First things first: Shin Godzilla is here! There’s a new Japanese Godzilla film currently playing theaters in the United States and it is pretty spectacular. With a franchise that has lasted over six decades and twenty nine films, audience members will obviously approach it with a wide variety of expectations, so it’s best to know going in that it is a film much more in the vein of the original Godzilla (or 1984’s The Return of Godzilla) than the sillier alien invasion epics that characterized the 60s & 70s. It’s a film with seriousness of purpose, with the most frightening depiction of the title monster in the entire franchise (with the possible exception of the original). But it’s also a deeply eccentric film, with a strain of satire running throughout, and extremely propulsive and idiosyncratic filmmaking choices that render a talky, procedural story breathlessly involving (it’s the Contagion or Apollo 13 of Godzilla movies, or The Martian if Matt Damon was roughly 35 stories high and oozing radioactivity). The story is certainly familiar to fans of the genre, but the presentation can be dizzyingly unfamiliar. Presented in this country with subtitles, it’s an incredibly dense film, with whip fast dialogue (sure to be too talky to some) sometimes fighting for room with other onscreen text (including a running gag where every character with a line is identified by name and title/rank/governmental position, including some characters who get multiple titles as their position changes during the story). It’s a very political film, with some material that will be easily grasped by western audiences and some material that will (and, no doubt in my case, did) fly over their heads. Oh, and the monster sequences are beautiful, thrilling, and full of images that left this Godzilla fan’s jaw on the floor. So, that’s the short of it. Go see the movie! But there’s a lot more to talk about. So, if you want to go deeper, let’s get to it.
(NOTE: I’m going to talk about the story of the film in some detail below. But I’m only going to put another big spoiler warning before I discuss some details about the film’s depiction of Godzilla himself because there was some stuff there that genuinely surprised me!)
In making the leap from Japan to America, many Godzilla movies have undergone title changes. These changes have run the gamut from slight tweaks (Godzilla 2000: Millennium became Godzilla 2000) to completely new titles (Kaijū Daisensō or “Great Monster War” became Monster Zero and later Invasion of Astro-Monster). For a brief period this year, Toho, the company behind all twenty-nine Japanese Godzilla films, offered international distribution rights for Shin Godzilla under the title Godzilla Resurgence. This was a little surprising both because it seemed like an odd fit for a film that reportedly was going to be a reboot with no continuity connection to any previous film (can it be a resurgence if it’s the first time the movie’s Japan has ever seen Godzilla?) but also because it wasn’t a good literal translation of the title and the films’ international titles have tended to hew closer to the original Japanese ones since the 1990s (if it weren’t for this greater level of control, we probably wouldn’t have a movie with the English title Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack). But Toho changed their minds, and the film is in North American theaters right now under the title Shin Godzilla. There are a number of reasons that this is the most appropriate title for the film. A literal translation of “shin” would typically be “new.” But the film’s title in Japanese has “shin” written out in katakana, a phonetic way of writing, distinct from kanji, which is a logographic form where characters express full words or syllables. The kanji form of “shin” translates to “new,” but the katakana form could correspond to a few different kanji words, and this ambiguity means that “shin” can also translate as “true,” “god,” or even “evolved.” Retaining the Japanese word for the English-language release of the film is clearly meant to maintain that ambiguity, as all of those meanings are actually appropriate for the film (“new” and “true” have a meta meaning, claiming the monster for his native country after the recent American version, while “god” and “evolved” relate to specific elements of how Godzilla is depicted in the film). But keeping the Japanese “shin” in the title also defiantly signals how very Japanese the film is, with meaning embedded in even the title that will be most thoroughly accessed only by a Japanese audience. As an American, I’ve no doubt there were subtextual and satirical elements of the film’s story that I only had a very general narrative grasp on. I can claim no deep expertise in Japanese cultural or political history; mine is naturally an outsider’s perspective. But I do know something about what the portrayal of Godzilla expresses about those subjects. And even to an outsider the film works as a piece of compelling kaiju storytelling.
