Holy shit guys, there’s a brand new Godzilla movie! Shin Godzilla, straight from Toho Studios. The first Japanese Godzilla flick in twelve years, it made a big splash in Japan critically and commercially, and it came to the States for a limited engagement.
If you’re a monster fan like me you’ve probably peeked at some production art and promotional stills, checked out the trailers, and wondered how it all fit together while trying (and in my case failing) to dance around spoilers. Godzilla himself looks particularly shocking, with an aggressively ghoulish, gruesome design that evokes charred, burning flesh and exposed bloody muscle. He looks like Burning Godzilla and Lord Zedd had a baby and then peed on it. I truly mean that as a compliment.
It’s a look that wouldn’t work for a kaiju-battling hero monster or a majestic beast meant to be an agent of natural chaos, but it works pretty perfectly for an unsettling, looming horror monster. But despite all appearances, Shin Godzilla isn’t the full-on creature-horror experience I was expecting. It’s something substantially drier and denser, with a surprising amount of wry humor.
Before we really dig in, let’s pop open those trailers again! Here’s the first one:
Pretty fuckin’ good! I get it, I get what they’re going for here! Opening on Godzilla’s wacky little shake ’em up head might not work exactly, but it also throws you off balance right away. The music is powerful and ominous, and we get some incredible worm’s-eye views of Godzilla himself. There’s generally a focus on intense looking people in boardrooms and scared, desperate people in Godzilla’s enormous shadow. I read more horror vibes into this than there actually are in the film, but this ad really got at me on an emotional, gut level. It does a great job of drumming up that old school Gojira dread and awe. Good shit.
They’re also careful not to give everything away! I appreciate that, because Shin Godzilla really does have some wild and woolly tricks up its sleeve. Trailer 2 gives you another carefully curated taste:
We get more of the movie’s ominous score, see some really rad new shots of Godzilla in action, and catch more intense looking people in boardrooms and hallways. Noticing a trend here? Shin Godzilla at its heart is a dry, dark political satire. It’s Aaron Sorkin’s Godzilla by way of Apollo 13. This is a good thing, but for me it was also a very surprising thing. My brain is still catching up. Here’s something I was able to easily wrap my head around though:
THE MUSIC IS FUCKING DOOOOOOPE. Composer Shirō Sagisu deftly mixes new music with classic Ifukube tracks, with different musical motifs assigned to specific types of scenes. Humans engaging with Godzilla get the grand sweeping score like the sample above, Godzilla doin’ his thang gets the old school Ifukube tracks, and nerds saving the day get comically incongruous RAWK music. It all works together well, creating a unique mood and soundscape for different parts of the film.
Sagisu is a long-time collaborator with director Hideaki Anno, and they clearly have a good thing going. Both are known for Neon Genesis Evangelion, a super influential anime series that deconstructed the giant monster vs. huge robot genre with big dollops of psychoanalysis, psuedo-religious imagery, and general in-your-face weirdness.
I’m really only aware of Evangelion through cultural osmosis and checking out some of the (absolutely kick-ass) action sequences on YouTube. As a giant monster fan I know it’s something I need to watch eventually, but it’s just something I’ve never gotten around to.
That said, a lot of genre fans are super geeked to see Anno take on Godzilla. It’s a non-issue for me personally, but it’ll be cool to revisit Shin Godzilla after I finally watch Evangelion. Toho knew they had such a hot get with Anno that they launched an elaborate April Fool’s tease of a fake Godzilla vs. Evangelion movie… and of course, an extensive line of similarly-themed merchandise:
What did get me all fired up is the involvement of Shinji “Holy shit 90s Gamera trilogy!” Higuchi. The ‘Guchster directed the amazing practical effects for those Gamera flicks, and he (sort of) brought that thunder to Shin Godzilla too.
I say “sort of” because there was some initial confusion over how much of Shin Godzilla was achieved through practical effects. Early reports said there’d be a full Godzilla suit supplemented with digital effects, then there were reports of a large-scale puppet instead of a suit (both techniques were used effectively in Higuchi’s live action Attack on Titan movies), then reports said shots using the suit and/or puppet were being cut, until finally Toho said Shin would be their first all-CG Godzilla. Or at least, that’s the last I saw.
