Shin GodzillaReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/24/16 04:43:46
It was a little bit surprising when venerable Japanese film studio Toho announced plans to make a new Godzilla movie soon after the 2014 American version; while not perfect, it was fairly well-received and expected to spawn its own sequels. What's even more surprising is that the one they wound up making feels daring and modern in unexpected ways - a thoughtful and satirical thriller that is still able to embrace that it's the latest in a series of movies built on guys in rubber suits stomping a scale model of Tokyo.It starts out suggesting a shift in format to a found-footage or documentary-style flick, as a Coast Guard ship finds a seemingly abandoned pleasure boat in Tokyo Bay. That's soon followed by plumes of boiling water, and while high-ranking members of Japan's government ponder what sort of reassuring explanation to give the public, Deputy Secretary of Disaster Management Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) picks up on chatter that it might be some sort of gigantic life form. Absurd, they say, at least until footage of a massive tail appears during the press conference. While the more senior politicians debate procedure, Yaguchi is put in charge of the research team with Hiromi Ogashira (Mikako Ichikawa) from the Nature Conservation Bureau as his science expert. The trail leads to an expatriate scientist, with American diplomatic envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) offering to fill the Japanese staff in, although neither she personally nor the government she represents does anything for free.
One of the common complaints about the recent American Godzilla was that it worked too hard to hide the giant monsters, although that is something people say about nearly every kaiju movie worth a damn with the possible exception of Pacific Rim. Those expecting Shin Godzilla (aka "Godzilla Resurgence") to be a rebuke to that are in for a surprise and potential disappointment - it is almost wall-to-wall meetings and debates among elected officials and bureaucrats, often cutting back to the Prime Minister's Residence even while massive property damage and loss of life is happening in another part of Tokyo, generally the opposite of what one wants during a monster rampage.
And yet, by focusing on this part of the story, writer and primary director Hideaki Anno does something intriguing and unexpected: Even as he gives obvious examples of how bureaucracy can often be hidebound and seemingly counter-productive, getting plenty of jokes at the government's expense, it's also clear that he's fascinated by the process. While fast talk in a Japanese movie is often one person raising his voice to bury another under a barrage of words, it's back-and-forth here, like something Aaron Sorkin would write. Politicians worrying about how their actions will be perceived, rather than being played as cowards, are in over their heads and often paralyzed with fear at not knowing what the correct course of action is, especially since their government is explicitly structured in such a way as to make the use of force difficult, while Anno's script is uncommonly realistic about the logistics of evacuating a city the size of Tokyo.
Indeed, it doesn't take much scratching beneath the surface to see in this movie as an examination of what Japan is at this point in history and what it must concern itself with. It is very clearly post-Fukushima in its attitudes toward atomic energy - while most previous versions of Godzilla posit the creature as being awakened or mutated by radiation, Anno's is a living nuclear reactor leaving a trail of contamination in its wake. The focus on details highlights just how tied Japan is to the United States, even though it is very clear that America may see Japan's well-being as an afterthought - more broadly, much of the film's homestretch is built around very real fears of being surrounded by massive, aggressive powers, waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that their allies may walk away (Donald Trump's comments during the 2016 American presidential campaign only serving to make this fear more timely). Finally, by making Shin Godzilla the first complete Japanese reboot (while most other sequels would change the mythology to a certain extent, the 1954 original was always in-continuity), it highlights how the flip side to Japan's preparedness in the face of disasters can be rigidity, and that unforeseen challenges may require new, less hierarchical and more improvisational approaches.
That set-up leads to a sprawling cast - there are something like a dozen familiar character actors among the senior ministers and Self-Defense Force officers alone - but also one that's dynamic enough to make the long stretches between giant monster attacks entertaining. Hiroki Hasegawa does an impressive job of implying that other characters' comments about Yaguchi's ambition have something to them even while always his actions are about the common good. Of the team that forms around him, Mikako Ichikawa is perhaps the most memorable as Ogashira; she really nails the nervousness of a relatively low-ranking employee called on to brief the Prime Minister in a crisis even though some of that timidity disappears as she dives into the work. Not timid at all is Satomi Ishihara as the brash Japanese-American envoy whose apparent shallowness barely covers a sharp mind that feels no need to hide her own ambition; as in co-director Shinji Higuchi's Attack on Titan films, she steals nearly every scene she's in, even if she's the roughest with English-language dialogue among the cast despite her character being a native speaker.
But enough about the human cast - most seeing the movie are doing so for Godzilla, after all! That's a bit tricky, at times; tasked with both bringing the Japanese series into the 21st century and doing something a bit more traditional in style than the American film. He settles on evolution and mutation as a mechanism to serve both masters, and it's surprisingly effective - the first appearance is gloriously rubbery and tactile, just this side of silly as it plows through streets, pushing cars away and wrecking buildings. It takes a while to morph into something like the traditional Godzilla, albeit darker in tone and more imposing, almost invisible eyes robbing it of a bit of the humanity traditionally ascribed to it, a design change that heightens the danger when it becomes especially clear that it's not only smashing uninhabited buildings. Higuchi heads up the special effects team, and he's just as aware of the tightrope he must cross, and he winds up delivering a combination of man-in-suit miniature work and digital artistry that manages to capture the strengths of both, blurring the line between them and making Godzilla's rampaging just the right blend of gleeful and scary fun. The filmmakers' take on its atomic breath is especially nifty, and while one might complain a bit about the third and final major action sequence not being quite as exciting as the previous two, it's still got moments of gleeful abandon, such as bullet trains used as actual bullets, and there's a genuine delight as composer Shiro Sagisu "evolves" the music into Akira Ifukube's classic Godzilla theme as the monster becomes more recognizable.The quick-cutting, information-heavy style Anno uses here may not be for everyone - if you don't speak Japanese, it often leads to competing subtitles on the screen - especially those who just want monster fights and not examinations of leadership and difficult decisions. Fortunately, the action this has is good enough to make this the best Godzilla movie since "Giant Monsters All-Out Attack", even as it's possibly the smartest since the original. And even if that's still not enough, Anno gives it an iconic and satisfying finale that nevertheless is also a heck of a place for the next guy to start, and I kind of can't wait to see where Toho decides to go from here.
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