Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Shin Godzilla

 "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

This quote by Oppenheimer accompanied the incredibly bleak trailer for 2014's Legendary production of Godzilla.  As much as I liked the American film, I could never get over my disappointment that the movie itself didn't take the dark direction depicted in that teaser.  I was genuinely hoping for an apocalyptic, genuinely terrifying Godzilla film.

While Shin Godzilla doesn't fully meet this aspiration, it certainly comes the closest out of so far 31 films created in the long-running franchise.  It most definitely is the closest to approaching the somber tone of the original 1954 movie, focusing on the plight of humanity caught in the path of an unstoppable threat and hearkening back to Godzilla's roots as a nuclear nightmare created by mankind's hubris.

Spoilers follow...

It is interesting to note that in Japanese, the phrase "Shin" can actually has a variety of meanings that are appropriate to the film's plot:  In Japanese shin can mean "God", or "True".  In this film, Godzilla is regularly likened to a god.  Not only is the monster a towering, terrifying visage to behold and capable of destruction on a massive scale, but this Godzilla is a constantly evolving beast that is not only a threat to Japan, but to the rest of the world.

Like the original 1954 film, I think that Shin Godzilla requires some knowledge of Japanese culture and events.  While the original movie was a thinly-veiled allegory for the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this film recalls the powerful 2011 Fukushima earthquake and subsequent tsunami which led to another nuclear disaster when it caused a meltdown of a power plant, resulting in mass contamination.  The ever-escalating nature of this cataclysmic event is reflected in the film as Godzilla becomes increasingly powerful and dangerous.

Furthermore, the film can be viewed as a sharp critique of Japanese government.  Many Japanese citizens felt that the government's response to the Fukushima tragedy was horribly ineffective.  Throughout Shin Godzilla, the government officials are depicted as a collection of bumbling old men who are more concerned with adhering to inefficient protocols and protecting their public image.

This political commentary exposes an apathetically sluggish, bureaucratic monster perhaps more terrifying the rampaging, radioactive variety.  The government officials squabbling over just what to do frames the narrative of the film.  For many, this probably comes across as tedious and boring, but I found these scenes to be dramatically engaging - and sometimes hilarious.  At one point in the film, just when you think the government is prepared to take some action, they do...  By moving to another conference room to continue their discussion and wring their hands some more.  In another scene, the Prime minister dons disaster relief coveralls - as if he is actually involved in rescue efforts - to go on live TV and assure the Japanese populace that Godzilla could not come ashore.  Just after he makes this announcement, an assistant informs him from off-screen that the monster has just made landfall.

The heroes of the film are a band of "misfits" led by Rando Yaguchi (played by Hiroki Hasegawa), a young politician willing to cast aside rank and protocol to save his country.  It is Yaguchi's team which proves to be the most capable at dealing with the disaster at hand, despite additional complications in the form of the American government threatening to use an atomic bomb to destroy Godzilla.  Yaguchi and his group are given a window of opportunity to formulating a plan to stop the monster in its tracks themselves, or face annihilation at the hands of either Godzilla or yet another atomic bombing from United States.

This is Toho's first Godzilla film since 2004's Final Wars and it definitely represents a redirection for the franchise.  It's as grounded as a movie featuring an hulking atomic creature can be, approaching the subject from a more realistic perspective delving into the political and even economic ramifications of a giant monster attack on Japan.  Shin Godzilla was co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi who had previously worked together on the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion - which certainly explains a lot of the decidedly different creative decisions.

One big divergence from Toho's standard practices to understand from the onset is that this is the first Toho Godzilla movie to not relate back to the original film.  Both the Heisei and Millenium series acknowledged the 1954 film as part of their continuity - even if they ignored all other entries in the series - making Shin Godzilla the first true "reboot" of the entire Toho Godzilla filmography!

However, receiving the most criticism from many long-time Godzilla fans is the design of the monster itself, which "evolves" throughout the film.  For this movie, Godzilla's origin is once again tweaked, as the monster is spawned from microorganisms steadily mutating from feasting on nuclear waste found on the ocean floor.  The creature starts off as an odd-looking eel-like beast confined to the water, the thing eventually makes its way onto land and stands upright.  These early forms could come off as goofy, but I found them to be kind of disturbing and unsettling.  The eel-like form gushes streams of blood from its gills as it haphazardly crawls down the street with sickly undulating movements.  The "evolution" aspect doesn't bother me as it alludes to the Fukushima disaster and builds suspense as the characters question how the situation could possibly get any worse.

The monster wreaks some havoc before returning to the ocean to further metamorphosize.  When it returns to shore, it now resembles the Godzilla we know and love...  Only this time around Godzilla is a truly grotesque monster:  This design features tiny lidless eyes blankly staring downward, a gaping mouth full of needle-like teeth, emaciated arms befitting a formerly aquatic creature, energy radiating from scar-like openings in its skin, and a massive tail hypnotically wafting through the air behind the creature.  As I've said before, design looks like what I would expect a radioactive mutation to look like - while paying homage to the original design.  Godzilla is an abomination of nature that shouldn't exist and the monster appropriately misshapen and horrific in appearance.

