by Gary Westfahl
Because the Japanese film Shin Godzilla (also known as Godzilla Resurgence) was unexpectedly given only a limited American release, beginning on October 11, it is inevitably a film that will take quite a while to achieve its full audience, as it gradually becomes more accessible via Netflix, cable television, DVDs, and network television; in this case, then, a promptly posted, day-after-release-date review did not seem important. Upon learning that this film was coming to American theatres, I hoped to report that, after American producers had for the second time abused Godzilla in a disastrously awful film (2014 film review here), Japan’s Toho Studios had triumphantly reclaimed its iconic character in a classic addition to a venerable franchise. Instead, however, they have merely produced what Japan has long been noted for, another mediocre Godzilla movie. Still, to recall Senator Roman Hruska’s immortal words, there is something to be said for films of mediocrity, as opposed to films that are atrocities.
In large part, directors Hideachi Anno and Shinji Higuchi have simply transplanted the story of the first Godzilla film to the contemporary world: an enormous, dinosaur-like creature appears and wreaks havoc on the nation of Japan, but after an ineffectual military response, scientists devise an ingenious way to defeat the menace. Anyone who considers that sentence a “spoiler” has been living in a cave for the last fifty years. Predictably, the filmmakers felt compelled to do some things differently, with generally unfortunate results. In the first place, pace Hugo Gernsback, Godzilla films have never been the sort of science fiction that offers a scientific education, but this film takes the scientific idiocy at the heart of the Godzilla mythos to a whole new level. Thus, we are told that, this version of Godzilla is an ancient marine creature transformed by nuclear waste into a living nuclear reactor, creating new elements unknown to science. The monster can also mutate into new forms to address its needs, so that after making itself a land creature to seek out a radioactive meal, its reactor overheats, requiring the monster to turn itself back into a sea creature to cool off underwater. Along with its traditional fire breath, this Godzilla has the power to shoot laser beams out of its fins; it is feared that it might single-handedly generate offspring, perhaps little Godzillas with wings that could spread throughout the world; and please don’t ask me to explain Godzilla’s “built-in radar.” Even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I think, would hesitate to attribute all of these miraculous abilities to a single dose of radiation.
One unfortunate consequence of these innovations is the consistently disappointing appearance of Godzilla. When the monster is first observed, it looks so unlike the traditional Godzilla that audiences will assume it is another monster being introduced to eventually become Godzilla’s opponent. Even when it finally mutates into the Godzilla we know and love, it often looks silly, with its skin periodically glowing in psychedelic colors and those ridiculous beams of light emerging from its back. It is also peculiarly unexpressive; while sometimes rendered ineptly, the Godzilla of earlier films always displayed emotions, as it was visibly annoyed by the attacks of rival monsters and gleefully celebratory after clobbering them. This Godzilla carries out its campaign of destruction with a visage of robotic indifference, as if it had been told to destroy Tokyo as a homework assignment. Finally, as if desperate to bring an aura of novelty to its visualization of Godzilla, the director consistently strives to film the creature from some extremely odd angles; thus, if you’ve ever wondered what Godzilla would look like if you were clinging to the back of its left ankle, this film provides the answer. Perhaps the intent was to show how a giant creature might actually appear to a viewer on the ground; but let’s face it, we all know that Godzilla is, or at least should be, a man in a rubber suit, and he should be filmed like any other human character. The strange camera angles merely make this Godzilla seem even more unappealing.
