By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Coming hot on the heels of Gareth Edwards’ respectful 2014 reboot, Japan’s re-entry in to the long-running series (which began back in 1954) not only meets expectations, but in many ways exceeds them. Displaying a commendable balance between spectacle and satire, Shin Godzilla delivers marvellous entertainment, and like the recent Hollywood hit, has to be viewed on the biggest screen possible.
The story kicks off in spectacular fashion when a massive eruption occurs in Tokyo Bay, which experts quickly blame on either an underwater earth tremor or volcanic activity. However, ambitious young deputy secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) has another theory about the source of the disruption, one that is dismissed by both the cabinet and the military. His research suggests an unidentified creature is responsible, and unless the government deal with it quickly, the problem will increase exponentially until it spirals out of control and cannot be stopped. But as everyone knows, government decision-making is a slow process.
Helping and hindering the purposeful Yaguchi is Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), a sultry special envoy to the U.S. President who is ruthlessly determined to rise up the political ladder. When the still-evolving creature hits land, sending waves of water and debris towards a terrified population, public servants and military personnel alike suddenly realise they have to come up with a plan quickly. If not, this destructive abomination which just keeps getting bigger (and more familiar-looking to the audience), will wipe out Tokyo completely.
Like the melancholic original, Shin Godzilla symbolically plays on horrific events that have shaken Japan. The 1954 version tapped into the fear of nuclear radiation, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, an undercurrent that was largely excised from the 1956 U.S. re-edit. The 2016 production very effectively incorporates the after-effects of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and even more pointedly the ineffectual handling of the Fukushima disaster.
As Godzilla grows to a height of nearly 400 feet, develops powers that conventional weaponry can’t withstand, and flattens areas of Tokyo at an alarming rate, government officials move from committee room to committee room, forming new groups to decide on what measures should be implemented. It becomes a procession of merry-go-round meetings, where red tape might lend a hand in the destruction of Japan’s capital. You can’t help but smile in disbelief when you see that Prime Minister Seiji Okochi (Ren Ohsugi) has three separate rooms to discuss important matters, moving a plan from its inception through to an eventual, thoroughly detailed conclusion. The city may lay in ruins, but at least every politician was consulted in conceiving the perfect strategy.
The humour that is spread through the corridors of parliament is surprising, and even better it is smartly executed by writer/co-director Hideaki Anno (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) and a large, impressive cast. Every few minutes we see a new face introduced (apparently there are around 300 speaking parts), and western audiences certainly need to stay focused as a barrage of names, job titles, and locations are flashed across the screen, and for some it may prove somewhat overwhelming.
But it’s a consistent joy to see so many familiar faces appear. From Ohsugi (who has regularly appeared in films by Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano and Takashi Miike), Hasegawa (Princess Jellyfish, and auteur film-maker Sion Sono’s Love & Peace and Why Don’t You Play In Hell?), and Kengo Kora (The Chef of The South Polar / Norwegian Wood / A Story of Yonosuke), to Jun Kunimura (Ichi The Killer / 9 Souls / the 2013 remake of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven / The Wailing / Godzilla: Final Wars), and Kimiko Yo (Suicide Club / Departures / Dear Doctor / My Little Sweet Pea), Toho Studios have gone to extraordinary lengths to pack this big budget venture with star power.
Helping Anno with the director’s chores is Shinji Higuchi, who has had plenty of experience helming special effects-heavy features, including the unusual sci-fi / WWII drama Lorelei: The Witch of The Pacific Ocean (2005), the large-scale Japan Sinks (2006), the highly acclaimed The Floating Castle (2012), and most recently Attack On Titan Part 1 and 2 (2015), a wretched live-action adaptation of the immensely popular manga and anime series. Thankfully Higuchi returns to form here, overseeing Japan’s first Godzilla film in 12 years with confidence and intelligence.
There are numerous references and homages to the early films, from the old-school Toho logo to composer Shiro Sagisu occasionally using Akira Ifukube’s memorable theme music.
What about the big guy himself? Every effort has been made to make Godzilla as formidable as possible, and the technical crew have undoubtedly succeeded, combining CGI and practical work to achieve eye-popping results. Higuchi and Anno are helped immeasurably by VFX maestro Takashi Yamasaki, an effects expert-turned-director who brilliantly merged computer imagery and live-action in films such as The Eternal Zero, Space Battleship Yamato, Parasyte Part 1 and 2, and the Always Sunset on Third Street trilogy. It’s refreshing to see this iconic creation reverting back to his more primal, menacing nature, and the red, lava-like glow dotted around his body is striking. We even get to hear that original 1954 roar.
Shin Godzilla sees the classic monster returning with style to the big screen, crafted with energy and skill by an extremely talented cast and crew, and proves to be a most worthy addition to a series that now spans over 60 years.