AUTHOR’S NOTE: Before starting, I’d like to make a quick distinction. I see the American Godzilla and the Japanese Gojira as two separate entities. As a result I will be referring to them by their localised names whenever they arise.
I never really got into the Godzilla franchise or kaiju (giant monster) movies as a genre. As a self-assigned connoisseur of cinema, I was aware of the character and his legacy, but until Shin Godzilla I had only seen 3 stories featuring one of Japan’s most famous residents. First was 1998’s Godzilla which has gone down in infamy as one of the worst films ever made, but has provided me with many hours of comedy nonetheless. Second was 2014’s Godzilla which was a better film by all accounts but that only really peaked in its final act. Finally came 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters which, thanks to its mammoth scale and high level of excitement, ended up being one of my favourite films of that year. Taking a look at these 3 projects back-to-back, I think it’s fair to say that the quality of Godzilla content coming out of America is improving, but it’s becoming clear to me that they may never reach the magnitude of their Japanese counterparts. Gojira was first unleashed to the public in 1954 in the movie of the same name by Studio Toho and has since gone on to partake in 31 more films from the same company. It was recognised in 2015 by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest continuously running franchise and I finally decided to dive into this extensive history with 2016’s Shin Godzilla (also known by its English title Godzilla Resurgence).
We follow a group of government officials in the Kamata District of Tokyo as they deal with the appearance of a giant monster known only as Gojira- a name translated from the American “godzilla” and meaning God Incarnate. From the offset, it is clear that this is less about Gojira himself and more about the people trying to survive his presence. American films seem borderline obsessed with explaining as much as they can about where Godzilla comes from, and showing him as a destructive force of nature reclaiming his homeland. Godzilla is portrayed as a monster who needs to be controlled, which is in stark contrast to Gojira who is simply a creature seeking sustenance. Gojira simply wants to reach a nuclear reactor so that he can feed off of its radiation, and only lashes out in self-defence when provoked by the Japanese Military. This radiation is important because it dates back to the original Gojira, a metaphor for the fear of further nuclear attacks on Japan after the end of the Second World War. The series may have become more comical in later entries like Godzilla Vs MechaGodzilla, but these origins remained an integral part of the character’s history. These later entries also focused on Gojira as an anti-hero fighting off bigger monsters like his cyborg-counterpart and the three-headed Gidorah and it is this interpretation that America has latched on to. Considering the horrendous part that America played in Gojira’s inception, it’s hard to ignore the sense of astounding irony surrounding Godzilla and his King of the Monsters franchise.
A particularly fascinating aspect of Shin Godzilla is the titular kaiju’s ability to evolve. His first form is that of an aquatic creature who makes his way into Tokyo through its rivers. It is this form that was used in trailer footage, and that you can buy, er, adorable (?) plushies of. He soon makes it onto land and evolves into a red bipedal life form which retains the gills from its previous form and overheats. Gojira returns to Tokyo Bay to cool off, but upon his return has doubled in size and become an unstoppable behemoth. He faces an array of attacks from every angle and from every weapon in the military’s arsenal but remains unfased. Terrifying as this Gojira may be, the film’s ending hints that this may not even be his final form and that he was close to birthing some children. This furthers that nuclear metaphor, and the ever changing issues that nuclear warfare brings. You may survive the initial blast, but you must also contend with radiation poisoning and with repairing those places that have been destroyed. Even once Gojira has been defeated, his husk remains- a reminder of the horrors that have unfolded, and what horrors he unleashed.
The government has spent the majority of its time reacting to the destruction being caused rather than preempting it. They have set up a research team to try and pinpoint Gojira’s weakness and habits, to no avail. Not once, is it considered that they should just leave him alone. The destruction is not deliberate, it is a result of his sheer size and mass, but the government simply sees a monster. Violence begets violence but it is the government who strike the first blow by launching a full-scale assault culminating in nuclear missiles. In response, Gojira fires atomic rays from his mouth and dorsal fins, laying waste to the districts around him. It is an act of defence and of anguish and the film never paints it as anything else. The audio dims, the score swells and we listen as Gojia scream in pain during a scene that lasts a matter of minutes, that is truly heartbreaking to watch. Finally, his energy expended, the kaiju becomes dormant and you remember that the movie is only 2/3rds of the way through. All this destruction, all this tension and it can only increase from here. The research team leaps into action, obtaining some DNA samples from the sleeping beast, and formulating a final plan that is slightly ludicrous but that is necessary. Once more, we must watch as Gojira is beaten down because it has become clear that this either ends with his destruction or the destruction of Tokyo.
Shin Godzilla‘s message on the disastrous consequences of nuclear warfare (and perhaps warfare in general) is a powerful one, surrounded by powerful performances to boot. The actors are clearly giving their all, and though the subtitles were on, there were times where the levels of emotion conveyed enough. Perhaps those with the largest part to play were directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi as well as composer Shiro Sagisu. These three men were also responsible for crafting the astounding anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, and there are aspects of that project in here. It too packed an emotional punch, and there are musical motifs in Shin Godzilla taken from that series, as well as the passion that clearly went into both projects. This film is nothing short of a work of art, and an essential watch whether you’re a long-term fan of Gojira or not.
Until Next Time…