Tokyo Bay is wracked by a series of mysterious disasters. A coast guard boat investigating an abandoned yacht is engulfed in a plume of water and steam. The Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line collapses in a flood of water and blood. As the government meets to consider how to respond, a young Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Rando Yaguchi, speculates that a viral video seeming to show a giant creature in the water may in fact show the cause of these incidents. He’s proven correct when a massive, bizarrely proportioned aquatic creature emerges from the bay, cuts a swath of destruction through the city, mutates before our eyes into a bipedal monster, and returns to the sea. The government scrambles to respond, both to provide relief for those affected and to deal with the continued threat the creature poses, and Yaguchi is put in charge of a task force to study the creature. As their investigation begins to indicate that the monster may be powered by nuclear fission, a special envoy from the U.S. government reveals that the American government has information about the monster. U.S. intelligence provides information about a disgraced professor who had been studying mutations caused by radioactive contamination and had proposed the imminent appearance of such a creature (dubbing it “Godzilla”). The professor recently committed suicide, leaving his own work on the abandoned yacht from the beginning of the film. The task force begins research into a method of using Godzilla’s own internal cooling system to freeze him, but their progress is slow as the government focuses on exploring military options.
Godzilla, now even larger and more mobile, once again emerges from the bay and heads toward Tokyo. The Japanese Self Defense Force is mobilized but fails to halt his progress, and the Americans offer to help in return for full access to study the creature. But after the U.S. bombs only deal Godzilla minor injuries, the monster responds by unleashing devastating atomic ray attacks, leveling Tokyo and killing the senior level of Japanese government officials. After expending so much energy, Godzilla seems to go dormant, freezing in place while he recharges. During this respite, a United Nations coalition, led by the U.S., informs Japan that they will destroy Godzilla by deploying nuclear weapons in Tokyo. Yaguchi and his team race to produce the coagulant necessary for their freezing plan and, with the help of their own coalition (including a German computer facility, the Japanese public and private sector, the JSDF, French support on the UN Security Council, and U.S. military drones) they successfully pull it off before the nuclear deadline, leaving Godzilla frozen in the middle of Tokyo. The international community agrees to call off the nuclear strike, but it is framed more as a postponement in the event that Godzilla becomes active again. As the film ends, Yaguchi is forced to consider what role he wants in rebuilding Japan and the government, and the prospect of a future with the dormant danger of Godzilla looming at its center.
The Godzilla in Shin Godzilla is, on one level, a pretty obvious stand-in for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. He actually embodies all three elements of that disaster, causing tremors and structural damage before he even appears onscreen, making landfall with a flood of roiling water and boats carried up the street before him, and eventually revealing himself as a lasting nuclear threat. And the emphasis on a tangled bureaucracy being unable to respond nimbly to disaster, particularly in the first third of the film, can definitely be read as a riff on the Japanese government’s response to the 3/11 disaster. There’s even a moment early on where the prime minister decides he’s going to have to make a public statement and says he needs to get into uniform, and in the next shot he and his cabinet are wearing blue work clothes, a direct reference to a much derided move by the real Japanese prime minister following 3/11 (for Americans, it’s like having your movie president wearing a flight suit for their “Mission Accomplished” moment). But while the film is initially critical of governmental bureaucracy, it ends up with a pretty optimistic vision of the way government can work, with young public servants collectively accomplishing something together, respectful of bureaucratic structures but willing and able to bring creativity and determination to bear on solving actual problems. In this way, the film steps a bit beyond a specific parable of a specific disaster and enters a conversation about Japan that has run through many Godzilla films.
