Godzilla serves as an important benchmark in adolescent development—a gateway into the wonderful world of horror cinema. Even the timidest, most faint-hearted child can enjoy a Godzilla movie, as the films in the 29-deep Toho franchise generally lack the sort of gore and jump scares that have come to typify contemporary horror. Still, at its core, a Godzilla movie exemplifies one of the horror genre’s most prominent and longest-lived subdivisions, the noble monster movie, at its purist.
My son, now 11, is in what I have come to think of as prime Godzilla territory. We spent our summer weekends devouring the Toho back catalog (with brief sojourns into related modern media like Pacific Rim and Kaiju Big Battel), and the only person in my household more excited than me for the latest reimagining, Shin Godzilla, was him.
Last week we settled in to check out a screener of Toho’s third franchise reboot a little unsure of what to expect. This being the first Japanese Godzilla production since 2004’s Final Wars and the first American theatrical release since 2014’s Breaking Bad crossover (I kid, folks, I kid), we had our doubts. However, I’m pleased to say that we both came out of the experience wholly impressed.
Shin Godzilla is very much your typical slice of kaiju fare in that it features a massive monster born of man’s carelessness bent on urban destruction. Simultaneously, it also appears unafraid to play with that tried and true formula.
The running gag in my house regarding Godzilla flicks is often how little Godzilla is actually in them. He and his kaiju adversaries typically spend a good chunk of the film slowly crawling out of the ocean depths, only to appear and wreak havoc in a film’s third act. Not so with Shin Godzilla.
The movie opens with the discovery of an abandoned yacht in Tokyo Bay, followed immediately by an attack on the Japanese Coast Guard vessel sent to investigate the mystery. From there we are treated to… lots of cabinet meetings.
The through-line of the film’s first half is that the Prime Minister, a seemingly noble and competent man, is paralyzed by indecision in the face of an ongoing tragedy. While other members of the PM’s advising body—each identified via lengthy onscreen titles—pontificate on potential causes before adjourning to yet another room for yet another meeting, only a young Deputy Secretary, Yaguchi, is unafraid to state the obvious: both the attack and the obviously growing activity within the bay are caused by a massive living creature.
In short order, Yaguchi’s theory proves correct, as a quadrupedal, highly radioactive proto-Godzilla emerges and lays waste to the neighboring districts. Amid calls for military strikes, demands for evacuations, and cries for assistance, Prime Minister Okochi continues to flounder. So much so that, when the great beast evolves before the eyes of a nation into the more traditional T-Rex-style kaiju, Yaguchi himself is placed in charge of the Godzilla task force.
What follows is a veritable symphony of destruction as an ever-evolving Godzilla rips and rends his way toward the city center, destroying all in his path with tooth and claw, atomic breath and a laser-firing dorsal ridge. Visually, this is where the movie shines, as the combination of a motion-captured, digitally rendered Godzilla and amazingly detailed scenes of buildings, cars, and lives torn asunder by his might make for a literally jaw-dropping viewing experience.
But besides all this, running tandem to the destruction, is the story of a nation in crisis. As the military struggles against this preternatural force, Yaguchi is aided by special American envoy Kayoko Patterson—who is portrayed, like the US itself, as sly and secretive, but ultimately concerned with preserving human life—and a motley collection of scientists and academics that strive to find the answer to their growing (I made a pun!) problem via distinctly unorthodox means.
To say more about the plot itself would toe over into the realm of spoilers, so instead I’ll gloss over the more precise details.
Suffice it to say, as the film moves toward its ultimate (and ultimately satisfying) conclusion, it’s hard not to notice that all the verbose intra-governmental minutia evaporates into decisive, and occasionally divisive, action. A first blush, I took this to be thinly-veiled allegory about the dangers of bloated government. But, as the final act of the movie played out, I realized this wasn’t simply a matter of Tea Party Godzilla vs. Gubmint Overreach.
By the movie’s end, the same bureaucratic system that hemmed and hawed its way through Godzilla’s initial attack has also seen to the overall wellbeing of its displaced citizens, feeding them, housing them, seeing to their safety. It turns out that Okochi (with his legion of advisors) wasn’t so much indecisive because of a lack of understanding or a deficiency in leadership; he was merely intimidated by the sheer capacity for human tragedy that Godzilla’s appearance represented.
Shin Godzilla is a distinctly Japanese film that doesn’t deny its history. From Hiroshima to Fukishima, it acknowledges the nation’s lingering worries of nuclear disaster—a fear that Godzilla continues to perfectly represent. But this film is no more anti-nuclear energy than it is anti-government. Instead, this is a story about facing fears, no matter how big, head-on, about being bold in the face of adversity, and about embracing new ideas, even those that challenge conventional wisdom. It does this with a special combination of heart and bombast that my family found irresistible. I think yours will too.
Shin Godzilla is being domestically distributed by Funimation Films and will see a limited theatrical run this October 11-18. Additional information, as well as tickets, can be found at the film’s official site.
Review materials provided by: Funimation Films