Why Shin Godzilla Won Best Picture in Japan | In Depth Review

Why Shin Godzilla Won Best Picture in Japan | In Depth Review

January 12, 2020 49 By Peter Engel


Released in 2016, Shin Godzilla is the 29th
Japanese Godzilla film, the first Toho produced Godzilla movie since 2004, and the beginning
of the fourth era of Godzilla films. The previous Godzilla series ended prematurely
due to consistently declining ticket sales, which ultimately forced Toho to put the franchise
in hibernation once again, but not before celebrating his 50th annivesary by going all
out in Godzilla Final Wars. With a full 12 years separating Final Wars
and Shin, it was the longest break the franchise has ever taken. Following the success of the 2014 American
Godzilla film, Toho decided to make a film that harkens back to the franchise’s roots;
a stand alone film more in the vein of the original 1954 Gojira, where Godzilla is an
unstoppable threat to Japan and mankind at large. They made the inspired choice of approaching
Hideaki Ano, most known for creating the highly popular and influenctial anime Neon Genesis
Evangelion, to both write and direct. Ano is notorious for bringing his unique and
personal storytelling style to everything he is involved with, so his hiring drew much
interest and anticipation from the fanbase, who were eager to see what he would do with
Godzilla. Directing alongside Ano was Shinji Higuchi,
Ano’s long time friend and the director of the two recent live-action Attack on Titan
films. While Ano would serve as chief director, Higuchi
was in charge of directing and coordinating the special effects heavy sequences involving
Godzilla, which, for the first time, is brought to life with computer generated effects instead
of the traditional suitmation techniques. Together, their intention was to make the
scariest, largest, and most imposing Godzilla ever put on screen. Shin Godzilla opened in Japan on July 29th
2016, and it was an enormous critical and financial success. Japanese audiences loved it, and it stayed
in the top 10 until late September, closing out at an equivelant of $77 million dollars,
making it the highest grossing Godzilla film ever made, an all the more impressive feat
when you remember how old this franchise is. Shin Godzilla even swept the Japanese Academy
Awards, taking home both Best Director and Best Picture, as well as all of the technical
categories. It was an incredible validation for one of
Japan’s most famous icons, and for the first time since perhaps the original, Japan was
immensely proud of a Godzilla film. Now to anyone only familiar with Godzilla
in the context of the cheesy b-movies that make up the majority of the films, all of
this admiration probably seems rather strange. A Godzilla movie winning Best Picture, what
are the Japanese smoking? It’s just a silly monster movie; it’s not
meant to be taken seriously, right? Well, not quite. While Shin Godzilla certaintly isn’t a perfect
film, when you take into consideration all of its working parts, along with the history
of Godzilla and Japan’s relationship with what he represents, it’s easy to see why Shin
Godzilla is loved by its home country. And that’s why I’m here my friends; to show
you why, regardless of whether you love it or hate it, this film is worthy of admiration
for the simple fact that it aspires to be something beyond just another Godzilla movie,
and in doing so becomes one of the most resonant entries of the franchise, exhibiting accomplished
filmmaking in nearly every category including writing, acting, shot composition, music,
special effects, and theme. Shin Godzilla is one of the most unique and
interesting entries to come out of this franchise in a very long time, and I think it’s because
somehow, some way, it manages to be as radically different as it is faithfully traditional. In both concept and structure, Shin Godzilla
is very much a remake of the original 1954 film, or as close to one as any film has ever
gotten. Like that film, it is about the emergence
of an immortal radioactive monster that wreaks havoc on Japan, and the attempts of the human
characters to stop it. But Shin takes that concept and plants it
in a current modern day context, and just like how the original explored and reflected
the fears and tensions of its time regarding war and atomic power, Shin Godzilla explores
and reflects the current fears and anxieties Japan has regarding nuclear and natural disasters,
government incompetency, and its place in global politics, specifically scrutinizing
the nation’s submissive relationship with the United States. And just like how the original was influenced
by the atomic bombing of Hiroshimi and Nagasake, Shin Godzilla draws direct inspiration from
the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the resulting tsunami, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear
disaster, which is one of the most crippling and deadly natural disasters to have hit Japan
in recent memory, and one in which the nation is still dealing with today. Just as the original had images of destruction
