Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, et al.
Gojira (Godzilla) created by Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsubaraya.
Shin Gojira has been heaped with tremendous praise from Japanese media outlets, being hailed as a “masterpiece of unprecedented filmmaking.” Reactions from western critics/fans who managed to see it have been understandably a little more mixed. Toho’s relaunch of the film franchise since the underperforming Godzilla: Final Wars from 2004 had a lot riding on it. Unlike the Legendary Pictures 2014 movie, this film was aimed squarely at the local market. So it returns the king of kaiju to his roots in Japan’s tragic relationship with nuclear power. For this story, the events it alludes to aren’t America's 1954 testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific but the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, though the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are also invoked in one scene. But there’s also something more fundamental about the story. None of Hollywood’s Godzilla adaptations have come close to invoking that peculiar sense of collective awe and helplessness in the face of nature’s wrath found within the Japanese film series.
The Fukushima references come in thick and fast during the film’s opening 25 minutes. The coast guard is investigating an abandoned boat floating on Tokyo bay when a massive quake causes the Aqua-Line Tunnel to flood. The prime minister and his cabinet convene to address the calamity, but the roomful of mostly middle-aged men can’t quite figure out what’s going on. In one amusing sequence, they transfer from the PM’s office to a general conference room, then back to the office. The PM then changes out of his business suit into a blue work uniform before giving a press conference. By the time the politicians figure out the cause of the quake, a giant monster has emerged out of the bay, swam upstream through a canal, crawled onto dry land, and commenced stomping through the neighborhood's cramped streets like a walking tsunami. Only mid-level cabinet secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) realizes early on that the monster is responsible for the mayhem. When he later points out that it took the cabinet a full 2 hours to decide on a concrete course of action, he’s told by his superior Hideki Akasaka (Yutaka Takenouchi) to shut up and not rock the boat.
That opening section is unmistakingly the work of Hideaki Anno. The quick jump cuts between the cabinet scenes and the monster’s progress through Tokyo, closeup of pensive faces, talking heads shot at every conceivable angle, heavy use of onscreen text to label every place name, political figure, and piece of military hardware, even the orchestral soundtrack, are devices used in his landmark anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Once the PM decides to mobilize the Japanese Self Defense Forces to take out the monster, Anno uses one clever segment to emphasize the unwieldy nature of the Japanese hierarchical structure. A JSDF helicopter pilot radios his field commander for permission to fire, and the request is passed up a needlessly long chain of command until it reaches the PM. But the topical focus may be a big stumbling block for non-Japanese audiences. The film has a huge cast of Japanese name actors playing various supporting and incidental roles in order to better convey the vast scope of the government's bureaucracy. After a while, this starts to feel like an exercise in seeing how many famous people can be crammed into one film.
A particular shortcoming that American viewers will probably complain about is the lack of “character development.” The film does not dwell on the private lives of its cast. Unlike the 2014 film, there’s no family at the center of the drama. None of the politicians, not even the PM, call home to make sure their families are safe, and both Rando and Hideki appear to be single. This lack of personal stakes might be seen as a drawback. On the other hand, this spares viewers the mind-numbing horror of having to witness cloying scenes of family reunion found in many Hollywood disaster flicks. Anyway, that would only distract from the main focus, which is the story of a nation experiencing and eventually moving past a terrible event. At the individual level, this translates into young guns like Rando and Hideki learning to work together as the older generation around them fails to adapt to a fast changing world.
The other character of significance is Kayoco Anne Paterson (Satomi Ishihara), a Japanese-American envoy. Anime fans will recognize her as the latest example of that stock character, the part-Japanese foreigner (see Asuka Langley Soryu). So she gets to be played by a Japanese actress, speak in fluent Japanese, but skip the use of honorifics (gasp!). Kayoco carries herself with a little more swagger than would be acceptable to many Japanese woman because she was raised in the west. She delivers her random English lines with that weird voice that often passes for a foreign accent in Japanese entertainment, but just sounds to most Americans like an atrocious attempt to mimic their pronunciation and speech patterns. If turn about is fair play, then the absurdity of the character is the whole point.
|Satori Ishihara and Hiroki Hasegawa|
Despite her job, Kayoco switches sides as the two nations goals begin to diverge. But in the beginning, the film hammers home who's really in charge. Japan's government is first portrayed as weak. The PM keeps dithering and JSDF hardware proves insufficient to the task. So American military intervention to help stop the monster's rampage is initially welcomed. But the Japanese become ambivalent with the dawning realization that the Superpower from across the ocean is as much an existential threat as the monster. The other American cast members are all pretty awful. Hovering at the edge of the screen, never in focus, always mumbling their lines, and never directly interacting with their Japanese counterparts. At every level, the U.S. behaves like a distant authority figure, not as Japan's ally.
As for the monster that will be later known as Godzilla, he’s a weird mix. Like some past incarnations, he’s an unidentified species that’s been exposed to heavy radiation. But Anno’s new twist to the formula is that Godzilla now mutates like a pokemon going through various stages of evolution. The amphibious form that emerges from the ocean looks downright silly with its large bug-eyed expression with gaping mouth. The final form seen in all the promotional material makes him into a horror movie creature. His clearly visible rib cage and exposed glowing red flesh give the impression of a rotting corpse. Godzilla moves more like a zombie than an enormous beast. Anno imbues him with new abilities. His traditional radioactive breath comes in different forms, from a fine mist to concentrated energy beam. The tail and spikes on his back can fire their own energy beams. He emits some kind of EM pulse like the MUTOs of the 2014 film. He can reproduce asexually. He might be able to fly. There’s theoretically no end to what he can do considering his ability to mutate. This Godzilla feels like something that would fit right at home within a modern anime series.
In the 1954 original, lone scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa invents the Oxygen Destroyer, the only weapon that can surpass the destructive power of Godzilla. He uses it to kill the monster at the cost of his own life. In this 2016 reboot, the film’s lone scientist is already dead. So who then saves Japan? Basically, Japan saves itself with the help of a few allies. Rando creates a task force composed of misfits like himself, and the solution they eventually come up with brings the country together behind a common cause. It's as if the nerds finally found a way to wield japan's mighty bureaucracy to accomplish some good and clean up all of the nation's persistant nuclear contamination. Unfortunately, the resolution is somewhat underwhelming as the CGI effects used so successfully throughout most of the film fail to make its implementation look very convincing. Otherwise, this is still a more optimistic ending than the original. But victory is only temporary, and the film’s parting shot leaves the viewer with a deep sense of uneasiness about the future.