I watched Shin Godzilla, the latest Godzilla film to come out of Japan, yesterday. It was a good film, not great. As much as I enjoy the kaiju genre, a straight humans versus kaiju flick rarely enthralls me. (It’s actually why I like the American ‘Zilla film which, while not featuring any other kaiju, has some fun sequences of Zilla versus the military that are visually engaging.) But for the most part, a movie where a kaiju crushes a city while humans shoot it ineffectively isn’t my thing, as much as I enjoy the genre.
Shin Godzilla does at least explore the trope in an intriguing way. It is a reboot of sorts, and while we might complain about that in the U.S., Godzilla has a history of reboots, alternate continuities, and standalone films that makes any complaints in this case seem silly. In Shin Godzilla, this is the first kaiju to appear and menace humanity. This puts it in an interesting place because in a world where there’s never been a need for kaiju defense, many of the standard storytelling shorthand doesn’t appear. There is no Godzilla Defense Force, no giant robots, no special weapons, no alert systems. This is uncharted territory for Japan, and it works as an exploration of how would Japan and the rest of the world deal with a threat like this?
If I were to simplify the conflict in Shin Godzilla, I would call it Godzilla VS. Bureaucracy. Or Godzilla VS. Government, if you want to be more charitable. While we have a few characters we stick closer to than others, the story itself is brimming with characters, all of whom are government employees in some form or another. This isn’t a story about an intrepid hero who saves the day through sheer guts. Rather, it’s the story of a handful of government employees who save the day through managerial know-how. It definitely shouldn’t work. Especially not from an American perspective, where very few stories ever hinge on governmental effectiveness other than perhaps as an obstacle to our protagonists, but it does.
I honestly don’t know a lot about day-to-day life in Japan and what social and cultural anxieties the country wrestles with. I know that the original Godzilla film was a visceral exploration of feelings of post-war japan involving nuclear fears. In that film, not only is Godzilla a stand-in for atomic bombings, but he is defeated by use of a superweapon that the creator deems too dangerous for humanity to possess. The conflict isn’t only the threat of Godzilla, but the threat of giving that weapon to the world.
Watching Shin Godzilla, I had the impression of a Japan struggling to define itself in this new world, of questioning its values, and ultimately, deciding they were good. At one point, a character straight up says something along the lines of “Japan still works.” The story in that context is more interesting than an initial impression might lead one to suspect, and the theme that only through cooperation and problem solving can any nation continue to be relevant and functional is a strong foundation.
Is this my favorite Godzilla film? No. I’m still a sucker for titanic monster battles, but something like that would get in the way of the everyday practical problem solving that is at the heart of this film. This isn’t the story about intrepid good guys (or good kaijus) risking it all to save the day. This is about humanity as a whole, muddling through disaster with intelligence, hard work, and cooperation. And (spoiler alert) the fact that Godzilla isn’t destroyed, merely neutralized, highlights that triumph is only temporary and every day a struggle.
Godzilla himself has a few crackerjack sequences too, so it’s not as if the big guy is an afterthought. While not my favorite version of the King of the Monsters, he’s new enough to be interesting while familiar enough to be recognizable.
A good movie. Recommended.