.
Shin Godzilla is equally concerned with the more modern fears of the nation.
Like the original Godzilla, Shin Godzilla is very much concerned with nuclear radiation and the post-war affects it had on Japan. But it’s just as equally concerned with the more modern fears of the nation, specifically feeling like a response to the Tōhoku-Fukushima incident. Godzilla appears at the beginning of the film as an unevolved, simple creature wreaking havoc in Tokyo Bay, and the film centres around the government and its officials working to respond to this natural disaster.
At times, Anno definitely pokes fun at Japanese bureaucracy and red tape, with touches of The Thick of It as we follow these people from meeting room to meeting room, tryingto figure out whose department this Godzilla attack falls under, and how to address the public. There are laugh out loud moments. This form of Godzilla expends its energy and returns to the sea before any real countermeasures can be taken. Yaguchi, a young cabinet secretary and perhaps the film’s central character, who had been pushing for action, then stands in the very real wreckage and recognises it was not enough. There’s raw emotion in these many scenes that you can’t help but equate to Japanese sentiment over how the country’s recent disasters were handled.
At times, Anno definitely pokes fun at Japanese bureaucracy and red tape.
After this initial attack, the country and the government must band together to try to actually handle the situation properly on Godzilla’s return. So too do foreign powers also become interested in the situation, giving the film room to explore Japan’s foreign policies — most interestingly the awkward and sometimes painful relationship with the US. When the possibility of a nuclear solution to is brought up they discuss “post-war” sentiment, and one character notes that “post-war extends forever”. It does.
At moments charming, at others haunting.
Godzilla the monster doesn’t get all that much screen time. It’s mostly just a force of nature, and this time literally leaks radiation wherever it is. This contamination plays a major role in the tone and events of the film — wearing protective suits is important. The characters must walk the thin line of trying to neutralise Godzilla, while also not allowing their country to be effectively destroyed in the process. It’s about the future, and it’s about Japan as a society coming together to work for that future, and to use their past, however that may be, to inform and spur on hope for that better future.
At moments charming, at others haunting. It’s no action thriller romp, but a thoughtful disaster movie about humanity. It’s always been when exploring humanity that Godzilla films are the most successful, and it’s in this that Shin Godzilla absolutely steps up to the plate. Shin Godzilla is a movie that sticks with you, and makes you think. It’s pretty easy to say that since the very first Godzilla, this is perhaps the film in the series that carries the most weight and the most meaning.