Two years after Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Western reboot of Godzilla, Toho Pictures, the studio that brought us Godzilla in the first place, released Shin Godzilla, a reboot of its own for the iconic kaiju franchise. In the West, the movie was marketed as Godzilla Resurgence, but it’s far better to think of this movie as Shin Godzilla, which has a number of possible translations, from “True Godzilla” to “New Godzilla,” but the one that which captures the spirit of this dark and horrifying take on the King of Monsters best is the one suggested by the filmmakers themselves: God Incarnate.
In modern-day Japan, a disturbance in Tokyo Bay suggests that an enormous form of marine life is stirring. At first, the government suggests there is nothing to fear, as the creature’s size couldn’t support itself out of the water. But then the creature pushes itself on land, driving itself along the ground with its massive back legs, smashing through buildings and plowing through streets full of cars and people. As the government wastes time trying to figure out a proper response, the monster grows in size and evolves in real time, a thing of constant mutation. It eventually grows to almost 120 meters tall and walks upright, a hideous fusion of reptile, amphibian, fish and eel—a creature from the abyss created by a years-long campaign of illegal U.S. dumping of radioactive waste. The military tries to kill the creature repeatedly, failing miserably each time, all while the government grows ever more incapable of taking decisive action to deal with the problem. A team of scientists, led by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, struggles at first for credibility among the hidebound and hierarchical disaster response ministries. And later, they struggle to understand the strange nature of this monster, known by now as Godzilla, and how it might possibly be contained. Once the government has exhausted all other options, it finally gives Rando and his colleagues what they need to put their plain into action, but will there be anything left to save?
Shin Godzilla is unlike any other Godzilla movie ever made. On the surface, it follows the same pattern of a lot of previous installments in the series, as well as other kaiju movies: Huge monster emerges and wreaks havoc, an early military response proves fruitless, the monster ups the destruction, the military tries even more to stop what cannot be stopped, and eventually some scientists save the day with a secret weapon that is as bizarre as the monster it is meant to stop. Director Hideaki Anno—co-creator of the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion—knows this full well and keeps to that basic playbook. But he throws everything else upside-down creating a Godzilla movie that features equal measures of horror, shock and despair.
When we first see Godzilla, he is a grotesque version of what we’ve become comfortable with. Hs wriggles on the ground like some obscene larva, staring at everything before it with the saucer-like, lidless eyes of a moray eel or a colossal squid. Every time the creature mutates, it becomes ever-more horrible; a gaping maw so wide that it seems to split Godzilla’s head in half; red fissures between folds of melted flesh that evoke horrific images of radiation burn victims; a tail so long that it waves in the air as a kind of weird reminder of the radioactive fallout sure to follow in the monster’s wake. Nothing about this Godzilla is cool to look at. It is all some kind of horror.
Like so many other Godzilla movies, Shin Godzilla is a grand metaphor; this time for the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and concurrent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. We watch Godzilla push a wave of destroyed cars before him, as if thrown aloft by a wall of water. We hear about how long Tokyo will be irradiated by Godzilla’s atomic breath weapon. We see dumbfounded emergency workers stare slack-jawed at the mountains of debris littering the countryside. And we see legions of bureaucrats hold endlessly unproductive emergency meetings as a monster stomps around in the background. The entire spectacle is a painful reminder of just how badly the Japanese government let down its citizens during the nuclear disaster in particular, having ignored warnings and showed a sclerosis of leadership at a time when it was most needed. Nobody’s going to fault you for not knowing how to stop Godzilla. But everybody will fault you for not getting people out of the monster’s way.
Throughout the story, we see the individual heroics of emergency workers, soldiers and certain government ministers, but it is all more than counterbalanced by a entrenched cadre of old men chiefly interested in not being blamed personally for anything that goes wrong. And nowhere do we see it more than when, as Godzilla lays to waste a too-little, too-late military response from both Japanese and American forces, the United Nations announces that if Japan cannot contain Godzilla, then it will authorize a thermonuclear strike against the creature on Japanese soil. This is a chilling moment of truth that finally spurs the Japanese government to give its scientists the resources they need to try a last-ditch effort to neutralize Godzilla once and for all. Of course, in a Godzilla movie, we expect the scientists to be given the green light after all other options have proven fruitless, but never before have we seen it under such duress. The one country that knows the taste of nuclear fire is threatened with it once again, and this time by the entire planet. One can hardly decide which is more monstrous; that it took the threat of nuclear annihilation to get Japan’s old men to finally do the right thing, or that the international community felt justified making such a threat at all. Compared to such things, the hideously mutated Godzilla toppling buildings filled with innocent families somehow doesn’t seem so bad.