The original Godzilla was released in 1954. This was nine years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States and the extended bombing of Tokyo (with conventional firebombs) that concluded World War II. It was also just two years after the Allied occupation of Japan ended with the implementation of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. And it was the same year that the crew of the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru was exposed to nuclear fallout from U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll. These were all still fresh memories and, with the occupation and its accompanying censorship of material deemed critical or subversive toward the Allies (including discussion of the atomic bombings) finally over, the complex and conflicting feelings the Japanese had about their role in the war could find expression. And Godzilla was a metaphor big enough to encompass their national role as both victim (the only nation to have nuclear weapons used against them) and aggressor (the perpetrators, as a nation, of great atrocities). The most common interpretation of Godzilla is that it is a story processing the national trauma of the atomic bombings. The film’s director, Ishiro Honda, had been a prisoner of war and passed through Hiroshima in 1946 when he was repatriated, witnessing firsthand the devastation the bomb had caused.
The movie opens with a crew relaxing on the deck of a ship when a flash of light erupts from the sea and burns them alive. When people come to investigate the wreckage left by Godzilla’s first appearance on land, they find enormous footprints contaminated by radiation. When news of the danger posed by the creature reaches the public, a woman remarks to her train passengers, “I barely escaped the atomic bomb at Nagasaki – and now this.” And after the film’s central Godzilla attack, we’re met with the quietly devastating sight of a young girl being examined with a loudly clicking Geiger counter. The fear of nuclear power as embodied by Godzilla is omnipresent throughout the film.
But there is a complementary interpretation of Godzilla as a metaphor for Japan’s own wartime aggression. With that belligerence represented by a destructive dragon destroying the population and infrastructure of Japan, the character of Dr. Serizawa becomes a tragic hero, imagining a Japanese role in exorcising a national shame. His eye patch, so often a signal of villainy in science-fiction/fantasy film, is actually a constant visual reminder of the trauma he suffered during the war. There is an intriguing moment when his fiancee Emiko accompanies a reporter to ask him about whether the work he’s been doing could help in the effort against Godzilla. The reporter mentions that he was told by one of Serizawa’s German colleagues that his work may be of use, and Serizawa adamantly denies knowing any Germans and terminates the interview. His evasiveness suggests something sinister, and while the film doesn’t pursue that thread any further, it is hard to forget when seeing how full of conflict and anguish Serizawa is. This conflict is most potent when it becomes clear that his newest breakthrough actually has the potential to create a weapon of mass destruction (he dubs it the “oxygen destroyer”) that could destroy Godzilla but would be incredibly dangerous if revealed to the world’s governments. Serizawa’s solution to the same moral dilemma cited in justifying America’s use of the atom bomb at the end of the war is to destroy his notes and detonate the weapon himself, staying behind to witness its effects and taking its secrets to his grave. It’s a moving sacrifice, but it is also something of a cathartic do-over of the end of the war for the Japanese; in the movie version, a Japanese man makes the moral decision to destroy the aggressive dragon consuming his country and does so with a justifiable and responsible use of a weapon of mass destruction, ensuring it can not be used again.
When Toho revived the franchise in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla, a direct sequel to the original film, the threat Godzilla poses and the best way to respond to it becomes the subject of debate between Cold War-era Russia and America, with Japan caught in the middle. Both countries want to launch nuclear weapons, but the Japanese prime minister is able to convince them not to (of course, a Russian launch signal is accidentally launched from a ship damaged in Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, and the Americans assist by intercepting the incoming nuclear warhead with a missile of their own).
Shin Godzilla, as only the third film in the series that deals solely with Godzilla (and no additional monsters), is most in dialogue with the 1954 and 1984 films. While the original is sorrowful and tragic, and The Return of Godzilla fits in very well with the apocalyptic tone of Cold War pop culture, Shin Godzilla ends up surprisingly optimistic and almost defiant in its faith in (and maybe advocacy for) Japanese self-determination on the international stage. The relationship between Japan and the U.S. in the film is a complex one. Japan needs their assistance, but is increasingly uncomfortable with the level of involvement they require in return (and by the sometimes high-handed vibe of some of those interactions). Even more fraught are the references to Russia and China, Japan’s closest geopolitical neighbors, discussed with a real wariness.
