Shin Godzilla Plot Summary:
The Japanese government struggles to respond when a strange, radioactive creature shows up and cuts a path of destruction through Tokyo. Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), a low-level politician, assembles a team of other government outcasts and loners to take care of the threat before things escalate too far.
I’ll admit, I’m one of the people who enjoyed Legendary’s Godzilla back in 2014. It had its problems, and there probably could have been more screentime for Godzilla, but it had its share of tense moments and fun action. And yeah, the human plot was pretty lackluster, but a lot of the Japanese Godzilla movies spend a lot of time on less than impressive human-focused plots too. To my mind as a long-time Godzilla fan, that just came with the territory. Well, it seems someone at Toho must have read my mind, because now Shin Godzilla has arrived to prove me wrong and blow the 2014 movie out of the water in the process.
To be clear, Shin Godzilla not only spends most of its time with the humans, but the vast majority of that time is just people sitting in rooms or walking in hallways talking to each other. And yet it’s never boring, thanks to the inspired direction of Hideaki Anno (best known for his creation of the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (of Gamera trilogy fame). Through tight shots and quick cuts, Anno and Higuchi emphasizes the tension of the decisions being made by the government officials who make up the movie’s main cast. Initial scenes of Godzilla’s rampage are shown through frantic, choppy footage taken from the perspective of civilians at the scene, a technique used effectively and sparingly enough to never wear out its welcome. And the pacing is pitch perfect, with every scene flowing seamlessly into the next so the movie never feels like it drags.
It’s not just excellent direction that makes the human plot so engrossing. Like all the best Godzilla movies, this one is unabashedly political. It’s so deeply engaged in the questions of its age that it becomes something of a political thriller in addition to a monster movie. Much of the specifics involve Japanese politics that will likely go over Americans’ heads, but the message is universal enough to come through regardless. And the conclusions it reaches are surprisingly nuanced. This is a movie that harshly criticizes government response to tragedy, as the bickering over semantics and endless committees and hearings delay action on Godzilla’s initial attack and cause needless loss of life. Yet it is also a celebration of the good government can do, its heroes’ bureaucrats and civil servants who work tirelessly on behalf of the citizens of Japan. It is stridently nationalistic, touting a strong and unified Japan that chafes at its one-sided partnership with America, and yet it emphasizes the importance of a community of nations and firmly believes we’re better off together than alone. It is simultaneously fatalistic and optimistic, an expression of our worst fears of what is, and our best hopes of what could be, in a way that is fascinating to see play out.
Don’t think just because there is a strong human plot that Godzilla himself has been neglected. Visually, this is one of the boldest departures from the traditional Godzilla design in a long time. The rows of sharp teeth, cracked skin, and red glow emanating from his body lend this Godzilla a sinister character that even the more destructive Godzillas lacked. And that’s only appropriate, as this is the most disturbing and frightening the big lizard has ever been. Godzilla is once again the unstoppable, unrelenting force of nature that he was in the original 1954 movie, with all the awesome power that implies. The movie brilliantly ratchets up the tension as the Japanese government tries in vain to stop his assault while he marches inexorably through Tokyo, finally building up to an incredible scene where he unleashes the full extent of his destructive power in the middle of the city. It’s not actually any gorier or more shocking than any other scene of Godzilla destroying Tokyo, but the combination of Anno and Higuchi’s direction, a fantastic soundtrack, and the way the movie slowly builds to this moment makes it one of the most effective and chilling scenes of destruction in the Godzilla canon.
There’s so much else to love about Shin Godzilla too: the way the soundtrack incorporates music from the original movie (including Godzilla’s original roar!). It’s the perfect blend of camp and seriousness. Even the acting is better than can usually be expected from a characteristically low-budget Japanese movie (though that low budget does have some impact on the visuals; be prepared to witness some truly dreadful CGI). So much about this movie is so good that, despite my warm feelings for Legendary’s effort, it’s impossible to watch it and not admit that Japan still has us Americans dead to rights when it comes to making Godzilla movies. In fact, while I’m not sure if this is my favorite Godzilla movie, it just might be the best one I’ve ever seen. And given this series’ long and storied history, that’s saying something.
Rating: 9 out of 10