First some stats: Shin Godzilla (Godzilla Resurgence would be the translated English title) stomps into theaters as the 31st film in the franchise since the original 1954 Gojira first graced the screen. Only the 1998 and 2014 Hollywood films were not produced by Toho, and Shin Godzilla is the third reboot by Toho, kicking off a fourth era for the king of the kaiju. This means that in Shin Godzilla, he is the only monster to appear, and the film's plot is the people of Japan trying to cope with the destruction brought by the monster’s first appearance. This gives the film a different focus from many of the more popular entries in the series, including Gareth Edwards’ entry. But it gives the film a very strong connection to the original film, which drew inspiration from the atomic weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, as well as further atomic testing.
Shin Godzilla draws very direct inspiration from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Even from watching cable news footage in the United States, the images of color-coordinated jumpsuit wearing government officials issuing statements and inspecting affected areas is a powerful and recognizable image. The film takes a sort of satiric approach to presenting the Japanese government's reaction to Godzilla entering Tokyo, but many of the specific points might be lost on me (if anyone in the film is based on specific people, I don't know Japanese politics anywhere near enough for it to resonate with me).
What if Aaron Sorkin wrote a Godzilla film? Shin Godzilla is probably the closest we'll get. Much of the film is focused on how the Japanese bureaucracy, legislature, military, and Prime Minister's office responds to the threat posed by Godzilla. We see how decisions are made, spending time in various conference rooms, command centers, and windowless offices (including a great sequence where a command center of rag tag lone wolves and outcasts is hastily assembled). We mostly only get brief glimpses on how this affects the average Tokyo resident, but when we do, it isn't pretty. Writer/director Hideaki Anno is much more concerned with how the government and those in power protect themselves instead of putting the citizens of their country first. The central moral conflict in the film weighs heavy, with the Japanese deciding whether to try a risky plan of their own making, or follow the destructive path the United States, China, and Russia have set them on. As an American viewer, it's absolutely fascinating to see a nation wrestle with its own status in the world.
In contrast to just about any Western film I can think of, the main character is not the driving force of the film. Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) does stay with us throughout the film, eventually coming to lead the Anti-Godzilla task force, but doesn't really have much of a story arc. Similarly, Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) adds a wonderful presence to the film, managing to make the most of her scenes, but there's not much to her personal story. But that doesn't mean the film is lacking for colorful, interesting characters. Each of the Prime Minister's Cabinet Members and many of the supporting players have very distinct personalities, which helps when so much of the film focuses on government decision making.
This approach to storytelling may not be satisfying to all kinds of viewers, as the film often feels like it has more plot than it does story. In this way, it functions as a logical extension of the 2014 American Godzilla film, which David Ehrlich called "the first post-human blockbuster." It is not a familiar hero's journey, there is no one particularly special in the film. It would be like making The Martian where Matt Damon's character was only on screen for a half hour.
All of this seems really heavy, and it is, but the film is also wonderfully entertaining. In addition to being filled with interesting characters, it also has a pace that is downright relentless. It has big ideas and a lot of plot to churn through, and by the end of two hours, I was exhausted. The film is (rightfully) always in crisis mode, pushing to the next decision point, press conference, or frantic research. It never stops to breathe, only for an occasional dramatic pause before the next big moment.
Filmmakers Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi also use an array of filmmaking styles to bring their vision of Godzilla to life. There is some traditional stop-motion/model animation, computer visual effects, motion capture, and regular photography all combined throughout the film. Much of the visual effects feel very anime-inspired, which makes sense given the background the filmmakers have in working on Neon Genesis Evangelion (one of the few anime of which I've seen a decent amount). It adds to the otherworldly feeling normal people would experience if a kaiju really did go stomping through Tokyo. There are also inventive uses of perspective, which help to convey the immensity of the title character as well as the insignificance of humankind and our civilization. Extreme closeups, interesting pans and angles give the film a grammar that is very distinct.
Shin Godzilla is a highly interesting and highly entertaining kaiju film, worthy of the legacy of the King of the Monsters. Definitely a must see if you can catch it during its short run in theaters.
Shin Godzilla has a limited theatrical release, this week only!