Shin Godzilla is a satire of Japanese bureaucracy and a nationalistic underdog story about politicians uniting in the face of disaster, which sounds terrible. It sounds very people-centric, and nobody goes into a Godzilla movie for the people. People aren’t much more than a necessary evil to string together what would otherwise be an incoherent jumble of guys in monster costumes throwing punches at each other and stumbling over miniatures – you need people to engineer a semi-coherent story with things like pacing and build-up, though you also need them to hurry up and get out of the way for said sequences of rampaging monsters.
But Shin Godzilla is fascinating because it’s so people-centric. Its politicians are woefully underprepared for the appearance of a giant monster and, it would seem, any disaster whatsoever. Undoubtedly informed by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake + tsunami +nuclear disaster combo, directors Hideaki Anno (who wrote the screenplay and is best-known for anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi present a government stumbling through red tape with all the success of someone who wanders off into the jungle without their machete. They call committees. They call sub-committees. They meet in one room and adjourn to meet in another room and then adjourn again to return to the first room, surrounded by an excessive, omni-present swirl of names and job titles. It’s an energetic effect, with dynamic camera angles and quick cuts and breathless back-and-forths amid subtitles comically plastered over different parts of the screen to create a fussy sort of chaos – there are lives at stake, but so is status and decorum. When civilians in one scene stumble into the military’s imminent response to Godzilla, multiple departments panic – without guidelines to follow, with careful planning now disrupted, there can be only anarchy because those guidelines are what rule rather than decisive action.
Eventually, an awesome mid-film display of Godzilla’s destructive power kills the highest-level politicans and paves the wave for ambitious young Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Freed from superiors holding him back out of self-preservation, he takes charge of a special Godzilla response committee composed of “lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic heretics, and general pains-in-the-bureaucracy.” They’re outsiders (though still pretty attractive ones) positioned as the next generation, as the only ones capable of getting things done. Shin Godzilla presents the old guard as incompetent and unequipped to confront potential catastrophe, yet the only thing to humble them and push them aside is death itself. It’s this sort of pessimism that makes the film’s silly nationalism, which comes complete with a proud “look at us” speech and an upbeat guitar-driven teamwork montage, go down easier than it might have otherwise – it’s less a mindless celebration of what is than an angry indictment of an ineffectual bureaucracy that obstructs what could be.
Still, the onset of that nationalism shifts the film’s focus from satire to a more standard mystery of how to take down Godzilla. Without public officials to skewer, some of the life drains from Shin Godzilla as it steps into well-executed routine: the triumph of the human/Japanese spirit. Solving Japan’s Godzilla problem in competent, united fashion just doesn’t compare to that initial ping-pong between bureaucratic incompetence and traditional Godzilla destruction, which dries up around the same point. And that’s a shame, because the film offers one of the most novel takes on the towering monster that the series has seen. This time, he evolves, first from a goofy, bug-eyed creature that can’t support its own weight to stand upright and eventually into what could be his most terrifying incarnation with a beady, inhuman eye, spindly arms, a tail like a humongous tentacle, and thin, crooked teeth. Toho promised their new Godzilla would be his biggest incarnation ever, and yet Anno and Higuchi never revel in excess, in burying the audience’s vision with debris and explosions and death. Perhaps that’s due to budget constraints, but there’s a purpose here, a willingness to let the big moments be big instead of trying to mold the film into a constant spectacle.
When I saw Shin Godzilla in theaters, I didn’t expect a franchise going 31 strong to stage its perfunctory destruction with such skill and energy. I didn’t expect it to evoke the work of Aaron Sorkin or Dr. Strangelove. However, what I saw in the theater hasn’t quite translated to Funimation’s disc release, which cuts the Japanese text for character names/job titles and thus cuts a huge part of the film’s comedy. In the theater, the text cluttered an already busy film by layering subtitled dialogue at the bottom upon Japanese titles in the middle of the frame upon the translation of those titles at the top. Cutting the titles so their English translations may sit comfortably out of frame loses the point – they’re supposed to be intrusive and obnoxious, causing visual chaos by reflecting the government’s obsession with status while commenting on how inane that obsession is. Their removal is indefensible.
Their removal is also, in a twisted sense, consistent with being a Godzilla film. The history of these movies in America is for them to be altered in some way, sometimes significantly. Everybody knows this. After all, the West’s prevailing mental image of Godzilla is, apart from the monster himself, that the weird, halting voices don’t match the Japanese lips they emerge from. This version of Shin Godzilla, the most refreshing kaiju movie in years, does not cut any scenes or alter any dialogue or insert any footage of Raymond Burr, but once again, in the adaptive process, something has been lost.
The more things change.