So with a fully digital mon-star, what practical bad-assery could Higuchi even bring to the table? How ’bout DEBRIS
Okay, well maybe not that shot specifically, but for some scenes they handcrafted miniature building interiors. They’d trash the mini-interiors and composite in live actors to create the illusion of catastrophic, building-wide destruction. It’s a time-tested technique that works just as well today in Shin Godzilla as it did in flicks like Independence Day!
It’s ambitious, and for the most part it looks great! There are a handful of CG effects that look bad (particularly the almost-comical crashing trains in the third act), but they’re not deal-breakers. Knowing Anno and pals had a fraction of an average Hollywood budget to work with, the final result is pretty fucking impressive.
Speaking of Anno: dude-man knows how to frame a shot. He expertly pairs intense worm’s-eye views for Godzilla with dynamic POVs for the hapless military coming up against him. That said, it’s not exactly a huge challenge to make tanks and helicopters blasting away at a monolithic freakasaurus visually exciting. What stuck out to me was that the many boardroom scenes were shot in a way that made them feel just as intense as Godzilla’s scenes.
A lot of this movie is frantic officials rushing around, desperately trying to make any kind of progress against Godzilla’s bizarre assault from the inside of a bureaucratic clusterfuck. Anno’s camera gets right up in their faces, which in turn gets them right up in ours! It isn’t long before it feels like swarms of panicked politicians and exasperated experts are asking you to authorize their next move. It’s tense and claustrophobic, and keeps the energy up no matter what’s going on.
Shin Godzilla somehow manages to have a story that’s straightforward and focused but incredibly dense and complicated at the same time. If you boil it all the way down, it’s just: Godzilla attacks–>Japanese government scrambles to try and stop him. On that bare bones level it’s a story we’ve seen before in Gojira/Godzilla King of the Monsters and The Return of Godzilla/Godzilla 1985. I look forward to getting another movie like this in another 30 years. Godzilla is powerful as a socio-political allegory, even if it’s not as fun as his monster-wrestling versus films.
Godzilla ’98 is the other single-monster show in the Godzilla franchise, but it doesn’t thematically fit in with the Gojira-85-Shin trifecta. Godzilla ’98 is a skittish creature who ultimately is defeated by conventional weapons, and as far as I can tell doesn’t have any deeper symbolic meaning like his solo-film cousins. We know the O.G. (original Godzilla) was exploring the horror of nuclear weapons, and ’85 more or less tussles with Cold War anxiety, so what’s Shin’s big message?
3/11 is one of several nicknames for the catastrophic earthquake that hit Japan in March of 2011 and the pair of disasters it brought with it: 130+ ft tsunami waves and the Fukushima reactor meltdown. With almost 16,000 deaths, 3/11 was a massive shitshow to put it mildly. As true as it is, “earthquakes are dickheads” wouldn’t be a very gripping theme, so instead, Shin Godzilla points a big ol’ finger at the Japanese government and says “your bureaucratic bullshit butt-fucked us!”
Godzilla, like the 3/11 disaster, changes forms as it gets further inland. 3/11 started with an earthquake, and Godzilla starts out like this:
Hahahaha, wait what? Are we sure about this?
Pffff okay! So that goofy-ass thing up there is technically Godzilla’s second form. The first form we only see as a gross fountain of steaming blood, swinging tail, and damaged underwater car tunnel.
This first glimpse is enough to get the Japanese government all revved up though, and we rapid-fire blow through a whole slew of meetings and character introductions. This might seem faster than it actually is because I’m an English speaker and there are parts of this movie where the screen just fills with subtitles. Every person, place, and thing gets an evening-news style lower third, usually while someone’s talking, so my eyes panic for a second and bounce up and down the screen trying to catch everything before it disappears. This is paid off with a running gag with our human lead, the hilariously-named (for English speakers at least) Rando Yaguchi. As the movie progresses, the disaster escalates, the death toll climbs… and so does Rando’s rank in the government.
