Review: Shin Godzilla
broadcast on Radio National's The Final Cut, October 2016
The opening of Shin Godzilla is sonic: a sequence of loud booms, followed by what sounds like an old metal door being prised open. The sounds themselves are old: full of tape hiss. But this is a 2016 film – co-directed by Hideaki ANNO, creator of the indomitable Neon Genesis Evangelion 20 years ago in 1996. The title Shin Godzilla is a Zen-like pun. Shin means ‘new’ but new in Japan is mostly old. Anno declared back in 2015 that his version of Godzilla was all about returning the monster to Japan.
The original Godzilla was born in 1954, directed by special effects maestro Ishiro HONDA. For decades, Godzilla was belittled by American audiences and critics due to its toy-like dioramas being smashed in slo-mo by a man in a rubber suit. The symbolic thrust of the film seemed invisible to non-Japanese. The story was inspired by the Lucky Dragon 5 fishing boat, which strayed into waters where the US was conducting thermonuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. The ship’s crew suffered severe radiation due to the fallout. The 1954 Godzilla film was quick off the mark to dramatise these events which resonated loudly with a Japanese audience at the time, still recovering from the 7 years of American Occupation after World War II.
Godzilla went on to become a part-embarrassing part-defiant symbol of the post-war Japanese psyche. Western audiences continued to laugh at his plastic puppetry, but in Japan – where dolls, masks, puppetry and painted backdrops inform centuries of their traditional theatre-craft – Godzilla was first and foremost a symbol. He was always there to represent, not to convince. Consequently, his appearance in nearly 30 movies since has tracked changes in Japanese society and its political infrastructure.
Co-directors ANNO and Shinji HIGUCHI clearly take this on board with Shin Godzilla. The story is essentially the core of most of the films: Godzilla suddenly appears in Tokyo Bay, and cuts a destructive path across the densely urbanised metropolis of Tokyo. He heads mysteriously towards the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices. Eventually, he is immobilised by a freezing coagulant that reduces his body temperature so that he cannot molecularly generate the nuclear fission which energises his spiked tail to shoot laser-like beams of deadly energy.
Just as the 1950s and 1960s cycles of Godzilla films were heavy with an invisible symbolic referencing nuclear energy usage, Shin Godzilla’s central thesis has been mostly ignored. Nearly ¾ of the film is nothing but talky meetings behind closed doors, echoing down the corridors of power in Tokyo’s government offices. For Western audiences, this will likely prove tedious. Regardless, it’s a fascinating snapshot of how the Japanese government deals with crisis management. Virtually every line of dialogue here references actual events which occurred in the aftermath of 3/11 – the Great North East Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, which precipitated the melt-down accidents at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power generator plant. Shin Godzilla chillingly recreates a number of televisual flashes of urban destruction and carnage which will strike a disquieting chord with Japanese audiences – who went to see the film in droves earlier this year in Japan. Shin Godzilla also makes allusions to the short ANNO produced and HIGUCHI directed for Studio Ghibli in 2012, less than one year after the earthquake. That movie – The Giant God Warrior Descends On Tokyo (2012) – played exclusively at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo at a stupendous exhibition devoted to the history and craft of special effects in Japanese fantasy movies – what is known as “tokusatsu”.
Shin Godzilla embraces this legacy, and uses its contemporaneous vantage point to dramatise not simply the franchised figurine of Godzilla but more so the cultural weight of such a symbolic device. For underneath the suit in many of the film’s man-in-a-suit scenes is none other than Mansai NOMURA: Japan’s most famous Noh performer, designated as an ‘important intangible cultural property’. The perfect performer for Godzilla.