eerily similar to those of the bombings, Shin Godzilla very deliberately recalls the images
seen during the 2011 earthquake in its scenes of destruction. When the first form of Godzilla crawls ashore
and begins slowly trudging across the landscape wiping everything away in his path, it blatantly
mirrors images of the tsunami and the resulting flooding. And when Godzilla unleashes the full power
of his atomic breath later in the film, the area is contaiminated with radiation, similar
to that of the Fukushima power plant meltdown. But the film dives much deeper in this issue
from the human side of things by framing the story through the point of view of the government
and its politicians, and uses this point of view to critique and parody the Japanese government,
whom many believe weren’t adequetely prepared and demonstrated an inability to properly
respond to environmental disasters. This makes Shin Godzilla the most political
film in the series. Every character is a political figure, and
everyone, big and small, has a logistical role to play in the story, which the film
makes sure you never forget by obnoxiously plastering the names of every character and
location on screen. This, along with the sheer size of the cast,
is one of the most common criticisms made about Shin Godzilla. The film overburdens the viewer with countless
characters big and small, job descriptions to keep track of and locations to remember. This is especially burdensome for foreign
viewers, who on top of all that also have subtitles to read. The film essentially overloads you with information
and people to follow, which makes it almost impossible to read it all on first viewing…
which is the entire point. The viewer is meant to be overburdened with
endless titles and descriptions, which helps put you in the state of mind of the characters
who have to deal with this day in and day out. It all serves the films purpose of satirizing
government beaucracy and showing how it inhibits immediate reaction to surprise disasters. Thankfully however Shin Godzilla never veers
off into outright condemnation or vilification. While the process is shown to be comically
flawed, the people involved are all depicted as trying to do their very best given the
situation. Prime Minster Okochi is the perfect example
of this. While shown as being way in over his head,
he isn’t completely incompetent. Even while overwhelmed by an unprecedented
scenario, you always believe that he’s doing what he thinks is best for his people. When Godzilla is heading towards their direction,
he insists on staying to oversee the U.S.’s bombing operation, and has to be convinced
by his aids to evacuate for the good of the nation. He is honorable and prioritizes the safety
of civilians, but also open to the opinions and suggestions of those around him, most
likely because he wouldn’t know what to do without them. It would have been easy to depict the Prime
Minister as either a complete bumbling oaf or a self-interested jerk, but Ano wisely
avoids that for a more nuanced, relatable approach, and he impliments this approach
in every aspect of the screenplay. A lesser script would have some human antagonist
working on the fringes to undermine the hero, but there is none of that here. All of the characters are sympathetic and
working for the good of Japan, it’s just that the traditional ways of doing things outdates
their thinking. The movie makes the case that it’s not necessarily
the people that’s the problem, but the bureaucracy that cages them in and slows the government’s
response. —–
So then what’s the solution to this problem? Unsurprisingly Ano suggests that it’s the
freaks, nerds, outcasts, and rule breakers on the fringes that are the key to cutting
through the red tape and getting things done. With Japan on the ropes they are called on
to put their talents to use in an open forum of collaboration and cooperation. No endless cabinat meetings, no chain of command
to filter through, just pure action. This group of misfit scientists are ultimately
the ones who come up with the final plan of injecting Godzilla with coagulant to freeze
him, which ends up working. In the end it’s teamwork and scientific thinking
that saves the day. It’s a positive and well meaning message that
keeps Shin Godzilla from being cynical despite its target for criticism. Another distinct aspect of Shin Godzilla is
how cleverly funny it is. Ano’s greatest tool in satirizing the government
is humor, which is used to point out the failures of Japanese bureacracy. There are numerous visual gags involving cabinet
meetings, where characters end one meeting just to move to another room for another meeting. Many of the characters don’t know what they’re
talking about or what’s going on, making assumptions only to be contradicted. One of the best gags is early in the film,
when the Prime Minister publically assures citizens that Godzilla won’t make landfall,
then it cuts to Godzilla making landfall and people running for their lives. This gag also wonderfully demonstrates how
the film is able to balance its humorous moments with the horrific nature of the situation. Shin Godzilla may be very funny when it wants
