Right now Godzilla is having a very good decade. The big guy is in the enviable position of having two new franchises built around him, one in Japan and one in America. 2014’s Legendary film was a very well-received Western take on the kaiju genre. His first native film in a decade, Shin Godzilla (previously called “Godzilla: Resurgence“) was just brought to the United States by Funimation. It the first Japanese Godzilla film to get a theatrical release here since Godzilla 2000.
Yet with Godzilla mania running high, we need to admit one thing. Despite being a giant radioactive monster that levels cities: Godzilla is not scary.
However, Shin Godzilla has managed to correct that. This film has is a very different Godzilla than the one we have known for decades. Director Hideki Anno (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) has done what seemed impossible: make Godzilla a force of nightmares once again.
How Godzilla Lost His Edge
Once upon a time, almost thirty movies back and sixty years ago, Godzilla was scary.
1954’s Godzilla (or Gojira), directed by Ishiro Honda, is in retrospect a very dark and serious film with Godzilla symbolizing the terrible tragedies of the atomic bomb. It holds up very well actually. If you haven’t seen it, give it a view. The film was released only two years after the end of the American occupation, with the wounds of World War II still very fresh in the minds of the Japanese psyche. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not even a decade old. That movie manages to have both great horror moments and legitimately moving dramatic scenes of a people reacting to destruction. More importantly, Godzilla was filmed as a menacing creature of unbelievable size. He is a beast without a shred of sympathy for humanity.
That all changed over the decades. As Toho released sequel after sequel, Godzilla began to lose his edge. He became a big cuddly superhero, wrestling with space aliens. Kids across the globe learned to root for Godzilla and jump for joy when he beat up King Ghidorah or Mechagodzilla. This is not a complaint, even the craziest of the Showa-era movies are wacky good fun. But they are a strange direction for a series to take after such an urgent and poignant beginning.
Attempt to make Godzilla the bad guy again in reboots all failed. In Godzilla 1985, he still was a noble beast whose death is heartbreaking. In Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack he was a demon of pure evil. Yet fans still ended up cheering for him anyway because he’s Godzilla. You don’t just stop rooting for your favorite kaiju hero because he’s turned heel. It would take much more to break fan love for the King of the Monsters.
A New Godzilla For a New Disaster
Shin Godzilla comes four years after a new calamity in Japanese history: the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Hideko Anno uses Godzilla as a symbol for a slow-moving but quickly escalating crisis. It is exactly the sort of disaster that the Japanese government, both in real life and in this film, is completely unprepared to handle. Committees, bureaucracy, and shifting responsibility paralyze the government of this film, to the point that the Prime Minister turns pale at the prospect of actually having to make a real decision.
Shin Godzilla for much of its running time is more political satire than giant monster movie. It is a slow comedy of errors as decisions are thrown up and down the chain. One minister has to repeat a message to the Prime Minister that he clearly heard every single time a development happens. Anno fills the movie with subtitles that detail the minutia of committees, technobabble, and redundant bottleneck. It’s another joke on the unnecessary complication of what is a very simple situation: the nation is under attack, who is going to do something?
Then the film shifts into pure terror when this incompetent government must face the full power of Godzilla. He is not just a big monster. Here is an evolving and growing crisis that threatens to contaminate and destroy the entire world. Using Fukushima as a theme gives Shin Godzilla an urgency and authenticity that kaiju films have not had in decades.
What’s weirdest about this new Godzilla is his very first appearance on screen. Throughout the buildup of Godzilla’s appearance in the first act, we see only his fins from beneath the waves. But something is clearly off. He’s shimmying back and forth. The movement is awkward as if Godzilla is crawling on his belly.
Then well into the movie we first get a look at Godzilla. It is not at all what you would expect. He’s cute. He looks like a tadpole that’s washed ashore with big googly eyes and a mouth hanging dumbly open in a puppy-dog smile. Even when Godzilla evolves the first time he can only manage to at best reach the shape of a T-Rex, with silly stub arms.
This is a clear statement. Whatever preconceptions you had about Godzilla are out the window in this movie. It is almost a humiliating pose for such an icon. However, Godzilla does not come out of this movie looking shamed. This seemingly harmless big creature transforms into the most horrifying Godzilla yet.
This final evolution of Godzilla is apparently the biggest Godzilla ever put on the screen. But the size arms race between the Toho and Legendary franchises is really the least of the changes done to the kaiju.
Even though he now has a traditional shape, Godzilla now looks almost H.R. Giger-esque with a twisting body full of bumps and lines. His skin fumes with an internal red glow. There’s something just not right about his proportions. He’s too skinny, too long. Pay close attention and you can see his body further changing – there is a second half-finished face at the end of Godzilla’s tail.
Godzilla’s face is terrifying. The teeth are a bramble of razor sharp jumping out in all directions. The once silly googly eye has turned into sunken and tiny beads. They portray no emotion and no mercy.
Ever more disturbing is how Godzilla moves. His gait is mechanical. His head does not move when he walks. Even Godzilla’s atomic breath has been changed to an unfamiliar new form. Godzilla’s lower jaw separates in two and his mouth widens to an impossible degree. You realize the recognizable Godzilla form that this monster is currently taking is just a temporary phase. It is a constantly changing unearthly thing. The only emotion the creature ever shows is a chilling scream of agony as he fires his attack.
Breaking a Fandom
Shin Godzilla is brilliantly effective in tearing down sympathy for a beloved film monster. From his alienating design to his bizarre biology, everything about this Godzilla is freakish and unnerving. a mutated mockery of the film icon. Turning something very familiar into something alien and unapproachable only adds to the tension and fear of the movie.
Hideki Anno’s Godzilla does not feel like a traditional kaiju monster. Rather its behavior and otherworldly movement remind one more of one of Anno’s Angels from Evangelion. They are also personality-less forces of destruction. You could imagine this “Shin Godzilla” being a villain in a Nineties Godzilla movie. It almost feels like a betrayal – this is the not the Godzilla anybody grew up with. But it is also bold filmmaking revolutionizing a very old franchise.
Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo halfway through the movie is an awe-inspiring rampage of unbelievable power. In a less carefully made movie, the audience would be there rooting Godzilla on. In Shin Godzilla, we feel the same helplessness and fear as the characters. By accomplishing that, Shin Godzilla may be the most effective film in this series since 1954.