With the release of Godzilla vs Kong, there’s no better time to binge the vast library of Kaiju films featuring everyone’s favorite prehistoric reptile. Of course, there are over 30 Godzilla films, so it’ll be difficult to find the time to watch them all. Certainly not in one sitting.
With that said, if I could only recommend watching one Godzilla movie before seeing him throw hands with King Kong, it would have to be Shin Godzilla, sometimes referred to as Godzilla: Resurgence in Western markets.
Released in 2016, the film was a major box office success in Japan, grossing over $75 million in its domestic market alone against a comparatively low $15 million budget. Although it wasn’t a failure overseas, it didn’t smash any international records either. While it received glowing reviews in its home country, many critics outside of Japan felt it was too slow, too boring, and overall too “Japanese” to be enjoyed by a broader audience.
Unfortunately, I fell for that sentiment so hard that I didn’t even bother watching it upon its initial release despite being a longtime Godzilla fan. I caught some glimpses of Godzilla’s design in the movie and just wasn’t feeling it. The lukewarm response from critics just gave me an additional excuse not to watch it. It didn’t help that a friend of mine who is also a big fan of Godzilla watched it at some art-house theater and returned with less-than-positive feedback.
But years after the fact, I finally bit the bullet and decided to sit down and see Shin Godzilla for myself. And wow, do I wish I had watched it sooner.
Right away, it’s clear that Shin Godzilla is going for a different aesthetic than your usual Kaiju affair. This iteration of Godzilla is written and directed by none other than Hideaki Anno, best known as the creator of the legendary Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise.
Shin Godzilla‘s monster design may not look like a completely faithful interpretation of the character at first, but an explanation quickly comes as the story unfolds. And the reason is both horrifying and satisfyingly logical in its own demented way.
The Godzilla in Shin has more than one form and is constantly evolving. It mutates into several different variants as it adapts to its environment and threats within that environment. Throughout most of the film, the creatures appears to be in unspeakable anguish, having known no other feeling than pain its whole life. It can be disturbing to watch.
But perhaps more disturbing is the government’s laughable response to Godzilla‘s presence in the film. Hideaki Anno revealed that the inspiration for the bumbling portrayal of the politicians in the film was the Japanese government’s mishandling of real life catastrophes like the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster as a result.
The bureaucrats in the film are so detached from the common people’s needs, and also so caught up in the status quo of being politically correct all the time and “saving face”, that they allow the disaster to spiral out of control and the carnage to escalate and escalate until there are truly no good options left to handle the situation.
Which is why many critics back in 2016 labeled the film as something only Japanese people could understand and appreciate. As if Japan was the only country in the world that suffered from excessive red tape and outdated laws enforced by incompetent bureaucrats.
I have no idea why so many critics didn’t think this message would resonate outside of Japan. It’s a tale as old as time of human hubris and folly. It falls perfectly in line with classic Godzilla motifs, too. And now, after experiencing the hellscape known as the COVID-19 pandemic, the film is more relevant and relatable than ever before if not downright prescient.
Everything from the initial COVID outbreak to how it’s being handled and how the negative effects of it are being addressed has been an unmitigated slow-moving disaster, lumbering along and mutating into different strands and variants like a scene straight out of Shin Godzilla. Whether in Europe, North America, South America, or Asia – every continent dropped the ball in one way or another, and all of them eager to pass the responsibility off on someone else too.
I’m not pinpointing anyone specifically here, everyone is to blame. Which is another point Shin Godzilla makes well. It doesn’t take the easy route and lay the blame at one central figure. Instead, the whole of Japanese society is in the hot seat. And yes, that includes so-called experts who blame the public for its lack of confidence in them but do nothing to inspire confidence in the first place and arguably inspire the exact opposite of confidence through their inaction and contradictory decrees. Shin Godzilla has a lot to say about these personality types.
Early on in the film, one scientific advisor gives a standard non-answer to important questions concerning Godzilla’s nature and origin, obviously being more concerned about his “credibility as a biologist” unwilling to entertain “outlandish conspiracies” that “make a mockery” of the profession. The movie is full of these kinds of shortsighted career-minded individuals who care more about their bottom line than the public’s wellbeing. And even when the humans aren’t acting selfishly, they’re still stuck in an archaic system that doesn’t allow them much wiggle room to do what they should be doing.
Obviously this social commentary is mostly aimed at Japan’s own laws which often restrict what it can and cannot do militarily in a crisis. But it’s remarkable how well the symbolism applies to other situations as well. It’s not just Japan that is struggling with self-identity and outdated ways of doing things.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are still characters in the film who are trying to sound the alarm and do the right thing for the right reasons. There are people who are willing to stick their neck out and state how they truly feel. Frustrated people who recognize the problem and are doing their best to keep it together and hope to persuade the clueless idiots higher up the chain of command.
I could go on and on about how much I love this film. I wish Shin Godzilla had been the first non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture rather than South Korea’s Parasite. It ages like fine wine, and like other masterpieces such as Michael Crichton’s original Jurassic Park and like the first Godzilla film itself, Shin Godzilla‘s message is timeless and transcends culture.
Yes the director was speaking directly to a Japanese audience through the film, and in such a way that even non-Godzilla fans in the country could receive the message, yet the message still applies to every other country on earth. It’s a deeply universal message, and to think the issues presented in the film are exclusive to one country is a mistake. Sadly, it’s that kind of thinking that has forced the world into the dire straits it currently finds itself in.
So yeah… watch Shin Godzilla, wrap your head around the existential crisis it puts you in, then go and try to enjoy Godzilla vs. Kong this weekend!
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