It’s darkly funny, and it’s not a lone goof! Other quality gags include perfectly timed smash cuts from crusty old politicians pointlessly hemming and hawing to Flopzilla up there murdering people by the dozen, an incompetent replacement prime minister bemoaning the sogginess of his noodles in the midst of a protracted monster cataclysm, and workaholic board members being sent home to take care of their B.O. These jokes all land shockingly well: they’re expertly paced to provide comic relief at just the right times, and they actually enhance the story by treating their human leads as real human beings.
The humanizing quality of the comedy is doubly important: with such a large cast and their rapid-fire succession of hearings, meetings, and task forces there’s really no time to give anyone a big fleshed-out arc. Rando keeps getting promoted up the chain of command as shit gets worse, but we don’t get a ton outside of that. There’s just no time! Speaking of no time, shit is going haywire while these nerds keep passing bills or signing contracts or whatever:
I gotta come clean: this wacky-ass (relatively) little wobble-monster kinda stole the movie for me. I accidentally stumbled across a few images of him before seeing the film, but even that really didn’t prepare me for his surreal rampage through the city. Some fans have dubbed this form Kamata-kun (Kamata for where he arrived, kun being a traditional Japanese honorific for schoolboys or low-ranking employees), and I’m not the only one to fall in love with this wonky creature:
Kamata-kun has garnered a cult following on both sides of the Pacific! Regarding the floppy, blood-gushing, no-armed freak-beast, Reddit user ApexOversteer simply said: “Best Minilla Ever.”
I of course wouldn’t go that far, but I have a lot of love for Kamata-kun. It starts out hilariously: just smashing its way down the street face-first like a fucking idiot with its big dumb eyes and its big stupid open mouth and its long, floppy, rubber chicken body. But then you see people running for their lives and getting crushed by this almost familiar but totally grotesque figure. Then you realize its big ol’ googly eyes stare blankly into nothingness as it levels homes and kills people. Then its long, fat, jiggly neck gushes gallons of blood into the street for no discernible reason. It’s still a funny-looking walleyed dipshit monster, but it’s so destructive and so utterly alien that for me it stirs up some complex reactions. I’m simultaneously charmed and disgusted by it. It’s comical, weird, and unsettling all at the same time.
Kamata-kun eventually teaches himself to shakily stand upright before plunging back into the sea. It’s evolving.
It’s a cool, scary development, and a fun callback to Godzilla villain-monsters Hedorah and Destoroyah. The Japanese government scrambles for answers and a strategy in the wake of Godzilla’s devastating first appearance. Yaguchi gets a promotion, and we’re introduced to Japanese-American US envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson. Like Yaguchi, she has a pretty decent mini-arc. She swings in seeming like a glamorous, flippant jerk-ass, but by the end of the movie we find she’s absolutely as driven, competent, and genuine as anyone else tangled up in the Godzilla crisis. She’s basically Rudy from Monster Squad.
In addition to rocking the shit out of a leather jacket (again, Rudy from Monster Squad), Kayoko drops a disturbing truth bomb: the US knew Godzilla was coming for a while, and covered it up. Disgraced zoologist Goro Maki (a name that references main characters in both Son of Godzilla and Godzilla 1985) had been studying mutation in animals caused by radioactive waste dumped in the ocean, deduced something like Godzilla was inevitable, and fucking killed himself.
Maki left his research behind, giving our gov’t guys all the answers they need to stop Godzilla! Almost. It’s a huge mess of information, cryptic and hard to follow, practically a gigantic puzzle.
Between their own observations and Goro’s partial research notes, Yaguchi and pals figure out that Godzilla runs on nuclear energy! Cool! That’s a really solid step towards figuring out some kind of–
He’s here! It’s time! Godzilla rolls up, way bigger and gnarlier than we saw him before. After all the discussion and handwringing about Japan’s Self-Defense Force and their role in the post-war world, the SDF is deployed against Godzilla. We know how this is going to go down, but Anno makes sure to shoot it all in a compelling, dynamic way. It’s visually astonishing and thrilling:
The human element and tragic gravity of his rampage keeps it from devolving into pure destruction porn. This Godzilla is slow, and really doesn’t move much other than his ever-wriggling tail. This has turned some people off, and I can get why, but it just made him seem all the more eerie and alien to me. Homie can get domed with a tank shell and he doesn’t even blink. It’s not just that we’re not a threat, it seems like he’s not even quite capable of perceiving us… for now.