Godzilla's behavior is atypical as well.  In previous films the monster's actions are oftentimes depicted as one or two extremes:  Either Godzilla is deliberately malicious, with wicked intentions bent on destruction or Godzilla is a noble hero acting as humanity's defender against a greater foe.  In Shin Godzilla however the monster eerily moves inland with a single-minded purpose known only to Godzilla itself.  Again, I find this to be appropriate:  Godzilla is completely unconcerned with the destruction it is causing and totally unfazed by military acts against it, the monster just plows through whatever happens to be in its way.

It's only when the monster is provoked in a manner it cannot ignore and seems to be injured by American bombers that Godzilla directly respond in any way to the actions of humanity.  It's at this point that reveals its true destructive capabilities.  In an unforgettable scene, Godzilla unleashes what is probably the most devastating variation of its atomic ray we have ever witnessed onscreen, as well as a few abilities audiences have never seen before.  I won't go into further detail because it's something I think needs to been seen to fully appreciated.

As far as cinematography goes, this might be the best we've seen in a Godzilla film to date.  There are some amazing images onscreen throughout the movie that really give you a sense of Godzilla's massive scale and the chaos the monster's unleashing on Japan's infrastructure.  One scene in particular that stands out is during the night when Godzilla reaches Tokyo and apparently walks over a power plant.  The lights across the city flicker until entire sections go out one at a time, finally leaving only ambient light, minor explosions and a wide-shot of Godzilla's own red glow to illuminate the action.

The music is also amazing.  Surprisingly, the majority of the music is from fan-favorite and original Godzilla composer Akira Ifubuke.  Many of Ifubuke's pieces from previous Godzilla films are integrated into movie, appealing to the nostalgia of long-time fans.  Perhaps the most effective use of this is exemplified when Godzilla first stands up and a cue is taken straight from the 1954 film. However, the film's actual composer - Shiro Sagisu - does a fantastic job himself.  In particular are the standout compositions "Persecution of the Masses" and "Who Will Know" which are somber, and haunting pieces used to great effect in the film.

The only faults I can find with the film are in its pacing, a few performances, and effects, although each of these are very minor complaints.  As mentioned before, much of the film deals with government officials scrambling to find the best way to deal with Godzilla.  While this works well at the beginning of the movie to establish the governments incompetency, once the focus shifts to Godzilla in its final form and Yaguchi's team making their plans, it seems like less time could be spent in the conference rooms.  The film's final acts could benefit greatly from a trimming of these scenes.

For American audiences, the acting of a few characters will no doubt be very off-putting.  Satomi Ishihara plays an American ambassador with political aspirations who works with Yaguchi's team in the film.  At a few points she speaks English, which in the subtitled version of the film I saw, was very jarring.  Her delivery isn't the best, and probably more obvious to Americans.  Along the same line, the focus shifts briefly to American leaders - all seen from behind - ominously discussing the situation in Japan.  I'm not sure who these actors are, but their delivery seemed overly dramatic to the point that it was kind of funny.  Again, this may just be my bias as an American coming through.  Other than these, it seemed like the cast did a fine job, although my favorite characters are Yaguchi's extremely focused biology expert and the Minister of Agriculture.

Overall, the effects are strong, with a few hiccups.  To my understanding, Godzilla was brought to life using motion capture and CGI, which is a first for Toho.  For the most part, the creature looks convincing enough - even to the point that one could be fulled into thinking the traditional method of man-in-rubber-suit was employed once again.  However there are a few moments in which the CG is wonky, especially when it comes to some of the military vehicles mounting an attack on Godzilla.  Again, just a minor complaint, because the rest of the film looks great in my opinion.

It's difficult to talk about Shin Godzilla without thinking about the potential for future sequels...  Indeed, the movie ends with a very interesting cliffhanger:  Godzilla's energy is depleted through the use of its atomic breath and goes into a sort of dormancy.  This allows Yaguchi's team to begin the mass production a coagulant which a coordinated Japanese offensive manage to force-feed the monster.  Thus Godzilla ends up subdued, in a state of suspended animation.  Though the reign of destruction is over, this is merely a temporary reprieve as the monster's threat still looms, frozen right in the very heart of Tokyo!

Throughout the film, scientists express concerns about the rate at which Godzilla is evolving and worry about whether or not it has the capability of reproducing asexually.  Prior to the film's release, many fans wondered and speculated about the odd design of Godzilla's tail.  The movie ends with Godzilla being defeated for the moment, there is no music as camera turns our attention to this unusual feature of the monster's anatomy...

What are these strange, humanoid creatures spawning from Godzilla's tail?  Is the monster indeed reproducing?  It would seem that this is the case!  It's definitely something to speculate on as Toho considers creating a sequel!

Personally, I enjoyed Shin Godzilla.  It's definitely an exciting time to be a Godzilla fan with Legendary's franchise moving forward as well as Toho's...  the first time that Godzilla movies are being produced by both America and Japan!

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