The film also contrives to transform one of the traditional strengths of the Japanese Godzilla films – their willingness to say something, in contrast to the relentlessly empty American films – into a weakness, as it pounds two messages into the ground and a considerable distance toward the center of the Earth. The first is that modern government bureaucracies are ill-equipped to deal with unanticipated problems, like huge monsters rampaging through cities. Thus, when an undersea Godzilla first manifests itself as steam and damage to a tunnel, the immediate response is the formation of a “disaster task force” that refuses to accept the monster’s existence until its tail emerges from the ocean. There is some hesitation about responding to Godzilla because, as one character notes, “We haven’t determined which agency” is responsible for dealing with monsters; providing assistance to victims is problematic because “Nothing in the first response manual applies here.” One character laments the fact that “Every action requires a meeting” and there is “so much red tape,” though another responds, “That’s the essence of democracy.” The prime minister initially cannot deploy Japan’s Self Defense Forces because Godzilla’s actions cannot be legally “interpreted as an armed attack”; instead, the official response to Godzilla is classified as “pest extermination.” When Godzilla briefly stops smashing buildings, the government must take the time to pass a “relief and recovery bill,” “Gojira bill,” and “security bill” to better address the crisis. After the prime minister is killed, there is concern about a “political vacuum,” and one character comments, “We need emergency legislation”; later, to allow for a planned American attack, Japan will “need a special law to bomb Tokyo.” One politician must remain behind instead of joining an operation against Godzilla because “A political decision may be needed.” When a viable way to defeat Godzilla begins to seem achievable, one character celebrates the fact that people are finally “working together,” with “no agency infighting.” In sum, just as Suicide Squad (2016) (review here) argued that modern governments would struggle to handle superheroes, this film argues that modern governments would struggle to handle monsters.
The problem is that, in order to demonstrate that governments move slowly and inefficiently in dealing with difficult situations, the film itself must move slowly and inefficiently; thus, viewers are obliged to keep watching meetings about Godzilla when they would rather be watching Godzilla – who, as in the 2014 film, appears far less frequently here than one would prefer. The only positive feature is that in the film, when characters keep on talking and talking, they are at least talking about Godzilla, instead of blubbering about lost loved ones or trying to rekindle an old romance, the sorts of time-wasting contrivances found in the American films. Here, the only personal drama observed is the slightest hint of a budding romance between the principal hero, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Haasegawa), and American representative Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara).
The film’s second message – and clear evidence that an American release was not originally planned – is that Americans are bad people. After an early proposal to seek American help is decisively rejected, Patterson nevertheless appears to offer American “support,” and despite calls to mount an international effort against Godzilla, she announces that restricting operations to “just U.S.-Japan” will be a “win-win” situation. Efforts to conduct research on Godzilla are hampered because Americans “took the remaining samples,” and while it is not specified which nation engaged in the “unregulated dumping of nuclear material” in the Pacific Ocean that engendered Godzilla, one has to assume it was the Americans. There are complaints about “American pressure”; some “unilateral requests” are “typically American”; and one character wonders, “What does the U.S. want with Godzilla?” Eventually, the United States gets the United Nations Security Council to approve a U.S.-led military operation to drop a nuclear bomb on Godzilla, leading the new prime minister to comment that the U.S. “foists some crazy things on us.” And it is while pondering the American plans that a character muses, “Man is more frightening than Godzilla.”
Eventually, the film argues that Japan needs to resist the Americans and make its own decisions. Thus, after one character complains that a nuclear attack on Tokyo would be “worse than Godzilla,” another calls for preventing its detonation because “I won’t see a third bomb” – recalling the previous American bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some decisive action on Japan’s part is necessary because, the prime minister notes, “We don’t want to be viewed as timid overseas.” Ultimately, tired of being treated as a “tributary state,” Japan “must act unilaterally” and “do what it wants.” And if outside help is needed, Japan must look to Europe, not the United States; so it is that Germany provides access to its supercomputers to enable Japanese scientists to complete necessary calculations, and France gets the Security Council to postpone the American assault and give Japan time to deal with Godzilla in its own fashion. Still, when the American representative’s youth is noted, one character comments that the Americans “admirably value” abilities more than age – a rare compliment to the country – and in finally suggesting that Yaguchi may someday become Japan’s prime minister, and his friend Patterson may someday become America’s president, the film clings to hopes for a more harmonious relationship between Japan and the U.S. in the future.
More subtly, the film is criticizing one particular group of Americans – director Gareth Edwards and the others responsible for the 2014 Godzilla. In an essay republished in A Sense-of-Wonderful Century, I noted how the Japanese film Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999) lambasted the director of the 1998 Godzilla, Roland Emmerich, by having its evil monster engendered by a huge alien spaceship similar to the ones in Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Here, Anno and Higuchi upbraid Edwards by emphasizing Japan’s extreme concern for avoiding civilian casualties, in contrast to the American film’s blank indifference to widespread human suffering. The prime minister decides to “abort” the first military “attack” on Godzilla because there are “civilians present,” and a later attack “cannot continue” because the area is “not evacuated.” To explain the decision, a character states, “It’s our job to protect the people,” and the prime minister later says that he “can’t abandon citizens to save myself.” In contrast, the United States seems eager to drop a nuclear bomb on Godzilla, unconcerned about civilian casualties; tellingly, it is precisely the same stupid plan devised by the American generals in Edwards’s film. Fortunately, Japan forcefully insists upon a two-week delay to provide time to evacuate the city and employ its own, unannounced method to neutralize Godzilla.