On one hand Godzilla’s inability to perceive us makes him seem super powerful and bad-ass and godlike, but when you take it in context with his earlier, floppy, bug-eyed dipshit form, there’s another interpretation. This thing is a freaked out, shambling mutant that’s rapid-fire blasting itself up the evolutionary ladder. It’s a clumsy, ugly process that took regular lifeforms like us millions of years and he’s stumbling through it over the course of a few days. If this Godzilla is capable of an internal monologue, it could be Smaug’s overblown “I am fire, I am death” biz, but I’d bet on something closer to “WHAT IS HAPPENING TO MEEEEEEEEEEE?!!?!?!”
The US offers additional firepower with the caveat that they’ll get exclusive access to study the creature. Desperate for a solution, the Japanese government reluctantly agrees: projections show the US bombing will actually destroy more of Tokyo than Godzilla would have… chalk it up as a solid win-lose I guess. As night falls, a squadron of B-2 stealth bombers make their approach, and land a big-ass bunker buster right into G-money’s back. A geyser of blood blorps out disgustingly, and an on-looking Japanese official gives a fist pump and an “Alright USA!”
So wait what? Conventional weapons? Is this Godzilla ’98 all over again?
HOLY SHIT! Godzilla patiently takes the bomb, then goes hardcore batshit on everyone and everything. His atomic breath (and uh… back… spouts?) is fucking ‘nanners in this movie. Jaw dislocates to open up huge like a snake’s, then splits like Predator‘s. He pukes gouts of fire, then smoke, then a crazy purple laser, and it is intense. I love Kamata-kun to death, but this is clearly the real moneyshot/setpiece of the film. Godzillasers torch the B-2s (d’awwwww) and the chopper carrying the prime minister and the Japanese government’s top officials.
Yes, Godzilla blew up Congress! Afterwards he shuts down: he basically ran out of (nuclear) gas, so he has to recharge for a while before he can wake up. This gives our nerd committee time to analyze new tissue samples and glean new info from Maki’s notes by… folding it like origami?
This is the point in the movie where I don’t think I was quite keeping up with the subtitles, or maybe it was a cultural thing that didn’t exactly translate for me. I don’t know how they came to the conclusion to fold it like origami, and there didn’t seem to be a consensus on what to fold the notes into. A crane? A flower? A dollar bill elephant? The big takeaway is that they’ve found a chemical weakness for Godzilla, they just need time to manufacture it and figure out how to administer it to the monster. A UN coalition headed by the US doesn’t know anything about that though, and lets everybody know they’re gonna just nuke the fuck out of Japan and call it a day.
Needless to say it’s uh, not ideal for any alive thing in Japan or the greater Japan area. It also puts a spotlight on the long and complicated relationship Japan and the US have in real life. Prior to this point, the movie portrays the US as sort of a pushy big brother or a friendly but micro-managing and aggressive boss. The reveal of the nuke countdown shows the dark side of that relationship, but it doesn’t outright villainize the US. Partly through Kayoko calling in favors and hauling ass to buy the heroes more time, partly by revealing that Russia and China are pushing just as much (maybe even more) for the nuclear option, and partly by showing the US’ support of our heroes’ unorthodox battle plan later in the third act. It’s an interesting, intricate, and uneasy portrayal of modern US-Japan relations that feels honest instead of accusatory.
Germany, France, and Hong Kong all pitch in too, analyzing data, stalling the UN, or providing resources to brew up the chemical compound they’ll use to freeze Godzilla. It was a rocky path getting there, and it definitely falls short of hand-holding global harmony, but it feels like the gritty, world-weary reboot of Ishiro Honda’s classic theme, The Brotherhood of Man.
