SHIN GODZILLA: The Best Modern Godzilla Movie

The greatest strength of Hideaki Anno’s 2016 reboot is its mix of humanism and political satire.

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“The noodles got soggy… I knew this job would be hard.”

Though the emotional through line of Hideaki Anno's Shin Godzilla is probably best defined by other quotes or tricks of editing, the tone couldn’t be summed up better than in this moment, where the film cuts from apocalyptic destruction to a senior member of government, brought in to replace someone who has died at the hands of the monster, complaining about his bowl of ramen. With Shin Godzilla Anno, best known for his work as a lead animator on early Studio Ghibli films and anime cult classic Neon Genesis Evangelion, clears the decks of old Zilla canon and returns the monster to his original state. Rather than a heroic figure, here he is the walking embodiment of nuclear devastation, a manifestation of Japan’s greatest fears and failures, the power of “God incarnate”. King Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan are nowhere to be seen, the film turning its attention to the humans left to figure out how to stop Godzilla cutting a swathe of destruction through Japan.

Unlike many other Godzilla films, Shin Godzilla isn’t as focused on the actions of the monster as it is in the reactions to it. It’s essentially a political drama about people solving 'The Godzilla Problem’, the monster presented as a humanitarian crisis. People who go into this film looking first and foremost for an onslaught of primordial carnage may be disappointed; though the scenes move fast, the majority of the film is squarely focused on the bureaucratic response to Godzilla. This is a film where Godzilla’s most formidable opponent is not King Ghidorah, but the Liebherr concrete pump, wielded by a canny team of bureaucrats. In a telling show of this film’s priorities, the usual ‘gear up’ sequence replaces guns with photocopiers, staplers and files. It isn’t without spectacle however; the scene in which the famous atomic breath finally appears is breathtaking, and framed with the tragic, operatic grandeur that you’d expect from Anno.

But some of the film’s greatest joys come from its engagement with the nuts and bolts of bureaucracy, with all the walk & talks, petty squabbles and sly opportunism that this entails. It’s an extremely meticulous film, breaking the government’s actions down to the most minute details. Quick cuts show the smallest and seemingly most insignificant actions, all building towards something big. The film plays as an ensemble piece, unanchored from any one perspective as it quickly bounces from one location to the next. An onslaught of new characters and agency titles are introduced at lightning speed in a wall-of-dialogue, which can be overwhelming, but cinematographer Kosuke Yamada’s carefully composed views of the crisis centre and apocalyptic destruction keeps things clear, and playful enough to keep the red-tape scenes exciting.

While this may all sound quite dry, make no mistake, the film leans hard into its absurdity. The simplest way to describe is that it’s as though Godzilla were transplanted into an episode of an Iannucci program like Veep or The Thick of It. It’s often hysterically funny, contrasting each destructive wave of Godzilla’s rampage with cuts to bureaucrats deciding to move to a larger meeting room, or deciding which person has the most authority over the Godzilla committee.

This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t take the monster seriously. Starting as a weird, shambling creature resembling the man-in-a-suit look of the earliest films, the creature (portrayed through motion capture by Mansai Nomura) becomes more impressive as the film goes on. His final form looks as though he’s made from molten rock, like the Earth itself has come to life. The film’s closing moments focus in on a particularly grotesque detail of Godzilla’s tail, constructed from what looks like fossilized human remains. Like the web of different crises that unfold in the wake of a natural disaster, the creature evolves as the movie goes on and the excellent, operatic and fluid soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu, Anno’s partner on Neon Genesis Evangelion (with which Shin Godzilla, naturally, shares many visual similarities). Sagisu emphasizes the constant changes by invoking a number of different musical styles, as well as evolving Gojira composer Akira Ifukube's iconic score. This focus on the creature’s evolution, a continually worsening threat with death literally built into it, just further emphasizes the weight of every decision that these bureaucrats make.

As with Anno’s other genre work, Shin Godzilla is complex and densely packed with metaphor, openly asking questions about Japan’s past and future, and humanity’s ability to survive. Sagisu’s reused score cues from Evangelion (a version of ‘Decisive Battle' plays no fewer than five times) draws attention to Anno’s other tale of humanity banding together in the face of certain doom, using our last wits to do something miraculous.

Though the old metaphor for Godzilla as a representation of man’s meddling with nuclear power remains, this is a Godzilla film that feels acutely adjusted for a post-9/11, post-Fukushima disaster age. Imagery of piled-up boats and debris recalls the aftermath of a tsunami. The film ponders (sometimes aloud) the ineffectiveness of the government in the wake of a humanitarian crisis (“it was a surprise, it couldn’t be helped”, one official claims). The early scenes of the film reveal the shortcomings of the government in the face of evacuation and natural disasters, needling that “every action requires a meeting”. Unlike Evangelion there’s no master manipulators or secret shadowy organizations to be found, although there are a handful of careerists using the disaster to advance their status. There are only regular people here, whose every decision could lead to life or death for others. As Yaguchi, the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, puts it: “accountability comes with the job, a politician must decide to own it, or not.”

Where Evangelion pares down the apocalypse to the depression of a teenage boy, Shin Godzilla looks wider, at the responsibilities shared by those in government. Ultimately the same conclusion is reached, that as long as we’re alive, great things are possible. It’s not perfect - at some points the limits of its optimism become clear (the US government is frequently said to be a meritocracy, which rings pretty hollow) - but it’s still probably the best modern Godzilla film not just because of its portrayal of the monster, but because of its hopeful and humanistic approach to the disaster movie. The optimism may seem naive, but it’s a rousing and necessary reminder of our potential, and what could be possible if those in power wield their authority with care. Not only that but it also has a giant lizard shooting down bombers with atomic laser breath, so there’s something for everyone.