I had the pleasure and luck to get into one of the limited-run English-subtitled screenings here in the U.S. for Shin Godzilla, also known as Godzilla: Resurgence, during the two weeks it was stateside. I saw it late in the week and late at night, surprised that all of the other shows were sold out. I had grossly underestimated (or perhaps forgotten is more accurate) just how many people, like me, have a long-standing history with the 60-year old franchise, regardless of which side of the Pacific their favorite installments come from.
I had been unable to insulate myself completely from early reviews, especially given that the film had been out in Japan since July. Western critics had primarily cited the political elements, talking-head dialogue and the sheer number of people introduced for expository purposes, never to be seen again and with no clear protagonist. I found these criticisms to be only somewhat valid, and many of them I chalk up to the language barrier of a subtitled presentation. Japanese speech sounds nothing like English, meaning the delivery of a good number of lines can sometimes seem dissonant with what the subtitles are saying; as a frequent viewer of foreign films, especially Asian, I’ve learned to chalk it up to “lost in translation” and enjoy myself.
As for the “talking heads,” perhaps it was because I was prepared, but the admittedly heavy amount of sharp cuts and sudden shifts from press conference to crisis center to military base back to crisis center ad nauseum did not detract from the film; in fact I would say it contributed greatly to the overall chaotic and desperate nature of the film and the scenario it depicts. The believability of how it all plays out, the confusion, the political response, it looks like what one might see on the news during real disasters – the parallels to the 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima are readily apparent, lending the film that extra modernity that helps it feel relevant and compelling.
There is in fact a protagonist amongst it all, a Deputy Chief-turned-Anti-Godzilla-Task Force leader Rando Yaguchi. Together with around half of a dozen recurring supporting characters, chief among them Japanese-American diplomat Kayoko, he is the human core of the story, the one who believes from the beginning that a living creature has caused the initial disasters before Godzilla makes an actual appearance.
Surrounding Rando’s team and story is a litany of military and civilian officials, all working feverishly and often ineffectually to contain or otherwise deal with the escalating threat and fallout, both figuratve and literal. For every noble, brave and decisive character, there are three indecisive, confused bureaucrats who are just as concerned with how they appear as they are with the external threats. Godzilla films, at least the “core” entries that place the iconic monster as the sole kaiju and antagonist, have always ultimately revolved around themes connected to nuclear war and nuclear energy, stemming of course largely from the usage of two atomic bombs on the country at the close of the Second World War.
This new film deals with that theme as well, with the added and hugely effective element of weariness. In a sobering dose of reality, international involvement both helps and hinders the Japanese government, especially the specter of their security treaty with the United States. This shadow of international pressure and meddling is almost as much of a threat as Godzilla himself, if not even more, as the world grows increasingly worried about what happens if the radioactive creature is not stopped in Japan and plans their own contingency – even if it means more Japanese lives lost. The term “post-war” is brought up many times, referring to Japan’s legacy in the eyes of the globe and how it hinders their ability to work and grow. This all ties in with the political events of the film at both the international and domestic level, allowing a frustrated perspective to bubble up that is culturally linked. Rando laments at a low point in their struggle that “post-war is forever,” bemoaning that his nation is still worthy of pity and scorn so many decades later, unable to be seen as capable of acting on their own to contain the threat.