With what feels like seconds to spare, Yaguchi and his team brew up the zillion gallons of the coagulant (just typing the word “coagulant” gives me acid flashbacks to them saying it 400,000 times in Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla) chemical they need, secure tanker trucks and sprayer-cranes to transport it, gather a nervy enough crew to carry this crazy plan out, and bring in air support/distraction in the form of U.S. drones.
This is one of my favorite Godzilla-thwarting plans. It’s grounded in reality, spawned by lateral thinking, achieved with teamwork, and puts hapless humans in direct contact with a murderous, 300 ft tall lasersaurus. The drones trick Godzilla into burning off some of his energy with his trippy light show of doom, they take a play from the Giant Gila Monster handbook and crash bullet trains laden with bombs into G-man, they drop a couple buildings on his head (which made me audibly go “Awwww” in the theater), and when he’s out of juice, they shoot coagulant down his huge maw.
The crew of courageous coagulators get fucking annihilated. Luckily we find out that was crew number 1 of 2, so after Godzilla’s mouth and tail-mounted, laser-guided shit fit, G-fresh runs out of gas again, allowing crew 2 to successfully freeze the catastrophic creature. Satisfied with this solution, the UN calls off the nuclear strike. Japan and the UN agree that if Godzilla awakens in the future, they’ll have no choice but to nuke the beast. Our heroes celebrate and speculate about a future with a frozen kaiju shrouding their city in shadow, and we end on a strange, now infamous closeup of Godzilla’s upright tail:
And I was baffled by this for a minute. For some reason my first thought was that Godzilla was somehow absorbing his victims? Like he was made out of the things he killed? That would be a pretty eerie explanation, but also an uncharacteristically supernatural one. Giving it some more thought and reexamining some other tail pics, the implied mini-narrative becomes clear. What’s actually up with the tail is even creepier.
G-fresh evolves throughout the movie, and spawning an army of humanoid Godzillas was his next step. It’s a satisfyingly spooky capper to the mystery of Godzilla’s weird-ass tail, which has had fans scratching their heads since the design was first unveiled. At one earlier point in the movie it really looks like a creepy lil second Godzilla head:
Which explains why it was able to barf out lasers! Like the overall monster design, it was a bold choice that I think worked really well. But also like the overall monster design, some fans aren’t into it. If not put off by the long (and surprisingly important) tail, fans cited the shriveled, almost vestigial arms, gaping trapdoor mouth, or tiny, bugged-out eyes as deal-breakers.
Shocking design or not, every new Godzilla look gets picked apart like this. ’14 Godzilla got fat-shamed and put on blast for his brontosaurus feet, and Final Wars‘ Godzilla was called rat-faced and scrawny (too skinny, then too fat?! You’re going to give him body dysmorphia you monsters!). Godzilla’s been around for over 60 years and starred in over 30 movies: it’s only natural that people would develop preferences for certain styles and certain takes on the character.
There’s a whole slew of neat ‘n nerdy nuggets that I couldn’t naturally fit into the review, so here’s some rapid-fire shit: Famed anime director Hayao Miyazaki had a cameo! The Shin in Shin Godzilla is a triple entendre: it can mean “New,” “True,” or “God”! We saw it in a nice, full theater opening night, and the (high?) guy next to me gave a perfectly, hilariously earnest “GOD DAMN!” when a scientist theorized that Godzilla could mutate the ability to fly!
So that’s Shin Godzilla! It’s good! It’s different! It’s a big hit with critics and fans, and it deserves to be. Despite the film’s success, the future of Toho’s Godzilla is unclear right now. There’s a mysterious anime project lurking in the wings, and Legendary’s Godzilla series is on track, building up to a cross-over showdown with King Kong. It’s hard to imagine Toho’s ghoulish freak following either of those paths (though Shin Godzilla did face off against an anime character), but it’s equally hard to imagine Toho not striking again while their kaiju iron is nice and hot. There are a lot of different forms a Shin follow-up could take. Just like the human stars of this film, we’ll have to wait and see how Godzilla mutates next.