Hideaki Anno’s reinvigoration of the Japanese kaiju tradition of Godzilla, dormant for over a decade, is a darkly comic, prescient tale of the destructive and restorative power of government in the face of nuclear proliferation.
A number of characters in Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla, when talking about the history of not just Tokyo, but the Japanese way of life in the modern era, prescribe to an eerie and worrisome worldview: “scrap and build.” It is used both as condemnation for inaction and as salve to this enduring Japanese spirit. Whether this is a nationwide belief isn’t apparent, but Anno is focused on stress-testing the philosophy as national raison d’etre in his newest film.
“Scrap and build” makes sense, also, when considering the brackets of the last seventy years of Japanese history. The explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, effectively leveling two major Japanese cities and killing millions, and the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 stand as twin beacons of the tenuous nature Japan has had to global development. Both catastrophic moments in history also belie a necessary hesitance and reliance on parliamentary procedure that Anno simultaneously makes fun of and holds up as the work of heroes in Shin; the Japanese have seen too much destruction, and layers upon layers of red tape have been drawn around the potentiality for further catastrophes in the future.
As Ian Malcolm might say in a similarly natural destructive movie, “life finds a way.” Shin Godzilla drops us into the life of members of Japan’s parliamentary government on the day of the mysterious appearance of a gigantic monster in Tokyo Bay. The monster is Godzilla, though no one really knows that yet (including the audience… the creature bears little resemblance to the kaiju of lore). The reaction is something that American audiences might most closely relate to something out of the filmic tradition of Armando Ianucci. Members of several different sub-committees are shunted from conference room to conference room, hastily talking through the municipal strategy and plans for combat and possible evacuation. Japan’s Prime Minister is assaulted with opinions as we are presented with our nominal protagonist: Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi. He’s the man who originally suggests the idea of the kaiju when everyone else is treating it as a possible steam explosion under a transit tunnel. He is also held up as the only one in a series of officials who actually want to cut through the red tape and get things done.
When the monster returns to the ocean, hardly phased by anything the government tries to do to it… life returns to normal. There are game plans drawn up for its inevitable return, and international organizations get involved. A sexy US-associated envoy is appointed to Yaguchi’s team of lovable nerds assigned to figure out exactly how to stop the monster. She gives the monster a title: Godzilla (the US Department of Energy came up with it, go figure).
The endless boardrooms, largely nonexistent score and rapid fire robotic political jargon could immediately be a turnoff for someone coming into the movie looking for straight kaiju fare. Alas, this is not one of those Godzilla movies where Godzilla fights Mothra. Instead, Anno, in his typical fashion of looking into organisms and dissecting them, treats the parliament sessions as grounds to question the very foundations of modern Japanese society. One of the largest looming questions of modern Japan is Article 9, which specifically prohibits any unilateral activity on Japan’s part that could be construed as an act of war from being initiated by Japan to solve problems. Basically, Japan can’t fire first. And since Godzilla technically is just an animal, there’s much hand-wringing to be done about whether the Prime Minister should be given authority to act. This is Anno injecting his narrative voice into a contemporary dialectic in Japan, drawing on kaiju science fiction as a mirror for current events. With a small amount of background knowledge, these scenes play as fascinating metaphor for the (im)proper way of handling disasters and unilateral actions, a veritable master class in drawing out the pitch black humor of the Japanese reaction to Fukushima.
Godzilla comes back, and his return to the beaches of Japan returns the movie to a much more kaiju-centric narrative — the military, all government agencies and generally just everything that humans have ever built or will build topples in front of the destructive might of an evolutionary being far superior to humankind. The lingering metaphor Godzilla always gets laced to is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and radiative damage that nuclear waste could be doing to society. Just so, Anno keeps this element but adds fun wrinkles — the main way that Yaguchi believes Godzilla to be stoppable is by messing with its genetic code, modifying the very thing that helps it to mutate against all other foes. This is a novel, and slightly metaphorical way of dealing with the problem, and Anno is quick to make sure the audience knows exactly who he’s rooting for. Yaguchi and his team of misfits are pumped up with highly stylized editing, Japanese-rock guitar riffs and a playful back and forth that highlight their working relationship, something decidedly absent from the scenes of parliamentary and military reactions to Godzilla.
