Shin Godzilla, 2016.
Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Starring Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Ohsugi, Akira Emoto.
A young government official is plunged into an unexpected leadership role when a giant monster makes land in Japan, plunging the country into chaos as the government scrambles to contain the situation.
It’s happened twice now that the Godzilla franchise was revived in its native Japan thanks to an American-made entry in the series. Godzilla 2000, which kicked off the last cycle of Japanese Godzilla films, came into being largely as a result of Roland Emmerich’s disastrous 1998 attempt at bringing Godzilla to screens American-style. Now, 16 years later, it’s happened again. The success of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) has encouraged Japan to bring their most iconic screen monster out of mothballs after an extended period of dormancy with Shin Godzilla. Like previous revivals, Shin Godzilla takes an extremely back-to-basics approach, returning the franchise to its roots as a serious-minded disaster flick full of allegory and commentary on Japan’s past, present and future.
But there’s a problem. While Shin Godzilla is indeed a somewhat interesting and enthusiastically executed film about the strengths and failings of the Japanese political system and the people within it, it’s not a particularly good Godzilla film, nor does it seem all that interest in being one. Yes, Godzilla’s appearance and subsequent rampage in Japan is the impetus of the film, driving the action forward. But much like the 2014 American film, Godzilla himself seems like a bit player in his own movie. Shin Godzilla never manages to find a balance between the spectacle-driven kaiju action that most fans will expect and the bureaucratic action that the filmmakers seem far more interested in. The result is a Godzilla film that takes place predominantly in boardrooms, and where every blessed moment of action and destruction is bookended by committee meetings, authorization requests and expense reports. In other words, it’s kinda boring.
For a franchise as old as this, innovation is desperately needed in order for it to move forward. A new angle must be found to breathe some fresh life into the franchise, and it’s clear that Shin Godzilla fancies that it’s found that new angle. The problem is, Hideaki Anno and Shinki Higuchi’s film is so desperate to move forward into new territory that it’s left something essential behind on the way. The spectacle and action that has defined the franchise for decades, the fun of watching a giant monster lay waste to an urban center, the joy of the kaiju genre itself, it all takes a back seat in to an obsession with the Japanese political and bureaucratic system.
And obsession is not a word used lightly. The film has an almost obsessive-compulsive fixation on the minute details of Japanese bureaucracy, with native subtitles informing us of the names and titles of every major and minor government official to cross the screen. Did you know that the guy who stands off to one side and says “Ok” in one scene, never to be seen again, is Gotoh, the Under-Secretary to the Minister of Internal Affairs? Did you care? And the obsessiveness doesn’t end there. Every piece of military hardware, from tanks to guns to rockets, are all laboriously identified right down to the serial number in a tireless and tiring barrage of information that distracts in every action sequence. It feels like a film made by an Otaku, that specifically Japanese brand of obsessive, one with massive fetishes for Japanese bureaucracy and military gear. It often feels less like a movie and more like a catalog of people and hardware.
And of course, the film has a lot to say. It’s very concerned with post-war Japan’s place on the global stage, the efficiency or lack thereof of its internal political mechanisms, and several other heavy and important topics. But rather than talk about those subjects within the framework of a giant monster movie, feels more like a political drama that just so happens to feature a giant monster. Godzilla’s rampage scenes are minimal, which is a shame as the effects and cinematography that bring them to life are often eye-catching and even beautiful. The Big Guy spends a healthy chunk of the film frozen in place after expending his energy, leaving the cast to scramble through briskly paced and dynamically scored scenes of resource acquisition and bureaucratic and political logistics. And when the guns are blazing and the action scenes in full swing, we often get sidelined by demonstrations of just how many levels of authorization are required to fire a certain weapon or take a certain action.
There’s a balancing act to be performed when it comes to making big, spectacle-driven blockbusters multilayered and meaningful. You have to keep that subtext and intelligence in sight, but you also can’t lose sight of the reason audiences flock to cinemas for these kinds of movies in the first place: to be entertained. often sacrifices its entertainment value on the altar of high-minded adult ideas, which in many ways is as much of a problem as the film were a shallow, campy romp like 2004’s Godzilla Final Wars. It’s good that the franchise is pushing back against shallowness and trying to become more intellectually stimulating, but it pushes back too far and becomes something far too dry and intellectual. It would be a lie to say that it only pays lip service to its identity as a big-budget action flick, but not much of one. The action sequences feel far-between, and every one has to be paid for with a meticulously assembled lead-up detailing the governmental hoops that had to be jumped through for every round fired and every bomb dropped.
Shin Godzilla feels as though it’s courting a new, more high-minded audience while leaving those of us looking for a fun and intelligent monster romp somewhat out in the cold. There’s a few fantastic scenes of good old fashioned military vs giant monster action, but they come bundled up with endless scenes of dry political discourse and intrigue that will surely leave many audience members and kaiju fans impatient for the next action sequence. It’s too intellectual for its own good, chasing an ideal of relevancy and cultural importance so hard that those of us who are here for the fun and spectacle as well as the ideas can only watch helplessly as it races past us.
This is the second time in three years we’ve gotten a Godzilla film in which Godzilla is almost of secondary importance. In Gareth Edwards’ film, we kept cutting away to the adventures of the blandest lead character in recent memory, and usually just when the action was about to kick off. In Shin Godzilla, the Godzilla action that many audience members are here to see takes a back seat to political discourse. Given Shin Godzilla’s monumental success in Japan, a sequel or continuation is all but guaranteed. We can only hope that the next film in this new cycle will strike a better balance between intellectualism and entertainment.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★