to be, but it’s also able to be haunting and disturbing when it wants to. Godzilla’s first rampage, with Persecution
of the Masses playing in the background, is positively spine-chilling, a feeling enhanced
by the bizarre design of his first form, an embryotic eel-like looking creature that’s
as much goofy looking as it is unnerving with how it never blinks and only stares off into
the void with no conscience. Admit it,it would be terrifying seeing this
thing loom over you in the distance as it crushes you and everything in its path. How Ano is able to balance these two shifting
tones so perfectly is part of what makes Shin Godzilla such a great film. One moment you’ll be enjoying an amusing character
interaction or situation, the next you’ll be intimidated by the incredibly well done
Godzilla sequences. Speaking of which, Shin Godzilla contains
some of the most breathtaking Godzilla moments ever put on film. Gone are the days of men in rubber suits stomping
on models and toy tanks, which, as much as I love those, always gave even the best films
a cheesiness that, while appealing to folks like me who love it, often turned off those
less familar with it. This isn’t the case with Shin Godzilla. The special effects are leagues better than
any previous film in every category. For the first time Godzilla is brought to
life with CGI, which should have been terrible considering how bad past usages of it were,
but here it looks fantastic, even flawless in certain shots. This is of course helped by the fact that
Godzilla never moves beyond a snails pace, which no doubt makes rendering easier, but
it has the added beneifit of feeling like old school man in a suit without actually
do so. However the film thankfully continues the
use of miniature effects, so it’s not all computer graphics. Instead the two effects techniques are used
together to bring Godzilla and the destructive elements to life in a more believable way
than ever before. By far the most impressive sequence is no
doubt when Godzilla unleashes his atomic breath for the first time. It is a visual powerhouse depicting a level
of destruction rarely seen in any film. It feels authentic, which gives the sequence
real emotional weight and impact, enhanced by a phenominal score by Shiro Sagisu, who
had also worked with Ano on Neon Genesis Evangelion. The believability factor is heightened by
how genuine everything feels. Shin Godzilla paints an extremely realistic
portrait of a nation’s response to Godzilla. Much of the running time is made up of mass
evacuations, press conferences, military briefings, and political meetings. And for perhaps the first time we get what
at least feels like the most realistic military engagement with Godzilla ever depicted. While most previous films had endless amounts
of tanks and planes throwing themselves at Godzilla for our amusement, here there is
an actual strategy; a hierarchical attack formation where, when one wave isn’t working,
it pulls back to make way for the next wave. It is logical, and that goes a long way towards
making the story feel genuinely dramatic, which in tern makes Godzilla feel like a true
threat that can’t be stopped. And oh man is Godzilla a force to be wreckened
with in this film. This is the most threatening Godzilla since
the original; a pure apathetic destroyer. Obviously the most immediatly striking thing
about this Godzilla is his design, which, aside from the 98 American design, is as far
from the traditional look of the character there’s ever been. With his mishapen teeth, blank dead eyes,
tiny useless little arms, and almost comically long tail, this Godzilla is twisted and malformed;
a grotesque monstrosity that bleeds and drips everywhere. He essentially looks like a gigantic walking
tumor, which keeps the idea that he was created by radiation fresh in your mind when you look
at him. But as different as this design is, it’s also
unmistakingly Godzilla. You can see that this Godzilla draws inspiration
from the original 1954 design, particularly in the face, which contains the same small
beady eyes that the original had. It’s a nice blend of Ano’s uniquely outlandish
design quirks with the classic Godzilla design, and is in manys ways an encapsulation of how
the film is as different as it is traditional. The alterations also extend to Godzilla’s
abilities. His atomic breath is not merely a contained
singular beam but an explosive massive fire ball that shrinks into a precise purple laser
that can slice through buildings like butter. And no longer does it just come from his mouth,
now it’s able to be fired out of his back and tail. It’s beautiful and devastating and unlike
anything we’ve ever seen Godzilla do before. And that is what makes Shin Godzilla especially
noteworthy, the fact that it’s able to show us new things in a franchise that’s over 60
years old. Some purists don’t like that this Godzilla
is so different from past incarnations, which is understandable, but this film took some
creative risks and I think that’s what makes it special. We’ve seen Godzilla do the same things over
