Saturday, 15 October 2016

Shin Godzilla (2016): Godzilla vs. The Bureaucracy

I watched Shin Godzilla (シン・ゴジラ Shin Gojira, AKA Godzilla Resurgence) last night, and I enjoyed it so much that I just had to say something about it. Mild spoilers follow.

I haven’t been a huge follower of the Godzilla franchise. I’ve seen bits of the Japanese originals, but not enough to actually tell you which of them I actually watched. Watching the 1998 American adaptation starring Matthew Broderick when I was 10 was quite possibly the first time I was old enough to realise that movies could be bad. I thought the 2014 remake was good, but it made no lasting impression.

Shin Godzilla is different. Of course, I was always going to go into this movie with tremendous expectations given that the film was co-directed and written by that beautiful bastard Hideaki Anno, the creator of Evangelion. Based on initial trailers, I was looking forward to seeing Anno’s trademark military-otaku-fetishism for massive synchronised deployments of military hardware, coupled with graceful set pieces of civic destruction and grotesque monster gore. And I got those things. But what I did not expect was that those elements would take a backseat to what makes up majority of the film: a dizzying look at the byzantine social and political processes set lurching into motion by the appearance of a giant monster in Tokyo Bay. Shin Godzilla spends more screen time deploying photocopiers, laptops, Prime Ministers, documents, Cabinet members, aides and scientists than it does depicting the king of monsters. At risk of being cliche, there are two monsters in Godzilla: the kaiju himself, and the lumbering Japanese government as it tries to balance the risks of evacuation, containment and military action. The individual characters of the film, all with their own ambitions and weaknesses, are almost subsumed beneath the film’s almost myopic attention to chains of commands and institutional structures.

While this might understandably be a little boring or bewildering for people who just want to see people shoot the darn monster, it makes perfect sense as a classic science fiction film that examines a social issue from a new angle. For the 1954 Godzilla, the issue was atomic bomb testing. In this 2016 remake, the lens of fiction turns to look at the 2011 tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

The film makes clear reference to so much of the specific context of that disaster:

Criticism of the Japanese Government, whose response was widely perceived as slow and reluctant.

Admiration for the Fukushima 50, a group of workers and volunteers who stayed behind to stabilize the nuclear reactors despite lethal radiation levels.

Anguish at the task of evacuating hundreds and thousands of residents from areas devastated by environmental catastrophe.

The film also makes specific reference to Japan’s particular post-World War II circumstances, where a country that is constitutionally forbidden from waging offensive wars is unsure how to legally respond to a giant monster that flies no flag. 

This movie is very Japanese. Not Japanese in that wacky “the Japanese do the darndest things” way - though of course that goofiness can be found in one character’s incomprehensible English and the way all the American characters in the film deliver their lines like a Domino's CEO. This film is so specifically Japanese in its commentary about the Japanese nation state - a sober, introspective look at society and institutional accountability in the face of terrible tragedy, and a collective call to action for all sectors of society to meet that tragedy with steady persistence.

So this is not a movie about mavericks and superheroes. It’s not a film about the ordinary civilian who saves the day by flying their biplane into the mothership. At times the film reads like a bitter indictment of ineffectual and indecisive government, with scenes that are reminiscent of the squabbling council members in Akira. At other times it acknowledges the recklessness of the alternative - the fascist Strong Man approach that emphasises action over humanity. There are no villains in the film, except, perhaps, the detached and calculating international community. The film respects and rehabilitates even the doddering leaders who have to bear the responsibility of life and death decisions. Surprisingly for a film that contains almost no civilian characters, Shin Godzilla’s fundamental sympathy is with the every day people whose lives are impacted by disaster. And it does this with a level of thoughtfulness that makes 2016 Captain America: Civil War’s attempt to deal with similar issues look underbaked and juvenile (boy I disliked that film).

I was stunned by how much I enjoyed this film. It combines so many elements of other films that I love - the biting satire of the 2006 South Korean monster film The Host, the cold eyed depiction of disaster response of 2011’s viral thriller Contagion, the pull up your boot-straps, let’s-harness-all-of-Japan’s-power-grid fun of the Operation Yashima storyline in Evangelion. Watch it, watch it, watch it.