Shin Godzilla opens strong and never loses momentum. As the first Japanese Godzilla film after the franchise went on hiatus in 2004, fan expectations were higher than they’d been since Godzilla: Final Wars twelve years prior. Toho made the wise decision to return with as strong an entry as possible, tapping Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame to write the franchise reboot. With Shinji Higuchi co-directing, Anno crafted a Godzilla film unlike any other in the franchise. If you are a longtime Godzilla fan, how well you react to changes in the classic Godzilla formula will determine whether this movie works for you or fails. Speaking as a fan for over 20 years, it worked almost flawlessly.
Most of the time, when reviewing a Godzilla film, you can fill a couple paragraphs rehashing details about the franchise. You spend some time waxing poetic about the gravitas and somber tone of the original Gojira , you shift to the later films and work the phrase “b-movie shlock” in somewhere, and you make a condescending remark about rubber suits or cardboard buildings. The review at that point is almost halfway done and you can glide through the rest without a lot of extra work. I’ve seen it argued that the movies themselves occasionally show a similar lack of originality, with writers returning to standbys like Mechagodzilla or Mothra as Godzilla’s foes in the years before the hiatus.
Shin Godzilla is exactly the kind of film the franchise needed: it’s unique and original and takes serious risks with its changes to the classic formula. In this film, Godzilla is more a creature than a character – he is eerily silent through most of the film, attacks reactively when the military strikes him first and displays none of the intelligence and personality that previous incarnations have. This Godzilla is a natural disaster in the purest sense, his motivations unknown and the devastation he causes completely merciless. This shift in focus serves as a way to get to the film’s primary concern: social and political commentary about Japan itself. This is a film where kaiju action is interspersed with board meetings by committees and government officials.
While that might sound boring, the film doesn’t drag. The numerous meetings, where characters are introduced with job titles displayed on the screen (a running gag as characters’ titles get longer as they are promoted or other characters are written out of the film), all serve a purpose: showing how in the wake of a disaster nobody could predict or prepare for, the biggest threat to Japan is the inability of its government to act swiftly. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Shin Godzilla examines not only how Japan as a nation responds to disaster but how the United States and the UN treat Japan during a crisis. Shin Godzilla doesn’t overdo these ideas, thankfully – there’s no monologue from the Prime Minister about whether he should bow to pressure from the UN. Instead, we watch outsiders in the Japanese government as a group of scientists, assistants, and novice politicians comes together as a special committee that ignores honorific titles and openly shares information with businesses and other countries. It’s this group of people who eschew traditional bureaucracy that make real progress and move the plot forward.
Anno and Higuchi don’t just show their human characters discarding traditions, of course: it can’t be stressed enough how unique this interpretation of Godzilla is. In other movies it’s easy to read motivation and intent into his actions – Godzilla is a character in the films, usually the star. Here, calling him a villain feels misleading since aside from destroying buildings as he walks Godzilla’s attacks are all retaliation toward the Japanese and US military. This incarnation of Godzilla changes form multiple times in the movie, each time displaying new abilities to defend himself. The film uses Godzilla’s screen time to great effect, establishing him as a serious threat early on and upping the stakes every time he’s onscreen. This Godzilla has the most raw destructive power the franchise has ever seen, and when Shin Godzilla shows us what he can really do even his classic atomic breath is taken in a new direction that left my theater awestruck.
Shin Godzilla is in many ways emblematic of the Godzilla franchise as a whole. Switching from humorous political commentary to kaiju destruction and back with ease, the movie is a lens through which Anno and Higuchi examine Japan’s future and past. In the west we tend to view the Godzilla franchise as having somehow fallen from grace – critics breathlessly praise the original Gojira and then talk about how campy and silly later film installments are – but to me the point of Shin Godzilla is that the franchise can’t be boiled down to one single idea. One individual Godzilla movie can’t convey every idea the franchise has had or every message it’s tried to send, and that’s why Shin Godzilla works. Shin Godzilla focuses on one specific idea: new ideas. New ideas are what save Japan from destruction, new ideas are what set this film apart from the rest of the franchise, and new ideas are what Toho Studios needs to make Shin Godzilla the first film in a revitalized and inspired new era of kaiju film. If Toho sticks to the ideas that Shin Godzilla stresses most, this movie is a sign of great things to come.