When you combine the biggest name in giant monsters with one of the biggest names in giant robots, something is going to happen. That was the theory behind the marriage of Godzilla to Hideaki Anno, best known internationally for the seminal nihilist robot anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, and that’s how Shin Godzilla (literally “New Godzilla”, known as Godzilla Resurgence in some markets) came to be. The Japanese brand of Godzilla is rather different to the Western incarnations, and Shin Godzilla is a particularly strong example of a uniquely Japanese genre: the battle of the bureaucrats — the red tape rumble — with special guest star giant beast from the deep.
An unidentified monster appears in Tokyo Bay. The politicians and their staffers hold committees to decide what to do about it. Meanwhile, it proves that it is not just aquatic. It grows. It evolves. What is to be done about this nuclear powered beast? The Americans have named it Godzilla, so the laws of taxonomy have made it their problem, but it is technically very slowly making its way across Tokyo. The best minds left in the government, led by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa, Attack on Titan Part 2), must come up with a plan of action before Tokyo is completely destroyed.
Godzilla is a force of nature, and not in the way that the xenomorph is. One can’t resent it, because it’s just in the way rather than being malevolent. Godzilla is a problem, but the true villain of Shin Godzilla is paperwork and committees: by the time they decide to take action against Godzilla in the first gambit, it’s already over. The first act of the film is a rapid fire of job titles on the screen as various seemingly irrelevant officials offer their piece to the Prime Minister. There’s a degree of walk and talk not seen since The West Wing, but Jed Bartlett never once had to deal with a fire-breathing monster.
The bureaucracy dominates the movie in one form or another, and that’s the ultimate test: it’s exhausting, but whether that is a good feeling or simply patience-testing is up to the viewer. While the 2014 Godzilla was sparing in its use of the titular titan, Shin Godzilla makes a more traditional argument: Godzilla is a symbol, something to bring the world together in contemplation. The discussion legitimately adds up to a triumph of the human spirit that overcomes all else.
Anno’s direction cribs much from his earlier work; it’s hard not to be reminded of Evangelion when its cinematography is directly translated to live action, and when one of composer Shiro Sagisu’s (Attack on Titan Part 2) tracks is lifted wholesale from the show and remixed mercilessly over the course of the film. Anno has a sense of humour but also a sense of dignity that makes it more than just a monster movie.
Anno is aided by co-director Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan Part 2), who presumably brings his special effects experience to bear in the limited action scenes, which are where the film lets itself down. Japanese CG often looks cheap and flimsy, and Shin Godzilla is no different. Some of this is a deliberate throwback to the days of rubber suits, but too frequently Godzilla looks more goofy than intimidating, particularly in his earlier forms. Anno is renowned for stretching budgets out of nothing, and that is how the rest of the film manages to excel.
Shin Godzilla is an incredibly talky movie and that dedicates itself more to the concept of shared humanity than that of specific humanity. This is anything but standard-issue filmmaking, in ways that may upset bloodthirsty city stompers — and if Godzilla isn’t exceptional, what’s the point of him?
Shin Godzilla opened in Australian cinemas on October 13, 2016.
Directed by: Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi.
Starring: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi and Satomi Ishihara.