Quite unintentionally, Shin Godzilla also rebukes both American films simply by putting Godzilla back where he belongs – in Japan. Certain iconic characters seem inextricably linked to certain settings, and despite efforts to transplant them to other locales, one feels that Sherlock Holmes should be on Baker Street, Tarzan should be in the jungles of Africa, and Philip Marlowe should be in Los Angeles. Similarly, Godzilla should always be in Japan; his job is to first attack, and then defend, Japan. It just doesn’t seem right to see him destroying the Chrysler Building or threatening the Golden Gate Bridge. And while one might accept the inevitability of the occasional American Godzilla film, it is naïve for producers to assume that they can only attract American audiences by placing Godzilla in a recognizable American city; for time and again, as long as there are a few American actors in the foreground, Americans have embraced films that take place in foreign countries. Even the original Godzilla (1954) became an American success by adding some scenes with American actor Raymond Burr. So, while research suggests that at least two more American Godzilla films are likely to appear, one hopes that their heroes, like Burr’s Steve Martin, will be Americans living in Japan.
Further, despite Godzilla’s size and destructive powers, I would argue that the character must also be treated with a strange sort of delicacy, which the most successful Japanese films provide; one thinks of the chorus of children that brought emotional depth to the first film, the miniature singers who always accompany the giant insect Mothra, or the singular conceit, in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), of literally combining Godzilla with a rose. This film’s most striking moment comes when scientists are struggling to interpret a deceased scientist’s enigmatic notes, convinced that they hold the key to defeating Godzilla. When one man suggests that perhaps the sheet of notes needs to be “folded,” another says “origami”; and sure enough, by artfully folding the notes, the scientists can finally make sense of them. True, Godzilla’s defeat did require soldiers, weapons, and massive amounts of equipment; but it also required the art of folding paper. It is something that American generals, eager to solve their problems by dropping atomic bombs, could never understand.
It also says something about Japan’s recent commitment to pacifism that, even as the monster is leveling Japanese cities, there is some resistance to the notion of killing Godzilla. When its existence is first established, it is noted that people in “academic circles” and “environmentalists” are insisting upon its “live capture”; we briefly observe a group of protesters crying out “Godzilla is God” and “Save Godzilla”; and at the end of the film, Yaguchi concludes that “Mankind must coexist with Gojira,” suggesting that if the monster comes back to life, Japan will strive to keep him alive.
For long-time fans of Godzilla, the emotional highlight of the film will be the moment when Godzilla first appears in his standard form, and one hears yet again the strident Godzilla theme music, first employed in the 1954 film, that has reverberated through the entire series. And this suggests, to me, one possible explanation for the stubborn persistence of this film franchise. In most respects, the original Godzilla was a typical science fiction film of the 1950s, with a simple story, shoddy science, terrible acting, and unimpressive special effects. Since that time, science fiction films have matured and greatly improved, which is definitely something to celebrate, but there remains something oddly endearing about the childish films of the 1950s, as demonstrated by fond homages ranging from Strange Invaders (1983) to Alien Trespass (2009) (review here). And for the most part, the Godzilla films have willfully failed to mature and improve. True, the later films have better special effects, and there are overlays of contemporary concerns, like this film’s foregrounding of ineffectual bureaucracies and pushy Americans, but they otherwise cling to the two basic story lines developed in the 1950s – Godzilla vs. the world, and Godzilla vs. other monsters – and the emphasis is on scenes of colorful destruction, interspersed with tedious exposition and character development. It’s all very ordinary, but that’s how it should be; the American films failed, perhaps, because they were striving to make their stories seem special. I earlier suggested that Shin Godzilla was merely a mediocre Godzilla film, not a “classic”; but from another perspective, a mediocre Godzilla film is also a classic Godzilla film. Despite all of its noted flaws, then, I am very glad that this film was made, and I hope it is followed by many more.