and over again, and Toho should be commended for taking a chance and allowing an artist
like Hideaki Ano to put his own spin on the character. And besides, for as many liberties as Ano
took, he also went out of his way to honor everything that came before, almost to a fault. There is so much love for Godzilla and the
history of the franchise in this movie, and you can feel it right from the opening titles,
which directly recalls the effectively simplistic opening of the original. The film impliments a slavish use of old school
sound effects, including the 1954 roar, as well as some of the most memorable Akira Ifukube
tracks, which is bound to make every Godzilla fan crack a smile. Ano didn’t have to use these tracks, but he
did because he clearly respects Godzilla and what he represents, and for as weird as this
film gets, you never forget that as your watching it. As good as those classic Ifukube tracks are
though, Shiro Sagisu’s new score is just as good. It compliments and emphasizes the themes and
sense of awe and dread, and the use of vocals gives a mythical quality to Godzilla, which,
if you listen closely to, tells a story of its own. The use of Decisive Battle from Evangelion
during the meeting scenes between our heroic misfit scientists gives all that scientific
jargon being spouted a rapid fire intensity that’s really fun to watch, and a treat for
Evangelion fans. The pacing of Shin Godzilla is also relentlessly
fast, which works to the films advantage with the story it’s telling. It may overwhelm a first time viewer, but
the richness and density of the storytelling and pacing rewards multiple viewings. You begin to recognize and notice things you
might have missed the last time, which is very easy to do because there are so many
characters and so much going on. It’s just so entertaining. there’s just something about the way the film
is cut and presented that makes it highly engaging. However, the quick pace and large ensemble
cast means that there is no time for real character development, and this lack of depth
is one of the most common critiques of Shin Godzilla, and one which I don’t think is fair. The film isn’t trying to present complex characters. The nature of the story, which is intense
and time sensitive, doesn’t allow for down time in which the characters can explain their
backstory or call their families; every moment is a race to stop Godzilla and save Japan
and its citizens. This scenario is where the drama come from. It’s all about the big picture story; seeing
how a government reacts and attempts to deal with this indestructable creature, and to
emphasize this the film features a huge sprawling cast of characters of varying degrees of participation. Most of them merely stand around and fulfull
their job description, but there are a handful of them that stand out and majorly contribute
to the plot. Even if you don’t remember most of the characters’s
names, their personality quirks leave an impression, and the actors give solid performances all
around. The closest thing we do get to a main character
though is Rando Yaguchi, played by Hiroki Hasegawa. He is the first one to go against the common
consensus, to which everyone writes him off. But he is quickly proven right, and from that
point he leads the charge to save Japan. There’s actually a great gag where Yaguchi’s
list of titles grows longer the longer the film goes on as he takes on more responsability. He’s basically the ideal politician; as driven
as he is humble, pragmatic but also idealistic. Yaguchi is a simple, highly motivated character,
and while that means he isn’t exactly complex, his character works well as the hero of the
story. He isn’t bogged down with crippling self-doubt
like Shinji from Evangelion, his job gives him purpose. Another major character is Kayoko Ann Patterson
played by Satomi Ishihara, and if there is one major blemish with Shin Godzilla it’s
her character, not because she is a bad actress, but because her character is supposed to be
a Japanese-American citizen, but it’s clear when she speaks English that it isn’t her
native language. This makes it almost laugable when the film
would have the viewer believe that she is the ambitious daugther of an American politician
whose life goal is to be president of the United States by age 40. This character just doesn’t come off as realistic,
which clashes with the rest of the film, which is very grounded and believable. That being said, she spends most of the film
speaking Japanese, so this is a very minor quibble. But despite the faults in the execution, Kayoko
Ann Patterson serves an integral function of the story, and that is to represent the
alliance between Japan and the United States. Her character is a bridge between the two
nations, which is important because more than anything else Shin Godzilla is a film about
Japan’s place on the world stage. Unlike most prior Godzilla films, the story
here does not exist in a vacuum, where Japan has to deal with Godzilla on their own. Godzilla’s appearance is a world changing
event that other nations have to consider, and we see this play out from Japan’s perspective. The film specifically considers the relationship
