If you thought you heard the echo of heavy footsteps and the screams of terrified crowds coming from the general direction of Tokyo, you were right. Godzilla, the world's favorite radioactive reptile, is back on the screen and he's taller and surlier than ever before.
This is not the same monster we last saw wading back into the Pacific at the end of Gareth Edwards' high-energy Godzilla in 2014. Nor is it the goofy, wide-eyed creature that many of us remember from Saturday afternoon double-features and late-night TV reruns. Instead, the sullen and mysterious star of Shin Godzilla, the 29th installment in the franchise from Japan's venerable Toho studios, harkens back to the somber monster that launched the series in the dark 1954 classic Gojira. And like that first film, which tapped into Japan's (and the world's) nuclear anxieties in the early years of the atomic age, so Shin Godzilla speaks to the very specific fears of our day, from the trauma of vast, unpredictable natural disasters to the profound popular frustration over political gridlock and governmental ineptitude.
87 Cast: Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Satomi Ishihara, Jun Kunimura, Hiroki Hasegawa
Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 2 hours
In Japanese with English subtitles
The story lines of Gojira and Shin Godzilla are remarkably similar and remarkably simple. Boats are unaccountably destroyed in the waters off Japan. A giant beast, eventually identified as a prehistoric creature mutated by radiation, emerges from the ocean and makes its way to central Tokyo, leaving a trail of devastation and death. Government leaders dither, military assaults to stop the monster are ineffective, and the common people suffer in quiet resignation. Ultimately, just as all seems lost, scientists step up with an astonishing technological breakthrough, saving Japan and humankind.
One would think that this kind of formulaic sci-fi plotting would get tired after 62 years. But in Shin Godzilla, thanks to a breakneck pace, crisp (though sometimes stilted) dialogue, and a few novel twists along the way, it's not hard to get caught up in the desperate efforts to stop the monster and the cinematic spectacle of urban destruction.
Shin Godzilla is, however, far more than just another up-tempo action picture. The original Gojira was a politically charged film aimed at adult audiences, a pacifist statement that drew upon fresh memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's feelings of vulnerability during the Cold War and lingering hostility toward the United States. Shin Godzilla also has a very pointed political message, but one attuned to today's vastly different geopolitical landscape and particularly to Japan's acute economic and social challenges of the past quarter century.
Shin Godzilla leaves no doubt that the greatest threat to Japan comes not from without but from within, from a geriatric, fossilized government bureaucracy unable to act decisively or to stand up resolutely to foreign pressure. Indeed, this movie could easily have been titled Godzilla vs. the Establishment, as Tokyo's smothering quicksand of cabinet meetings, political infighting, and interagency logjams make Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah seem like remarkably tame adversaries.
The portrait that director Hideaki Anno, a talented veteran of Japan's imaginative animation industry, paints of a dysfunctional status quo, weighed down by tradition and timidity, is at once grim and bitingly funny. In Shin Godzilla, the government seems intent on fighting the creature less with missiles, tanks, and waves of jets than with laptops, white boards and ranks of photocopiers; Godzilla is not faced down by another giant monster or a heroic individual so much as worn down by a veritable army of bureaucratic committees and government working groups. Appropriately, near the end of the film, when the authorities detonate a string of Tokyo skyscrapers, Godzilla is literally brought to his knees under a torrent of filing cabinets, office chairs, and the inevitable photocopiers raining down upon him.
If an ossified political leadership doesn't doom Japan, Shin Godzilla suggests, then an arrogant and heartless outside world is waiting in the wings to exploit and undermine the nation. France and Germany get props here for coming to Japan's aid in its moment of need, but Russia, China, and (above all) the United States are singled out as conspiratorial bullies, ready to sacrifice Japan as it lies prostrate before the monster's assaults. Godzilla, who rips a jagged path from the coast through some of Tokyo's most valuable downtown real estate, is clearly a potent menace as well, but in the end emerges more as an opportunity, even a gift of sorts to the Japanese people, an agent of change rather than an avenging spirit of destruction. With a piercing blue radioactive ray, the monster blasts away the old order, making way for the rise of a younger generation of leaders that yearns to rebuild and reinvigorate Japan, free from the stifling hierarchies and rigid traditions of the past.
Many commentators anticipated that Shin Godzilla, as the first movie in the Toho franchise since 2004, would directly tackle the still-raw memories of the "triple disasters" of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011. There are plenty of nods in that direction, especially in the highly choreographed costuming of crisis in Japan: Just as happened in 2011, deepening calamity leads Japan's (almost entirely male) political elites to trade in their conservative dark blue suits for immaculate medium blue jumpsuits, with fluorescent yellow vests slipped on in times of particularly acute distress. Scenes of refugees huddled in school gyms recall the evacuation of survivors from Japan's northeast coast five years ago, and the film's depiction of Tyvek-suited, ventilator-equipped squads headed off to battle the monster clearly evokes the "Fukushima 50," the volunteers who struggled to stabilize the stricken nuclear reactors.
In general, however, Shin Godzilla tiptoes around Japan's lingering anxieties from 2011. The creature's attacks generate no tsunamis, no nuclear facilities are imperiled in the film, and even Godzilla's formidable radiation plume ends up drifting harmlessly out into Tokyo Bay.
Longtime followers of the Godzilla series will find much to love in Shin Godzilla, as the filmmakers have included numerous little inside references that only hard-core fans are likely to catch. Even more casual aficionados will appreciate how the movie's score draws heavily and effectively on the memorable music of Gojira. Purists (like myself) may bemoan the absence in Shin Godzilla of the man in the rubber suit walking through toy cities, the charmingly low-tech special effects that for so long defined Japanese giant monster movies. But for most viewers, now accustomed to the technical wizardry of Hollywood and quick to associate Japanese "suitmation" with cheesiness, the good-if-not-great computer-generated effects in this film are likely to be regarded as a substantial improvement.
For all the undeniably cool scenes of a huge, irate reptile wreaking havoc, young audiences may not be so enamored of this latest installment in the Godzilla series. Shin Godzilla is, like Gojira and unlike Hollywood's most recent offering, a surprisingly talky film. The movie's message may also not resonate so thoroughly with U.S. audiences as with Japanese ones: While Americans are plenty jaded with Washington's political paralysis, the critique of Japan's uniquely ingrown and sclerotic capital culture does not translate perfectly on this side of the Pacific. Moreover, the movie's caricatures of overbearing Pentagon brass and supercilious D.C. functionaries are so crudely drawn that many American viewers are more likely to laugh or take offense than share in Japan's pain.
Two years ago, when Edwards' Godzilla proved a blockbuster at the box office, American movie theaters often erupted in cheers when the monster rescued the world from vicious invaders. I doubt any audiences will end up on their feet, whooping for Godzilla and his beat-down of the Japanese establishment as the credits roll at the end of Shin Godzilla. But it is hard not to be impressed by the work of the Japanese filmmakers who have reimagined the franchise and its relevance in these uncertain times at the start of the 21st century. The exuberant joy of a man in a rubber suit may be gone, and Godzilla may no longer be the heroic figure many of us remember from Saturday matinees, but the unlikely ability of this abiding cinematic monster to tap into society's deepest fears and spark its highest aspirations shines through once again in Shin Godzilla.
William M. Tsutsui is the president of Hendrix College and, as the author of 2004's Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, one of the world's leading experts on Japanese kaiju films. Shin Godzilla opens Tuesday for a special one-week engagement at the Cinemark Conway 12 in Conway.
MovieStyle on 10/07/2016
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