As the Japanese government struggles with it’s own lethargic bureaucracy in trying to mount a response to the monster, the film also suggests that the constraints placed on Japan following World War II may not be as relevant today. Before they can launch a military strike against Godzilla, they debate whether it’s a constitutionally allowed use of the Japanese military, poring over the document (shown as onscreen text in a constitution-eye-view shot) to find the relevant article. Because they do not have a permanent seat on the UN security council, they have to trade information about Godzilla (including potentially revolutionary clean-energy possibilities) with France in order to get a 24 hour postponement of the nuclear bombing of the creature. There is a conversation late in the film between Yaguchi and Hideki Akasaka, the aide to the prime minister, where they state that post-war Japan is a “tributary state” and seem frustrated that “post-war” lasts forever.
When the senior level of government (the greatest target of the red-tape satire in the opening sections of the film) is killed in Godzilla’s second attack on the city, the younger generation of civil servants (and an interim prime minister) commit to seeing the country through this crisis and then rebuilding the government with new elections afterward. This optimistic vision of a fresh start is explicitly linked to Tokyo’s “scrap and build” policy for city planning and renewal. And if the movie is arguing for a new Japan, no longer as limited by the shame of the war, it’s vision of what that country could be is also an optimistic one.
Some have pointed to the movie’s positive portrayal of the Japanese Self Defense Force as worrisome in its hawkishness, but the film itself just shows the JSDF as a competent and committed organization, as willing to assist with evacuation and medical aid as they are to attack the monster. They don’t save the day unilaterally (in fact, their weapons prove as ineffective as in pretty much any kaiju film) but they play a key role in the final effort to stop Godzilla as part of a broad coalition including Yaguchi’s team, U.S. military involvement (the drones that distract Godzilla), the aforementioned French assistance in delaying the use of nukes, and the very infrastructure of the nation itself (the plan involves manufacturers, cranes, trains, and even strategically demolished buildings; they literally use the city against him).
In addition to the usual nuclear metaphor (and clear 3/11 parallels) that this version of Godzilla represents, he’s also a vessel of nebulous future danger. There is a great deal of emphasis placed on his incredible ability to undergo spontaneous mutation himself instead of evolving generationally, and the more they learn about him, the broader their speculations get about the threats he will pose in the future (among their theories: he could reproduce asexually, he could sprout wings capable of carrying him from continent to continent, he could thrive in any environment that contains nothing more than water and air). Because of this, Shin Godzilla becomes a fascinating bookend to the original Godzilla. If the original is, in part, about Japan’s past catching up with them, then this new film is about them stepping up to take on an uncertain future. (Similarly, the beat in the new film where Yaguchi’s team gets computing help from a benevolent German server farm goes from a bit of a non sequitur to a subtle depiction of national healing and atonement when placed next to Dr. Serizawa’s anxious refusal to acknowledge his own ties to Germany.) It would take nothing less than this film’s vision of a revitalized Japan to take on such a monstrous opponent.
And speaking of that monstrous opponent, here is your SPOILER WARNING before I finish up here by talking about how Godzilla himself is portrayed in Shin Godzilla.
This Godzilla is about as radical a reinvention as I can imagine while still retaining the main hallmarks that identify the character. By the end of the movie he’s got the right shape and posture, the dorsal plates, and the atomic breath. But this depiction leans much more into the notion of Godzilla as a true abomination than any previous version, with strange, beady eyes, a mouthful of jagged teeth pointing every which way (some of them seeming to grow from the skin outside his jaws), skin that is knotted and scarred on the surface and boiling with red fire underneath. He looks truly nightmarish. Still, it’d be one thing if this redesign was the only thing for the audience to adjust to, but the film also introduces a handful of new ideas that have proven quite controversial in fan circles.
