Shin Godzilla (2016) by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Review by Lydia Creech
As the dumpster fire of 2016 comes to a close, I keep coming back to a rather lovely sequence from the big midpoint battle in Shin Godzilla. The president and his entire cabinet of advisors are attempting to abandon Tokyo and flee via helicopter, when an errant atomic beam from Godzilla catches them and blows everyone up. It’s a shocking moment, and in the film, feels like divine retribution for the government’s failure to prevent the situation and selfishness in trying to shirk responsibility. As an American, however, I’m just like, “Please come save us, too, Shin Godzilla.”
That may be too political coming from a little movie review site (and certainly entirely too Western), but it’s important to note that the Godzilla films have always been best when looking politics right in the face, and Anno upholds and updates that tradition here. I’m only an occasional interloper into Japanese pop culture, but Anno draws clear lines of fire at aspects of Japanese government and brings his style and sensibilities to bear on the subject.
On the podcast, we pretty well covered what Anno brings from his background as the director of Neon Genesis Evangelion. As an anime director, Anno used the medium to pack as much information into the frame as possible. Moving to shooting live action did not slow him down at all, and he expects you to keep up. One of his stylistic flairs that I want to talk about is his fondness for filling the screen with text. Every character, location, and vehicle (treated as location or character?) gets an onscreen text introduction. It’s a running gag that is often overwhelming, especially owing to the duo subtitles, but it also serves as shorthand for characterization. It’s an old trick he employed from his days working on Evangelion. In the finale of his show, Anno’s text served the practical purpose of replacing animation, as he was running up against the studio and out of time and money. It became a very experimental form of storytelling, where intertitle replaced image. In Shin Godzilla, intertitle and image occupy the same space. The thing is, even in the show, the text was never for the benefit of the audience. Again, Anno works under the assumption that the audience is already on board and caught up (you can find me rambling about the finale of Evangelion and Freud and how that made fans feel here). Understandably, this is an alienating, aggressive style. I find it exciting that Anno does not hold the audience’s hand, but there is an extra remove for Western audiences in Shin.
At one point, (I believe) (I’m not literate in Japanese) Anno exerts the entire text from Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Basically, after conceding WWII to the United States (after we dropped two atomic bombs on them, which inspired the OG Godzilla, lest we forget), one of the conditions of surrender was that Japan gave up the right to war. In practical terms, this means Japan is one of only 22 countries in the world without a standing military. Japan does retain a Self Defence Force (SDF) in case of attack, but, constitutionally, do not have the right to attack others. In the film, Article 9 is displayed over characters arguing over whether they have the ability to use the SDF against Godzilla, essentially arguing over the interpretation of the clause. This scene is a direct reflection of recent, actual political maneuvering by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reinterpret Article 9 in 2014, which caused quite a bit of controversy, as Abe bypassed the (slow) process of actually amending the constitution. Fellow anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki had strong words against Abe, but it can be tricky to tell where Anno comes down on this move.
On the one hand, Anno is obviously in love with with military vehicles and equipment, shown by the obsessive subtitle introductions. Plus, Shin Godzilla heavily condemns the slowness and bureaucracy of the Japanese government (taking aim at the disaster (non)response to the Fukushima meltdown), and it is certainly ambivalent towards the motivation and willingness of the United States to help out. There is a lot of hand wringing in the second half of the movie about whether America would be willing to nuke Japan again in the name of world peace (ha). This reflects the VERY complicated international relationship/alliance between the US and Japan since WWII.
The United States have maintained their own military bases in Japan since the end of the war (though, recently we did give some land in Okinawa back), and acted as transitional authority in the immediate post-War period and de facto military for Japan (but, like, not really? It’s not out of the kindness of the United States’ heart). Later, the United States used their bases in Japan as strategic jumping off points during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. They continued to maintain bases through the Cold War, claiming Japan acted as a “first line defense” against the spread of communism or in case of China/Russia escalating. That’s… kind of terrible, for a lot of reasons, and too short of a history lesson, but if it seems that Anno resents the idea that Japan would just be used by the United States (see the sad fate of the “first line” of crane operators in the final battle), that’s probably an accurate reflection of how many Japanese view their country’s relationship to ours. Within this context, I found the hostility towards the United States’s involvement with fighting Godzilla during the second half fascinating. So here we have recent real-world legislation increasing Japan’s SDF’s military capacity combined with over 50 years of what feels like subjugation/inferiority to the United States meeting a world-ending (and, like all apocalypses, redefining) fantasy cataclysm in the form of Godzilla. The destruction wrought is terrible and compounded by the Japanese government’s inability to do anything (at home or internationally).
However, and this important, ultimately the solution the Japanese come up with is distinctly non-militaristic. It’s a collective scientific effort from all sectors in Japanese society. I heard mutterings in the cinema that the ending was anticlimactic, yet I can’t imagine that a different, more Hollywood type ending would be better. Japan may have lagged behind the US in terms of “hard-power” since WWII, but in terms of “soft-power,” that is, cultural, scientific, and economic influence, Japan just grows and grows. The original Godzilla and subsequent ascendance of the franchise in particular and kaiju genre in general abroad is an excellent example of Japan’s soft power, and Shin Godzilla proudly carries that legacy on. The optimistic ending represents a rejection for the need of military might and the United States and embraces a uniquely Japanese response to tragedy (real or not) that imagines a society capable of coming together and stepping up to the international plate. Shin Godzilla is more than a helluva good monster flick; it’s also a complex, artistic response to a country on the cusp of stepping away from pacifism and soft-power. With the final shot, it feels like a warning.