I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
This is unprecedented!” a government functionary announces as a hideous giant sea monster is crawling through Tokyo and wreaking unspeakable damage. But is it? Well, yes: with Shin Godzilla — aka Shin Gojira, aka Godzilla Resurgence — legendary Japanese studio Toho fully reboots its most famous monster. In the world of this movie, Tokyo has never before seen a kaiju attack. (Nor, it would seem, has anywhere else on the planet.) In the world of kaiju movies, we’ve never seen anything quite like this: there are no subplots, no romance, no distraction of any kind from the disaster at hand. This is inexorable, unavoidable, inescapable horror.
It’s not all monster, all the time, however. Shin Godzilla is a dryly, bitterly funny satire about the inertia of bureaucracy in the face of fast-moving events that demand an immediate response. So many old men in dark suits sitting around having meetings while citizens run and scream and see their lives destroyed around them in the streets outside! While veteran politicians worried about preserving their positions argue over which agency is responsible for what, relative youngster and party operative Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) puts together a “crack team” of nerds, loners, rebels, and “pains in the bureaucracy” who can actually find answers and get stuff done. (My favorite of the team: Hiromi Ogashira, the deputy director of Nature Conservation Bureau, who Knows Things about biology and genetics. The brilliant Mikako Ichikawa plays her as a geek who can peer into the molecular makeup of a monster but is unable to look her fellow human beings in the eye. She’s a hero on the spectrum, and that’s a feature of her powers, not a bug.)
Depending on how the original Japanese kanji character is interpreted, shin can mean new, evolved, real, even god, and Godzilla here is a both a spin on all of those and a sort of sly joke about how the monster has changed over the half-century-plus of its cinematic existence. That crawling, almost sluglike creature at the beginning of this flick? At the end of its initial rampage through Tokyo, before it returns to the sea, it stands upright and assumes a form closer to what we’re familiar with: this is indeed Godzilla, and it will revisit Tokyo again, and it will evolve some more before the end of the movie. While the powers that be are paralyzed into inaction — and while the eager-beaver geeks have to be sneaky in order to get anything done — the threat is getting bigger, literally, and a lot more dangerous.
This Godzilla — played by Mansai Nomura (The Wind Rises) via motion capture — is not a sentient monster lashing out maliciously but a “mere” force of nature, an animal heedless of the damage it is causing, one that strikes out only in self-defense. (Turns out nobody likes bullets and bombs and missiles being lobbed at them.) It is very much a creation of humanity’s thoughtlessness, however: giant monsters are what we get when we don’t dispose of nuclear waste carefully, or so the geeks determine. That resonance for the real world is one welcome holdover from earlier Godzilla movies that that director (with Shinji Higuchi) and writer Hideaki Anno brings: just as with the original 1954 Godzilla, this is a cautionary tale about our anxiety over the destructive forces we have unleashed on ourselves. It works beautifully as a metaphor for global warming, particularly in the notion that it keeps getting worse, and keeps becoming a problem that is more difficult to solve, the longer we refuse to act in the face of it. The satire on ineffective government clearly has more local pertinence for the Japanese: visually and thematically, the movie recalls the 2011 triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear meltdowns in the Tōhoku region, and the anger of the Japanese people over perceived inadequacies in the government’s response. The level of destruction that Godzilla causes and the radioactive contamination it leaves in its wake is eerily reminiscent of what the world watched happen in Japan in 2011.
Japanese audiences ate this up: Shin Godzilla was the biggest live-action movie at the Japanese box office in 2016, and it won a bunch of awards at the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars, including best picture and best director. This is no arthouse movie, though: it’s often intense and scary — when that Godzilla roar comes, whoa! — and has plenty of cheese to offer, most notably in the wildly unlikely character of a Japanese-American White House special envoy, Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), who is meant to be the daughter of a US senator hoping for her own run at the presidency one day soon, yet her English is so heavily accented that she’s almost unintelligible; there’s no way in heck she’s grown up in the US, never mind being the player in high-level US politics we’re meant to take her as. (The bit of English language dialogue is also super corny.) But never mind. Godzilla — proper Japanese Godzilla, not a Hollywood riff on it — is back. And it is glorious.