Hello, my fellow Godzilla fans.
Over the last week of July, I was blessed to be able to make an unbelievable and extraordinary pilgrimage to Japan, the Land of Godzilla. The trip was the journey to end all journeys, and I was able to see and do some incredible things that I never thought I would EVER get to do. From dining with genre veterans Akira Takarada and Hiroko Sakurai to visiting Daiei and Toho, and from meeting my heroes at Ultra Fest to shopping at Akihabara and Nakano Broadway, it truly was a full mind, body, and spirit emersion into kaiju culture.
However, the ultimate highlight of the trip, and the main reason I went in the first place, was to do the one thing all Godzilla fans dream they can one day do… see a new Godzilla film, on opening day, in a Toho Cinema. Staying in the Hotel Gracery in Shinjuku (the Godzilla Hotel) enabled me to see the red carpet premier, as well as to see the film in the theater beneath the hotel. During my stay, I was able to see it twice, and receive invaluable information on the plot and mysteries of the film that will inform this overview. As one of the first (and currently few) gaijin to have seen the film, I hope to provide you all with as much information on the film as I can, and perhaps to help you put any fears or concerns to rest.
Rest assured, this film is very much a masterpiece.
And if you are worried about spoilers, don’t be! This is a non-spoiler review, in which no major plot elements will be revealed. If you want the FULL lowdown on the synopsis and all the juicy secrets, be sure to give my Super Spoiler Version (to be released in two parts) a read! If not, this should tide you over until the film is released in the US later this fall.
So, without further ado, lets jump into it…
In short (if my “masterpiece” comment above didn’t give it away), this film is nothing short of a triumph. And not just for the Godzilla series, either. This is straight up a fantastic movie on its own, and stands as a brilliant and masterful piece of cinema, regardless of genre. Already, many Japanese reviewers are hailing the film as an “unprecedented masterpiece” that should be regarded as a classic piece of Japanese cinema”, and, you know what? It deserves ALL that praise, and then some!
Without getting into specifics, this film will surely please fans who have been dreaming of seeing a darker, scarier Godzilla film made one day. Make no mistake, this film is terrifying. Godzilla hasn’t been this scary since 1954, and this is definitely not an accident. The original film is recalled more times than can be written here without spoiling key moments and fun surprises, and a clear reverence for the origins of the Godzilla character is present. If it want clear that directors Anno and Higuchi were diehard Godzilla fans before, watching this movie will definitely clear up and misconceptions. Fans will surely find plenty of references and callbacks within the script, directing, and even (minor spoiler) the musical score!
And, again, this film is downright scary. Godzilla wades through the city like an unstoppable wall of flesh, and has never seemed more like a god than he does in this film. Several scenes of the destruction he brings about will surely leave viewers crawling around on theater floors, desperately searching for their lower jaws. This particularly applies to one key sequence in particular, in which Godzilla unleashes his now infamous purple ray. Without giving anything away, this part of the film is a definitive moment in the entire Godzilla series, a scene of destruction that visually and tonally surpasses that of every film before it. No Godzilla film since the original has depicted destruction so vividly and horrifyingly. It will surely be a moment that will haunt the dreams and imaginations of every Godzilla fan that bears witness to it.
However, some of the horror might go right over the heads of many American viewers, much like references to the Lucky Dragon #5 would surely have gone over the heads of American viewers in 1956, when Gojira came to the US as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. One of the strongest aspects of the original film was that it ties so horrifyingly to then current events and disasters in Japan, that it transformed Godzilla from just another “monster on the loose” into a metaphor for the H bomb and man’s reckless use of atomic weapons. With Shin Godzilla, the power of allegorically reflecting tragic current events has returned to the Godzilla series, and director Anno takes every advantage to heighten the sense of tension and dread, such as intermingling images of government officials debating and cell phone footage of survivors to elevate the realism.
In reference to those debating government officials, one of the major talking points that has come out about the film since its release is the fact that there is quite a lot of talking in it. Although the scenes appear long, they never come across as boring, and especially not to Japanese audiences. These scenes have been carefully crafted by director Anno to powerfully reflect the tragic 3/11 tsunami and earthquake incident from a few years ago, particularly in how slowly and ineffectually the government approaches the crisis control. Indeed, many Japanese viewers and reviewers have reported feeling strongly unsettled at the accuracy of these scenes, with several Japanese viewers I spoke to calling the implications “terrifying”. The film is full of subtle and not so subtle references to this real life tragedy, including a scene in which the pushover Prime Minister calls a press conference, telling the people of the situation and promising them that (minor spoiler) Godzilla will not make landfall. However, during the conference, he is informed that, well… you guessed it. Again, this a reflection of the Prime Minister’s actions during 3/11, and a Japanese viewer seeing this will understand the reference. Furthermore, scenes of destruction in the film, including shots of boats and cars being swept into small towns by rising water clearly reflect the horrifying destruction of the tsunami, and Japanese reviewers have reported being vividly and terrifyingly reminded of that incident after watching these scenes.
