I had the pleasure of attending G-Tour 3.5 this past July. Seeing Tokyo for the first time was a wonderful experience, but the capper was we were about to see a new Japanese Godzilla film on opening day! Throughout the tour, witnessing extensive promotion for the movie, our hype only grew.
So, was it good? Read on, though caution: there will be minor spoilers later.
I feel like I can’t talk about 2016 without going back to 2014 first, since my opinion of one is tied to the other. I was never angrier leaving the theater than after I saw Gareth Edwards’s 2014 Godzilla. My disappointment was twofold: they didn’t show Godzilla enough, and that they didn’t replace his scenes with anything else interesting.
But Robert, you’re probably saying if you liked it, many Godzilla films, even Honda’s ‘54 masterpiece, don’t feature him heavily. Heck, “Jurassic Park” only had dinosaurs for 15 minutes. What makes 2014 different? Well, for one thing, they made it obvious he wasn’t there. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the buildup: the credits, the skeleton, the reveal of the MUTOs… So when Godzilla arrived in Hawaii, I was ready for him to kick some tail. Then they cut to that kid. Okay, I thought at first. At least the whole film won’t be like that… Was I in for a rude surprise! Edwards constantly cut or pulled the camera down from the kaiju action to scurrying soldiers whom I couldn’t have cared less about. And when Godzilla was around, he didn’t have substance (beyond his incredible design), making his fatal “kiss of death” to the female MUTO feel hollow and unearned.
In interviews with Edwards he’s quite proud of his hidden Godzilla, comparing it to the less-is-more storytelling of “Jaws.” What he fails to realize, however, is that Godzilla is quite literally a different beast than Bruce the shark. When you see a Godzilla film, you expect spectacle, even in ones where destruction is slim. “Smog Monster,” for example, is memorable for its fish-headed dancers. Plus, Spielberg concealed Bruce out of necessity. The shark was not working. To paraphrase James Rolfe, of YouTube’s Cinemassacre, in his re-review of “Godzilla” (2014): it’s not what older movies did, but what newer movies should do. Gareth Edwards had a big budget for “Godzilla,” he could’ve used it!
Like I said, lack of Godzilla I could have tolerated. As long as they replaced him with interesting stuff, we’re good. Going back to the “Jaws” analogy, that film gave us great characters in place of shark scenes. But Edwards focused on a bland, everyman protagonist with no quirks, no tragedy, no nothing. I can’t say a single thing about him worth remembering. Killing off Bryan Cranston’s character just because it was hard to write him well and pushing Ken Watanabe’s vastly more compelling Dr. Serizawa into the background was just poor screenwriting.
So you can see why I went into “Shin Godzilla” with apprehension. Would it make the same mistakes?
No. Shin Godzilla blasts 2014 Godzilla out of the water he spent most of his film hiding in.
If you’ve read reviews that complain about all the talking, they’re correct insofar as there are dialogue-heavy scenes. I’ll admit to getting a little tired of them myself the first time around. Could’ve also been because I was annoyed at being jostled in my seat and sprayed in the face with water due to the 4-D, which has mysteriously caught on in Japan. However, I chalk my boredom up to seeing a Japanese movie in a Japanese theater, in other words no subtitles. If I had understood what was being said, I’m sure I would have been more enraptured. The scenes were well-done even if I didn’t buy Satomi Ishihara’s American accent. Thanks to the roundtable discussion with our Japanese-speaking guides, who explained the plot to us, it did get more interesting the next time as I tried to piece the film together. But I don’t feel comfortable discussing the plot too much since I still didn’t understand much of what was said. So I’ll mostly be discussing Godzilla’s depiction in this review.
I did, however, understand that the story is exactly what the tagline says, Japan vs. Godzilla. The film begins when an explosion at the Tokyo Aqua Line occurs. Those of us in G-Tour had driven through the tunnel previously, giving the film an even greater sense of realism. One can only imagine how the Japanese feel seeing their everyday landmarks wrecked in these movies. From the hole above rains a strange, red substance. Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yaguchi, after watching videos on social media, believes the damage was caused by a living creature. Since Godzilla’s in the title, you know he’s right, as all of a sudden a massive tail emerges from the ocean and begins swimming through the sea, piling up ships as it goes in a way eerily reminiscent of 2011 tsunami footage, which given Godzilla’s history as an allegory, is intentional and effective at eliciting horror.
