Shin Godzilla [Shin Gojira] (2016)

(AKA,  Godzilla Resurgence,

New Godzilla, True Godzilla, God Godzilla)

This one was not at all what I was expecting – even though I already knew one of the film’s major secrets.

It’s been twelve years since Toho made the “last” Godzilla movie, Godzilla Final Wars.  The only other Toho Godzilla project (other than his brief, comic cameo in Always Sunset On Third Street 2) during this time – a short IMAX film – failed to get made, and it seemed as if the big green guy had finally been put out to pasture.

But then the new American version proved a big success, and Toho decided it was time to bring him back.

Only this time, he would be bigger and badder than ever before.

Another intriguing detail was that they managed to convince Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi to co-direct, with Anno providing the script.

And it is that script which makes the film truly stand out.

It hints at a number of different possibilities in its opening moments, as a mysterious event disturbs Tokyo harbor and an underwater tunnel.  The handheld cellphone footage, and the brief encounter with a group of young people sliding down a ramp suggest that it is about to turn into Toho’s version of Cloverfield (somehow, one thinks of Godzilla 2000 which starts more or less as Twister with giant monsters).  However, that moment passes quickly, as the real shape of the film reveals itself, taking us into the back rooms of the Japanese government, where the efforts to deal with the threat posed by the arrival of a previously unknown monster get caught up in the stultifying coils of their bureaucracy.

The real star here is the creature itself, one of the most disgustingly hideous versions of Godzilla ever conceived, with a new origin and powers.  Shin Godzilla deliberately cuts itself off from all former versions of the monster, giving us something previously unheard of in the Toho series – a Godzilla movie in which the events of the 1954 movie never took place.  Perhaps the most shocking scene in the whole film is the first appearance of the mystery creature, which prompted a nearly universal incredulous reaction from the theater audience – and which defied all of our expectations of a Godzilla film.  I have to wonder if it isn’t a deliberate inversion of the first act of the 2014 American film, which quickly subverts what we expect (from years of misspent Saturday afternoons) to be the arrival of the titular beast.

And once Godzilla finally starts his rampage in Tokyo, the film does something few of these movies have done, and shows us much of the action from the view of those down in the streets, fleeing the attack.

A nicely disturbing element is that many of those bureaucrats find themselves drawn into referring to Godzilla as a god.  “Shin” can mean many things in Japanese, including, yes, new or true, but it can also mean “god”, so they are quite upfront about this unsettling vision of the monster (they even tie it, metaphorically, to the hydra in the Japanese legend of Susanna-O).  Certainly, it fits this version of Godzilla who is seemingly immortal and may one day destroy all other life on our planet.

Perhaps the only misstep in the film (and one I’m willing to ignore) is the rather odd choice to put the lovely and talented actress, Satomi Ishihara, in the role of an adviser to the American President, with the unlikely and unexplained name of “Patterson”.  Unlike most of the English speakers in the film, her English is buried deep beneath a thick accent and at times one is almost surprised to realize that she’s saying what’s in the subtitles.  She has pointed out in interviews that she doesn’t speak English, and was dismayed to see pages and pages of English dialogue.  Somehow it seems a strange directing choice to give her the role (which she plays delightfully well, mind you) although it wouldn’t be as obvious in Asian markets.  But it does make her accomplishments and backstory (daughter of American Senator, up and coming young politician, aiming to be the President at age 40) seem more fantastic than the big green guy.

The one true delight for those of us who grew up with these films is that, like so many of them, the film does revolve around the usual geniuses inventing a last minute plan to deal with the monster.  However, as with our behind the scenes view of the seemingly stock attempts to deal with the menace, we see this play out with confusion, missteps, belated discoveries – and the overwhelming problem of finding the resources and suppliers to build their ultimate weapon in the limited time available.

It is odd to note, however, that the film ends with a scene reminiscent not of anything in the Toho cannon, but in a film despised for eschewing even the first film and giving us a radically different and completely redesigned and re-backstoried Godzilla.

Along the way, we get a lot of marvelous scenes and details (the meeting between the Prime Minister and a group of top scientists is painful and hysterically funny), a fair amount of humor, incredible visuals (even if their digital origins are often all too visible), an uncomfortable view of the political realities of “post-war” Japan (something often present in the Japanese versions of these films, but never to this extent!), a bit of origami, and much, much more.

Wow.  Who’d have thought Toho would have dared such a radical revision of one of their biggest moneymakers?

But I’ll admit I hate to think what it will be like, buried under the usual so-so dubbing job which I’m sure someone will insist on foisting on the American DVD release.

(a curious side note here is the line of Godzilla-Evangelion toys in the Japanese stores.  Not that I think there’s any intention of combining the two franchises.  It has been a good time for Evangelion, however, with the current animated remake and a curious live action short film created by Studio Ghibli, which combines  Evangelion with the giant God Monster from Nausicaa)

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