This is most clearly seen when the Americans get involved. When Godzilla proves unstoppable for all of Japan’s military might, painstakingly activated by the harried Prime Minister, the movie takes a hard line in presenting Japan as the ugly, somewhat thoughtful step-brother to the United States’ powerful, dumb quarterback. Whether by design or just through the sheer terrible acting of American officials, the dialog given to Americans is stilted, misunderstanding Japanese hesitancy with their plan to just nuke the shit out of Godzilla as reluctance, instead of courage in the face of it wiping out Japan as a country.
Yaguchi’s team is the antithesis of this overly subordinate parliamentary form of Japan. In scenes of overly scientific fervor and problem solving, the team, and the movie, ratchets up to near-Hollywood levels of drama, achieving moments of such emotional poignancy as to truly expose a film like The Martian as a series of math problems posing as a movie. Shin Godzilla revels in the little moments required to set a machine in motion, and doesn’t shy away from the machine utterly failing. While The Martian contained no drama whatsoever, Shin Godzilla succeeds on a grand scale because we understand the scope.
A scope which is most clearly seen in the second act turn, when Godzilla utterly lays waste to the city, displaying an awe-inspiring set of powers that even I, a long-time kaiju movie fan, found surprising and devastating. It is in this moment that hopes for a happy ending wither and die, and the point of the movie becomes clear: for Japan, these past seventy years have been about survival, and preparation for the next potentially country-erasing disaster. The way Anno draws many of the parliamentary characters and the ways in which he bangs them together to create solutions recalls a somewhat “woke bro” theory of politics — that the nation-state as a whole is obviously worth saving, it just needs to be recovered by the young and disruptive, not the old, stodgy leaders. Even Yaguchi is given an overtly careerist bend, as his ultimate goal is to become Prime Minister and change Japan for the better. Most notable among Yaguchi’s desires is that he is one of the men who most vocally does not support the Japanese Defense Force intervening in attacking Godzilla — perhaps a nod to Anno’s resistance to the reinterpretation of Article 9.
I’ll save most of the spoilers about the ultimate fate of Tokyo, Yaguchi, and Godzilla to those reviews that want to most closely discuss it, yet it’s safe to say that survival as an evolutionary imperative seems to be what drives Anno’s interpretation of Godzilla. The monster’s survival is directly related to the disasters of World War II, in a way that the ultra-ambiguous final shot seems to lean into very heavily. Perhaps Godzilla isn’t so much a single monster moving toward us with such dense biological framework as to be ultimately unstoppable, but perhaps the creature is a walking amalgam of what it means to survive in the nuclear age. Hideaki Anno’s mentor, Hiyao Miyazaki, has spent his life dodging away from overtly discussing the nuclear age in his movies, yet each of his stacked masterworks touches on the nationalistic and nuclear fervor of the last fifty years that indicates towards a possible framework. Both directors are necessarily wary of the effect of government, yet Anno’s saves his brightest moments for the times with Yaguchi’s men are working closely together to solve the problem of Godzilla, or at least forestall the overall doom of Japan.
Shin Godzilla is political satire posing as science fiction monster fare, a treatise on what it means to be Japanese in an era of nuclear proliferation and arms racing as much as it is about watching a dude in a mo-cap suit wreck Tokyo and step on a bunch of trains. It’s camera and score betray a fan’s perspective, and Anno is smart enough to include a bevy of hidden and not-so hidden easter eggs in there for the Godzilla heads (hint: the master plan for defeating Godzilla should appear familiar). This fan’s perspective gives the movie its fun, relentless pace. Anno’s awareness of the cultural climate of Japan and how that relates to the human instinct for defense, survival and evolution is what makes Shin Godzilla one of the best movies of the year.