What’s even scarier is when Godzilla actually appears. If you’ve seen toys of this design, they do not do justice to its grotesqueness. I was expecting the design we got in the trailers, so it took a few seconds for my mind to adjust to what I was seeing onscreen. If you didn’t think they could design a juvenile Godzilla uglier than Minya, well, they did. Intentionally, this time. The long, gilled neck leaking blood, giant clammy eyes, and the lack of arms causing it to drag its head across the ground like a deformed fish who grew legs by some freak accident, all contribute to a wonderfully creepy look.
The fish form takes on an even greater resonance when you realize what they’re doing with Godzilla. Like the 2011 tsunami which led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Shin Godzilla is a threat that keeps evolving. In fact evolution is one “Shin’s” many meanings. After rampaging in this form for a while Godzilla gets up on his hind legs and sprouts arms. After teasing his nuclear breath, Godzilla dashes back to the sea. When we next see him he’s twice his size and resembles what we saw in the trailers, a form heavily inspired by the ‘54 film, but gorgeously cranks the terror factor up to 11.
Speaking of the trailers, I thought Toho was lying when they said Godzilla was completely CG in this film. “That shot has to be a puppet!” I thought. Or “Totally a suit there!” Nope, all pixels. Which actually speaks to the efficacy of latter day suit-acting. I can see how I was tricked, though. Special effects director Shinji Higuchi has experience with traditional tokusatsu going back to the 84 Godzilla where he helped Mr. Explosion himself, Teruyoshi Nakano, with the effects. He also worked on the Heisei Gamera trilogy, which had some of the best men-in-suits in film, so the guy knows how a suit moves and was able to replicate it. Which is great, because suits are much better than CG at depicting a creature as heavy as Godzilla. There were times in the 2014 film where he felt unnaturally light. Only once with this movie did I see that. There was also a bit of suit-acting in the form of motion capture, provided by actor Mansai Nomura. Contrary to being angry at Godzilla being CG, I was delighted. I didn’t know computers could feel so wonderfully old-school.
Like you would imagine a suit, Shin Godzilla is very stiff. If you’re saying “That sounds boring!” I’d counter that this actually adds to his character. Shin Godzilla doesn’t have a personality at all like his predecessors. I’d go so far to say he doesn’t have a personality, period. Even in 1954 you had sympathy for him as an animal, but this Godzilla’s an alien, unfeeling, unthinking mind inhabiting the body of a 118-meter juggernaut who feels nothing as all the JSDF’s hardware bounces off his warty hide. And how to describe that beam? Purple was a wonderful choice, adding to Godzilla’s inherent unearthliness. And when he used it, let’s just say my jaw gaped.
Though in hindsight they may go into beam overkill later on, with Godzilla now able to fire from his back and tail, again I wasn’t bothered. Like with Godzilla’s evolving form, I was glad that director Hideaki Anno (whom I was fifteen feet away from if only for a few seconds while walking by the red carpet premiere!) was doing something different. Like “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” the early 2000s films, particularly “Tokyo SOS,” were guilty of paying too much homage and not thinking outside the box on how to make Godzilla more unique. Because of 1998’s too-different Zilla, most Godzilla media since has had this “back to basics” approach that it still hasn’t shaken off, IDW’s “Godzilla in Hell” and the as-of-now upcoming “Rage Across Time” being exceptions.
In conclusion, yes, I think this is a much better film than 2014. Whereas that Godzilla spent most of his time doing little of note, Shin Godzilla is a much more memorable monster, using his screen-time deftly. The story and characters, from what I understood, are much better as well. This is the Godzilla film I’ve been hoping for, and I can’t thank Anno and Higuchi enough!