These scenes of destruction, dramatic debates, and high tension are the result of director Anno firing on all cylinders. You can feel his passion and artistic genius pouring out across every scene of this move from behind the camera, and it is easy to tell that he had fun making this film. Despite this feeling, the film is short on humor, with only a few small lines of comedy existing to elevate the tension. However, the film never feels overly dramatic, and again, Japanese viewers have commented on the realism present in every scene of the film. This realism comes from an incredible story courtesy of Anno, the director’s taught and expertly edited scenes, and, of course, strong performances by a truly gigantic ensemble of Japanese actors. Hiroki Hasegawa, as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, does a terrific job in conveying the terror and tension of his character, and inspires empathy, despite the audience not getting any look at his personal life, or any kind of life outside of his work and the crisis at hand. Yutaka Takenouchi as Hideki Akasaka, the Prime Minister's Aide, brings a strong sense of drama and seriousness to his role, and the lovely Satomi Ishihara, as Kayoko Ann Patterson, Envoy to the US President, is delightfully cocky and comfortable in a role that famously caused her some stress on set, especially when having to deliver English lines. Although it’s clear that she isn’t as familiar with the language as her character perhaps ought to be, she does an admirable job nonetheless. Also, be on the lookout for familiar names in the script (is that a THIRD Goro Maki?!) and in the credits (Akira Emoto, Yuki from Godzilla vs Spacegodzilla, plays Chief Cabinet Secretary Ryuta Azuma), as they will be sure to put a smile on any longtime fan’s face.
Also sure to give you “the feels” will be the musical score. As all kaiju fans know, music is an intrigal part of the experience of watching giant monsters do their thing on screen. Composer Shiro Sagisu (Evangelion, Attack on Titan Pts. 1 &2) joins the ranks of composers like Akira Ifukube, Masaru Sato, and Michiru Oshima, and does one hell of a job, supplying one of most lush and haunting scores in the history of the franchise. While much of the music is dramatic, Evangelion inspired music for scenes of planning and military attacks, there are several pieces that stand out as exeptional, and now (in my opinion) rank among the fines t pieces ever composed for the series. If you have seen the two main trailers, you have heard parts of two of these pieces, which appear complete in the film. Their implementation (especially for the piece that appears in the second trailer, called “Who Will Know”) will take your breath away in the film. In addition, the soundtrack features a few surprises for Godzilla fans, but that’s all I’ll say here. If you want all the details, go read the spoiler-ridden review!
Finally, there is the most pivotal aspect of a Godzilla film: the special effects. This is as good a time as any to clear up some confusion that has come about from Toho’s promotion of the film as featuring an “all CG Godzilla”. Rest assured, Toku fans, THIS IS NOT THE CASE. That said, a ton of digital work does exist in the film, but the CG work is nothing short of astonishing. For those familiar with the now infamous “Ultraman n/a” CGI trailer featuring an all-digital Ultraman taking on an all-digital kaiju in Tokyo, the CG work in Shin Godzilla is comparable to that. Toho has advanced leaps and bounds with their CG abilities in the last decade, and you would be hard pressed to believe that this is the same company that animated the passible but definitely clearly CGI effects in films like Godzilla: Final Wars. Furthermore, the CG in this film is VERY MUCH in the Tokusatsu spirit, making it feel as authentic as possible. However, as good as the CG work is in Shin Godzilla, the practical work is truly breathtaking. In short, Shinji Higuchi has achieved what I would consider to be the new gold standard for not just the Godzilla series, but Tokusatsu in general, and a standard to which all further Godzilla films should aspire. Most of the scenes involving the final form of Godzilla are handled the old fashioned way (with the large scale puppet seen in leaked images earlier this year), with only a few shots (mostly involving the monster maneuvering and contorting in ways that would be difficult to pull off convincingly with a giant puppet) created with digital technology. Much of the CG work with Godzilla involves atmospheric embellishments, such as smoke and debris. The incorporation of both the CG and practical Godzillas into the real-world environments of the film are flawless, and this, combined with Anno’s tight and awe-inspiring directing, make Godzilla feel more realistically (and terrifyingly) incorporated into our world than in any film before.
Part political drama, part allegorical horror film, and part old fashioned creature flick, Shin Godzilla is a remarkable achievement. It has broken new ground in the series, and, although it honors the origins of the character, and feels very much like a Godzilla film, it has truly left the old world of Godzilla behind. Trust me when I say, you have NEVER seen a Godzilla film like this before. The film does many new things, and takes a hell of a lot of risks. But in the end, all of those risks payed off, and from the combined talents of hundreds of men and women behind the scenes, fueled by passion, respect, and 12 years of anticipation by fans around the world, a masterpiece has been born. I don’t think I’d be too out of line to say that Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi have created THE definitive Godzilla film for a generation. These two old-school tokusatsu nerds and longtime friends can rest easy… they’ve done the Big Guy proud.
For more information on the film, and a load of spoilers, stay tuned for my “no holds barred” review/overview, coming soon in two parts! Until then, feel free to PM me or ask questions in the comments section below, and I will do my best to answer any inquiries!
And, of course, stay tuned to Scified for more news on the impending US Release of Shin Godzilla as it breaks!
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