Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Shin Godzilla

Nope, I've not been so geeked about going to see a Godzilla movie at the theater since I was a kid. Yes, partly because there have been very few Godzilla movies to see at the theater since way back when, but the looks of Shin Godzilla hooked me from the get-go, and I must say I was thrilled to learn that the limited theatrical release in this country included Greensboro. However, for a time this evening, the universe appeared to be conspiring to prevent me getting to the show. Ms. Brugger and I headed out with time to spare, only to find that the main road through town had been shut down — possibly due to the President coming for a visit. Gee, thanks, Obama. Anyway, after a lot of fuming and realizing that we were going to be stuck in one spot, likely for the duration of the evening, we managed to turn around and take the long, long way around to the theater. We got there a few minutes late, but we hoped we might squeak in at the end of the trailers. Now, I'd bought advance tickets via Fandango, but as soon as we arrived, my phone locked up on me, requiring a restart. That done, when I pulled up the ticket on the Fandango app, it was marked as already used. Judas Priest, really? Really?

Long story short —success! — we made it just as the last trailer was running, and got the last two available seats in the jam-packed theater. The seats were actually good ones, near the center, close but not too close to the screen. Then... but of course.... there's the three-year-old kid behind us who yammered through the entire movie, his dullard parents not only not stifling him but egging him on. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why God invented babysitters.

All righty then. There be spoilers here.

Shin Godzilla opens, appropriately enough, with the distinctive footsteps, roars, and theme by Akira Ifukube from the original 1954 Godzilla. The early part of the narrative unfolds quickly, with the discovery of an abandoned boat near Tokyo Bay and a series of huge, steaming waterspouts. Then a section of tunnel under the bay collapses, leaving evidence that something alive — and big — may have caused the disaster. The prime minister (Ren Osugi) and various branches of government convene, discuss, plot, plan, and argue, doing everything but coming up with a viable solution to this most mystifying problem. Just as the bureaucratic wheels begin to grind, a gigantic, half-seen creature bearing ever-so-familiar dorsal fins begins making its way inland via the Tama River, causing massive property damage and loss of life.

The government is forced to switch gears, and attempts to determine whether the Self-Defense Force can be legally mobilized under these dire conditions. But the invading creature, caring not for human timetables and red tape, begins to mutate before our shocked onlookers' eyes — changing from an eel-like creature with gills to a crouching, bipedal, reptilian-looking beast that can walk on dry land, albeit with some difficulty. A half-hearted attack by the SDF only irritates the monster, but after a time it decides on its own to return to the ocean, leaving the government scrambling for a way to return life in the capital to normal with the least amount of economic turmoil.

Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Yutaka Takenouchi) is put in charge of a team to study the creature, and after analyzing its physiology, the team concludes that the monster feeds on fissionable materials — and that its body is, in part, a nuclear reactor. A special envoy from the US, Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), reveals that a certain professor named Goro Maki, in his study of radiation-based mutations had predicted the appearance of such a creature, but his theories had been discredited. He had named the creature Godzilla, based on a legend from Odo Island — his original home — and this is the name by which the authorities decide to call the monster.

Then — undergoing yet another mutation, the beast emerges from the ocean twice as big as before, bearing Godzilla's somewhat more traditional countenance. The SDF attacks it in earnest, with helicopters, cannons, missiles, tanks, and jets, but Godzilla, quite unstoppable, enters Tokyo and wreaks havoc. The government now enlists the aid of the American military, which initiates an aerial attack with B2 bombers. The first bomb strikes appear to injure the creature, but now, exhibiting previously unseen powers, Godzilla unleashes massive nuclear-powered emissions from both its mouth and its dorsal fins, destroying the bombers as well as a substantial portion of Metropolitan Tokyo — and killing the prime minister and his cabinet, who are attempting to flee the city via helicopter. However, this attack has drained Godzilla's energy, and it goes temporarily dormant so its body can recharge.

Yaguchi's team, using samples of Godzilla's blood and tissue left behind in the attack, as well as encrypted clues left by Professor Maki, determine that Godzilla may be slowed down and frozen by way of a special blood coagulant, which his team believes they can manufacture, given enough time. However, they are now in a race with the US government, who has decided that Godzilla must be destroyed via a thermonuclear blast before it continues its path of destruction, which they fear might reach the US itself. As the countdown for the nuclear strike begins, the government begins its attempt to evacuate Tokyo, only to find the job so huge that the city essentially collapses into chaos. Yaguchi appeals to world leaders for more time, and — thanks to timely intervention by Ms. Patterson — gains 24 hours, which is just enough to complete the blood coagulant project.

As Godzilla once again becomes active, The SDF puts Yaguchi's plan into action, using numerous means to goad Godzilla into expending its energy again. The coagulant is delivered, and....

The film winds down to its finale.
Shin Godzilla departs radically from the Godzilla tradition, from whatever era. Strong central characters are mostly absent, the film constantly switching focus between several groups of government officials, tarrying for any appreciable length only with Yaguchi's team and, occasionally, with US envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson. Plot-wise, the fantasy element that has been a hallmark of the series since its inception has been replaced by the stark drama of real-life politics. Even Godzilla 1984 and Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera films, in which we get more than the typical insight — at least for daikaiju films — into governmental procedures during a disaster, don't come close to immersing the viewer in the multiple tiers of bureaucracy, which very likely mirror their real-life counterparts, as in this film. From the outset, directors Hideako Anno (Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (best known for his work on Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy) focus, in agonizing detail, on the complexities of the governmental machine, poking fun at its inefficiency, clearly drawing parallels between its response to the devastation wrought by Godzilla and the real-life horrors of the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima meltdown.

