The new Godzilla movie opened in Japan last week, and I just went to see it. This is a reboot of the franchise (none of the characters had ever previously heard of Godzilla) and it may be the best Godzilla movie since the original released in 1954.
It has been 12 years since any Godzilla movie was made in Japan and more than 30 years since anything approaching a good Godzilla movie was ever made. But this time, they employed Hideaki Anno to produce and direct a Godzilla story that is true to its original theme of fallible, quibbling, selfish, and ultimately barbarous human beings against the unpredictable whims of mother nature.
Anno is previously known as the creator of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, a critically acclaimed animated television series which was later followed by several animated movies. The series was a very philosophical re-imagining of the giant robot manga genre which featured numerous religious references and adult-oriented material. He was a controversial choice as a director of Godzilla.
The cast is a Who’s Who list of Japanese thespians (as opposed to the teen idol heartthrob list of previous latter day Godzilla films). Japanese actress Satomi Ishihara is cast as an American envoy with presidential ambitions in what amounts to a reverse white-wash casting. She did not make a very convincing American. Casting a Japanese actor in a foreigner’s role is something of a tradition in Godzilla movies, but she also failed to project a character who was supposed to be a tough-as-nails power girl from the Uber Empire. (I think she was meant to be a thirty-something version of Hillary Clinton with a thinly veiled human side.) I could not help thinking of a long list of American actresses who might have wanted to play the part. Angelina Jolie would have fit in perfectly. That, however, was the only sore spot of the cast.
Director Hideaki Anno knows exactly what buttons to push to trigger nostalgia attacks in old school Godzilla fans, including the ridiculously specific documentary-style subtitles that pop up to explain who each character is and what each weapon is. His adherence to Godzilla traditions makes the movie just a little bit too campy, and probably difficult to sell to American audiences without substantial editing. (The earlier Godzilla movies were famously mutilated severely to make them conform to what American movie executives deemed “marketable”.)
Unlike Independence Day, a prototypical Hollywood summer blockbuster which also had been re-introduced lately, there is no clear “hero’s journey”, or even a very clear hero. There is no rousing speech by the president, no ace fighter pilot, and no sexy lead scientist. The prime minister is almost a symbolic role, like a monarch pressured to authorize a plan that had already been decided on by the ministers so as to relieve them of accountability. When a speech to the troops is finally made, it is made by a disposable underling who calls himself “the harakiri stand-in”.
The story centers around the dilemma of how to kill an indestructible monster in the center of a densely populated metropolis. Not to give the story away, Godzilla is impervious to anything short of nuclear weapons. Tokyo being the center of almost everything in Japan, if the only plausible solution were to be adopted, the country itself will go down with the monster. And of course, meddling foreign powers are pressuring to have the monster eradicated at whatever cost before the creature multiplies and destroys the world. A special team composed of a rag tag band of misfits (Is there any other kind?) must come up with a solution before the capitol is nuked. The clock is ticking.
Anno makes good use of the Tokyo cityscape; streetlights silhouetted against explosions, drone views of jammed traffic, old people evacuating over railroad crossings. He has a tendency to place characters on the extreme corner of the screen, filling the screen with an empty void to emphasize the feeling of powerlessness. He likes closeups of blank, almost comatose faces. You see helicopters hovering in perfect formation and tanks lined up like horsemen in Kurosawa films. The movie is a visual delight.
Godzilla is supposed to be a little campy. The special effects should work, but also should be just a little bit cheesy. The dialog should be good, but also just a little bit silly. The humor should arouse laughter, but of little bit nervous kind. Surprisingly enough, Anno pulls this off. The story has the Kafkaesque pathos of the futile fight against bureaucracy, Hemingway’s creed of heroism in the face of certain failure, and most of all the Japanese religion that collective overwork and sacrifice in sufficient quantity can solve any problem. And, yeah, we kind of smile at that last part because it’s funny, and so true. We so believe that another extra hour of zangyo (unpaid overtime) will solve everything.
Hollywood summer blockbusters are faster paced, more tightly plotted, and features more explosions per minute. But Godzilla is a different kind of movie. Anno clearly aimed to make a Godzilla that only a Japanese studio can make. This is a very Japanese film, both in content and in underlying spirit. For connoisseurs of Japanese films, this may be the treat that had been missing from Japanese cinema for a long time. It reminds us of who we, the Japanese, are.