between Japan and the United States, the former of which has been living under the paternalistic
thumb of the latter since the end of the second World War. This relationship is presented consistently
throughout the film, with Japan constantly in negotiations with the U.S. and calling
on their military aid when their own efforts fail. When even the U.S. fails to kill Godzilla
with B2 bombers, the United Nations takes control of the situation, with the U.S. insisting
that an atomic bomb is the only way to kill Godzilla for good. Thus we get the moral dilemma of the third
act. For the first time since 1945, another A-bomb
will be dropped on Japanese soil. This is a worst case nightmare for Japan,
who are basically being forced to let this happen. The film wisely lets this dilemma breath for
a while as we get to see the characters contemplate what this means, and it’s all subtly done,
well acted, and directed. These moments definitely give the third act
a much slower pace than the rest of the film, which is seen as a negative by some, but it’s
these moments that make Shin Godzilla a truly great film that goes beyond its genre. Even though it’s addressing modern day fears
and disasters, the film still maintains an emotional and thematic connection to the horrific
events that inspired Ishiro Honda’s classic. It treats the idea of using nuclear weapons
on Japan with proper reverance and makes you feel the weight of that decision. The tension of the finale then comes from
not just stopping Godzilla, but doing so before the bomb is dropped on Tokyo, a successful
effort thanks to Yaguchi and his gang of misfits. Instead of just dropping a big bomb on Godzilla
that would have destroyed the capital of Japan, which likely wouldn’t have killed him anyway,
they figure out a way to stop him through hard work, clever planning, and out of the
box thinking. Japan is able to save themselves instead of
relying on the military might of others, demonstrating that it has the power and spirit to be their
own nation. This final point shows that, for as critical
as Ano’s story is of the government, it’s not anti-government. If anything Shin Godzilla is extremely patriotic
of it’s home land. It contains a very nationalistic message,
but in a naunced way without being jingoistic. And while the film doesn’t always present
the U.S. in the most positive light, it’s not anti-American. It acknowledges the value of the relationship
both good and bad, which feels true and honest. The film ends on a different but equally compelling
note as the original. While Gojira’s ending was very sombre and
full of dread for the future, Shin Godzilla’s ending is postive but cautionary, with Yaguchi
stating that they must learn to live with Godzilla, in a sense saying that, as deadly
as nuclear power can be, it’s a part of our lives now and we have to live with and manage
it instead of running away in fear. Then there is of course the final image, a
visually stunning and disturbing shot of what looks like half-human half-Godzilla like creatures
embedded in Godzilla’s tail, reaching out in agony. This ending shot leaves you with a lot of
questions, which is exactly what Hideaki Ano wants, and there are a lot of theories about
what this means. Personally I like to leave it ambiguous just
because I think that makes the ending more haunting. For me it works on a more metaphorical and
thematic level, and overthinking it kind of takes away from its impact. Like a lot of Ano’s work, it’s up to each
individual to interpret it in their own subjective way. It’s a perfect final statement to an incredibly
effective movie. To conclude, I think Shin Godzilla is a wonderful
creative achievement that respects both the central idea behind Godzilla and the history
of the franchise. Hideaki Ano is clearly a fan of Godzilla and
understands how to adapt the original story for modern times, but at the same time he
takes some personal creative liberties to keep it fresh, and in doing so makes a Godzilla
movie that’s as different as it is familiar. With this in mind, it’s absolutely no surprise
that Shin Godzilla won big at the Japanese Academy Awards. This is a film Japan is proud of, and they
have every right to be. Shin Godzilla was first and foremost made
for them, it is entertainment that encourages dialogue and provides catharsis for the citizens
of Japan to come to terms with one of the greatest natural tragedies of our time; the
kinds of tragedies that the nation is all too familar with, and it does so in a very
sophistocated way that you don’t see in most Godzilla movies. In my opinion, Shin Godzilla is the best Godzilla
movie since the original, one of the best kaiju movies ever made, and perhaps best of
all, a genuinely good film period. It reminds you why Godzilla is the ultimate
movie monster, because when someone with a vision and something to say really tries to
make not just a fun and entertaining Godzilla movie, but a compelling film in its own right,
you are reminded of why Godzilla is still as relevant today as he was 60 years ago.