The political scene is more than just a backdrop for Godzilla, the monster — it remains at the forefront, and Godzilla manifests itself as a natural force that jolts the establishment to the point it must either adapt or fold. Adaptation does not come easily. The old prime minister and his cabinet are summarily wiped out during Godzilla's rampage, and the provisional PM and cabinet, shown to be no more decisive or innovative than their predecessors, cave to the United Nation's demands — spearheaded by the US — to launch a thermonuclear weapon to eliminate a perceived global threat. Only Yaguchi and his devoted team, portrayed as youthful, energetic, and insightful, stand a chance of thinking outside the proverbial box sufficiently to devise a means of stopping the horror. Of the characters, only Ms. Patterson, a privileged young Japanese-American woman who has political aspirations of her own — in the US, her ties to her family's homeland being negligible — shows any appreciable maturing over the course of the movie, initially coming off as materialistic and generally shallow, but finally realizing the gravity of the threat and owning up to her responsibilities as a public servant not only to the US but to her ancestral homeland.
L to R: Yutaka Takenouchi as Hideki Akasaka, aide to the Prime Minister; Hiroki Hasegawa as Deputy Chief
Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi; Satomi Ishihara as US Envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson
At the end of the day, this is a giant monster movie, and while Godzilla's screen time isn't as extensive as I would have preferred, the monster rampages are a cinematic treat, more breathtaking than any daikaiju film in my experience. Godzilla exhibits raw power beyond any previous incarnation's, and its slow, inexorable march forward through the city generates a deeper sense of dread than in any Godzilla movie since the original 1954 film. There's a majesty in its statue-like appearance, and its physical proportions are just off enough to be unsettling to the senses. In its earlier stages, the monster actually appears rather whimsical and, perhaps strangely, more believable because of it. It's worth noting that the script takes on the critics of daikaiju physics, with scientists early on declaring that such a creature would be too huge to move, that it would collapse under its own weight. Of course, Godzilla does not collapse under its own weight, and we the fans get to have a little chuckle at the expense of these clearly unimaginative know-it-alls.

Unlike the unabashedly fun entries in the Showa Godzilla years, in this one, there are no miniature missile misfires, no tiny rockets shooting willy-nilly across the screen. The military's assault on Godzilla is precise and tactically sound. Bullets and bombs visibly bounce off of the monster's armor-like hide, rarely getting so much as a moment's notice from the seemingly purpose-driven creature. And when Godzilla does eventually counterattack, it is, in the words of Tsukioka from Godzilla Raids Again, "a sight to crush the hearts of men."

While I have always been a diehard fan of the traditional man-in-suit Godzilla, I have nary a complaint about the digitized version of the monster in this one. The CGI effects, with only a few exceptions, come off as superb, superior in almost all respects to the Legendary Godzilla of 2014.

Composer Shiro Sagisu (Evangelion, Final Fantasy) provides a generally effective musical score, particularly the operatic themes that embody not only the terror but the tragedy of the monster's onslaught. Several Akira Ifukube pieces accompany Godzilla's appearance, including the attack theme from King Kong vs. Godzilla, the title motif from Terror of MechaGodzilla, the Battle in Outer Space March, and others. While vastly different from Sagisu's score, even at its most varied, these mostly blend in without seeming too anachronistic. Using Ifukube music in films scored by other composers can be dicey, such as in Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla and Godzilla 2000 (both scored by Takayuki Hattori) where the insertion of the traditional Godzilla theme seems nothing more than an obligatory, half-hearted attempt to bring some gravitas to the respective properties. The musical suite over the end credits, though, is all Ifukube and all impressive, with more themes from Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1993), and others.

In the overall, Shin Godzilla breaks quite a bit of new ground in the Godzilla franchise, mostly good, some not so much. While the staccato punches at the government's impotence work well early on, the directors try too hard to sustain the momentum, and it simply falls apart. In the middle third of the film, the repetition of theme becomes all too noticeable and eventually tiresome. This would have been the perfect opportunity to a) better develop individual characters or b) show more freaking Godzilla, preferably the latter. It would not have hurt to simply edit down the film by about 15 minutes, specifically in those areas where government meetings drag on and on, covering ground already well covered.

Regardless of its problems, Shin Godzilla mostly succeeds, and often in royal fashion. This movie presents some of the Godzilla franchise's best-ever cinematic moments, the monster proving meaner, darker, and deeper even than in Kaneko's Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Granted, Shin Godzilla ought to be a one-off shot — whatever might come afterward, it cannot simply duplicate any formula ostensibly established in this movie. This one took the old bar, threw it away, and generated a new one for itself. Admirable indeed. But I hope — assuming there are new Godzilla films someday in the offing — the producers do understand there are lessons to be learned from Shin Godzilla's shortcomings and act on them accordingly.

Shin Godzilla has performed well in Japan, and from early indications, seems to be hitting the mark with American audiences. Though the movie is so focused on issues unique to Japan, those issues didn't appear to be whooshing over a bunch of disinterested gaijin heads. People are getting it. And how good that is to see.

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