It’s difficult to make 31 movies about a single character without repeating yourself a few times, and Godzilla is one of those characters. Whether he’s the hero or the villain, an intelligent creature or a mindless beast, the basic elements of a Godzilla movie have remained the same for the most part over the last 52 years. That’s why when a movie like “Shin Godzilla” is added to this long-running series, it’s something special. Like its star monster, “Shin Godzilla,” manages to take a familiar form but still be something unusual and unique.
On its surface, there isn’t anything about “Shin Godzilla” that hasn’t been seen before in any other Japanese monster movie. Godzilla emerges from the ocean, stomps on Tokyo, and it’s up to a brave coalition of scientists, military and civil servants to put an end to his rampage. Where the movie deviates from the rest of the series is in how the threat of Godzilla evolves over the course of the movie, its more grounded setting, and how it uses Godzilla as an allegory for real-world events. It’s a strange Godzilla movie, but it’s definitely a Godzilla movie through and through.
“Shin Godzilla” wastes little time getting to the main conflict – an unidentified creature begins wreaking havoc on Japan’s infrastructure, prompting the government to leap into action. Actually, “action” might not be the best choice of words, because Godzilla’s arrival triggers a long series of meeting scenes set in a seemingly endless array of virtually identical conference rooms. Every conference room is given an on-screen identification, just as every government functionary with dialogue gets their name and title splashed across the screen. This becomes “Shin Godzilla’s” biggest and darkest running joke – culminating in the moment where the hero’s official title takes up more than a third of the screen. And shots of laptops and copy machines being deployed in those many conference rooms with military precision occupy as much screen time as the traditional shots of miniature tanks rumbling into position in a typical Godzilla film.
The bureaucratic hall of mirrors that takes up much of “Shin Godzilla’s” running time is thought by many to be a reference to the Japanese government’s response to the 2011 tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. A particular shot of the destruction left by Godzilla and a reference to the volunteers who willingly exposed themselves to deadly radiation levels during the cleanup seem to confirm that, but this focus on red tape also serves as a spin on 2014’s American “Godzilla” remake. In that movie, mankind’s insignificance in the face of Godzilla was played with near-religious implications. “Shin Godzilla” turns that on its ear and plays humanity’s inability to do anything against Godzilla as black comedy for its first half.
“Shin Godzilla” also deviates from the rest of the series with the design of its titular monster. This Godzilla can mutate to instantly adapt to his surroundings, and when he first comes ashore he’s more like an alligator that stays low to the ground, with enormous Cookie Monster eyes. It’s not until later in the movie until he adopts the familiar upright stance and beady eyes he’s known for, but even then it’s a very unusual look for Godzilla. With his mouth filled with broken, needle-like teeth, his gnarled dorsal fins, and his skin resembling a mass of scar tissue, this Godzilla looks like a creature that shouldn’t exist, underlining the nightmare quality of his attack on Japan. Topping it off is the final shot, which implies that Godzilla could still become something even more unsettling and alien.
Another consistent element of the typical Godzilla movie getting the remix treatment in “Shin Godzilla” is the monster’s connections to World War II. No longer created by the atomic bomb, Godzilla is now the result of marine life contaminated by nuclear waste, but Japan’s attempts to defeat Godzilla are stymied by intervention from the United States and Japan’s post-WWII treaties. Even without the bomb to blame for the beast, the ghosts of World War II loom large in “Shin Godzilla.”
What’s most impressive about “Shin Godzilla” is the movie’s ability to twist the familiar tropes of the series into something surprising, and that applies to the final battle against Godzilla, as well. The world of “Shin Godzilla” is more realistic than other movies in the series – there are no flying-saucer super-weapons, no giant robots, and no laser guns. In order to weaken Godzilla enough to administer a coagulant thought to freeze him, the military turns the city against Godzilla, ramming him with trains loaded with explosions and dropping buildings on him with controlled demolitions. For the first time ever, Tokyo steps on Godzilla, and for once Godzilla fans won’t have to apologize for the quality of the effects in the final battle sequence. A combination of traditional “rubber suit” monster effects and CG effects were used on “Shin Godzilla,” and the result is one of the more convincing depictions of giant-monster mayhem to come out of Japan since CG was added to the mix.
By selecting anime directors Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno to direct “Shin Godzilla,” it’s clear that Toho was looking for a fresh perspective on the King of the Monsters. Whether it was to upstage the American remake from 2014 or to provide a fresh start for a new series of Japanese productions is unknown and probably unimportant. What matters is that “Shin Godzilla” delivers an experience that will seem fresh and exciting no matter how many Godzilla movies you’ve seen beforehand.