18 October, 2016

Stomping His Way Back Into Your Heart

It's nice to see that Godzilla is back. Besides the 2014 Legendary Pictures version of Godzilla (which apparently exists in the same universe as their new King Kong movie, because shared universes is what films have been missing these past one-hundred years. . .), we have a new Godzilla from Toho Studios in the form of Shin Godzilla. It's about damn time. In this world stacked to the brim with dystopian fiction and escapist superhero movies, it's nice to see the grandfather of all anxiety pictures back.

It's also nice to see Godzilla back to his original form: A mix of existentially terrifying and sublimely ridiculous.

Shin Godzilla plays out as a healthy mix of Dr. Strangelove and United 93 if they were both about an atomic war-god raised from the sea. It's as much a political satire as it is a drama of procedure. . .It's also about a giant lizard fucking shit up. These three themes bounce back and forth off of each other, making big laughs in dramatic scenes and ratcheting up tension in what amounts to an impenetrable board meeting.

But also, man are those board room scenes good.

Shin Godzilla is a lot of fun and you get the sense that the people making it had a lot of fun as well, which is how it should be, because why should being involved with Godzilla ever be boring? It should be joyful, damnit.

One of the ways that the film manages to have fun, but also convey the byzantine inanity of the Japanese government is with the amount of super-imposed job titles it throws at you. Every character in the film is introduced (in very large typography), who they are and why they are there. This happens again and again and, considering that they're on screen at the same time as the subtitles, it's a decision that is clearly meant to baffle more than it is meant to elucidate. This distinct sense of confusion adds to the drama, as we have about as much idea about who these people are as they have about what Godzilla is (we, of course, know exactly what Godzilla is). Fighting Godzillas, as it turns out, is a confusing and terrifying existence.

What's more interesting is that the film feels like a live action anime (which makes sense considering Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi made their name working on Neon Genesis Evangelion). It's a film cut through with rapid insert shots that energize its scenes and B-roll that give it a sense of place, which comes in handy when those places start blowing up and catching fire. 

Yes, it has scenes where tanks impotently fire at Godzilla for 10 minutes
It even seems to use the same font as Neon Genesis Evangelion. Say what you want about that series, it had a bomb-ass font.

Shin Godzilla is a film that manages to be funny in the way that you want a kaiju film to be, but doesn't ever tip over into camp. While a lot of fun is had at the expense of old Japanese politicians shouting "Way to go, USA!" as American B2 bombers flatten entire sections of Tokyo, you still actually manage to care about the action going on on screen. You want people to get out okay. You want Godzilla to be destroyed. You want your POV characters to do the right thing. And in all that you also get a lot of good laughs at the expense of everything but the film itself.

It's a complex move to pull off and a lot of Godzilla movies don't pull that off. Even as a fan, a lot of Godzilla and kaiju movies are movies you laugh at. They're schlocky, silly B-movies that seem to have been primarily built with psychotropic users in mind. They're rarely ever good films. What makes Shin Godzilla stand out, though, is that you can watch it and laugh at how ridiculous this situation is without actually laughing at the film. Instead, you feel for these characters and this world and you want to see more of it, because nobody should have to live through anything as surreal as a Godzilla attack-- Nor should they have to suffer through a Japanese ministerial meeting. It's a testament to the film's direction that it can play both of these cards at the same time. I mean, that's what movies are supposed to be, right?

I mean, as much as I love War of the Gargantuas, sometimes I want to watch a good movie about giant monsters fucking shit up. I'm sure everyone can agree with me on this one.

Ultimately, if Shin Godzilla is about anything, it's about grace under pressure and not buckling to perceived wisdom. It's an argument against doing the easy or the obvious thing. It's about how heroics is less about who hits the hardest or the fastest and more about who has the resolve to stick around and make the hard decisions. It's a pragmatic lesson that I would cast as being a very Japanese solution if I didn't think that we could use more of that in America right now. . .

Speaking to my friend (who lives in Japan), it's become clear to me that there's a much more literal connection of Godzilla to the real world. Namely, Shin Godzilla is a satire write large of the Japanese government's reaction to the Fukushima Meltdown. While that seems obvious in hindsight, it is a testament of the quality of the film that you don't need to know the specifics to get something out of the picture. Like the original Godzilla, there is something strangely universal about seeing a giant lizard blow up Tokyo.



James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and giant monster enthusiast. You can listen to his movie podcast here. You can listen to his "news" podcast here. He's still looking for a working Marklin Rifle. Anyways, enjoy.