The Godzilla you can see in pictures on this page is actually the final form the monster takes in the film, but when he is initially introduced you’d be hard pressed to recognize him. The creature that crawls out of the bay looks radically different, with giant googly eyes, a permanent silly, skeletal grin, bizarre fin-like vestigial-looking forelimbs, and enormous gills lining the side of his long neck (from which he occasionally gushes torrents of blood). It’s a shocking creature design, sort of hilarious and unsettling in equal measure. After crawling and flailing his way into the city, he then mutates before our eyes into an intermediate form, more like the Godzilla the audience expects to see, but retaining some of the awkward and strange elements of that first stage. These strange metamorphoses introduce elements of body horror to the Godzilla mythos, and it’s a surprisingly effective fit.
The other major point of fan controversy comes when this Godzilla unleashes his atomic ray. During his second time on land, the U.S. drops bunker buster bombs on him and he is actually injured. They penetrate the hide of his back and explode, sending blood and bits of his dorsal plates raining to the street below. Recoiling in pain, he roars and his spine start to glow (this time purple instead of the traditional blue) but instead of the familiar atomic ray, he initially just emits a billow of gas or smoke, which floods the streets for many blocks in all directions. His jaws have spread unnaturally wide, and his lower jaw separates as if it were mandibles. Then the gas ignites into a flame and this fire breath engulfs the city for what looks like many more blocks in all directions. And in the middle of this inferno, the ray focuses in the back of Godzilla’s throat and sends a concentrated purple beam that functions almost like a lightsaber, shearing through entire buildings, collapsing them in seconds, and obliterating the attacking planes. And when a second group of plans make their bombing run, the beam dies down in his throat and an array of similar beams erupt from his dorsal plates, with the same devastating effect. It is an absolute stunner of a sequence and single-handedly marks this as the most destructive vision of Godzilla yet. Further shocking fans, during the finale when Yaguchi’s coalition implements their plan to freeze Godzilla, after Godzilla deploys his atomic breath and dorsal beams, he also emits a beam from the end of his tail (which appears to have a structure that could be some sort of vestigial second head?). It’s another jaw-dropping moment, impressively imagined and rendered, but it definitely seems to have been a bridge too far for some Godzilla fans (in many cases before they’d even seen it for themselves).
Still, if they can get past these changes, old school Godzilla fans should find much to appreciate in the sheer volume of nods to Godzilla history pepper the film. The opening titles and first shot of the film deliberately echo the titles and opening shot of the 1954 original. The mysterious professor whose abandoned boat propels the mystery in the middle of the film is named Goro Maki, the same name used for journalist characters in both Son of Godzilla and The Return of Godzilla. Fans may also recognize original sound effects being reused for Godzilla’s roar and footfalls and military sound effects like missile launches, and they’ll be delighted to hear classic original recordings of Akira Ifukube’s iconic Godzilla music used at key moments of the film, as well as an additional three or four tracks over the closing credits.
It’s a pretty exciting time to be a kaiju fan. We’ve just gotten impressive Godzilla movies from Japan and America, and the next few years promise a King Kong movie, Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal, a Pacific Rim sequel, an American Godzilla sequel (and eventually a Kong vs. Godzilla rematch), an animated Godzilla film from Japan, and a possible Gamera revival, but the most intriguing prospect is the possibility of a sequel to Shin Godzilla. The film was such a success in Japan that it seems very likely to garner at least one sequel (it’s hard for a Godzilla fan not to immediately envision a new series running at last a half dozen entries, but I’ll try not to be too greedy yet). The prospect of seeing more of this version of Godzilla is exciting, as is the idea of seeing him fight other kaiju. And the film ends with with enough ambiguity (Godzilla may or may not reawaken, the nuclear ultimatum still hangs over Japan, and the final shot is both opaque and disturbing in its implications) for a sequel. But it’s also bracingly difficult to immediately imagine exactly what a sequel to a Godzilla movie as idiosyncratic as this one would actually look like. I’m really excited to find out.