Godzilla’s a long-standing cornerstone of cinema, both in western and eastern culture. Rarely a year goes by without some kind of Godzilla flick coming to our screens in one way or another; 2014’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, being the most notable recent addition. There was even Colossal earlier this year where a drunk Anne Hathaway controlled a Godzilla-like beast from the safety of her American suburb. Meanwhile, Japan’s been doing its own thing, and their latest offering to the genre is Shin Godzilla, which hit UK cinemas yesterday.
I've never been a massive fan of the endless stream of churned out Godzilla films. Generally, they're over the top, usually cheesy as hell, and typically have a budget that doesn't quite stretch to realistic CGI, leaving a monster that looks about as ferocious as a Reptar figure from The Rugrats.
Still, I took a punt on Shin Godzilla, hoping that a film from Godzilla’s original homeland could offer something more unique than the traditional western blockbuster. It isn't quite the masterpiece that the kaiju genre needs, but it does have some merit.
Shin Godzilla, at least in its first half, takes the focus away from the monster and instead settles its viewpoint amongst the Japanese government and the emergency committees forged together to deal with this new threat over Tokyo and its surrounding provinces. It works, almost, if you can manage to overlook the clumsy acting and general low production value. The speed of cuts, changes of locations and dialogue means it's fairly easy to as you'll, at times, be struggling to keep up with the myriad of subtitles that pop up. Dialogue mixed with frequent character and location tags means the screen is often awash with text that will all be vying for your attention.
If you're a fast reader though, you'll still have time to take note of the awful acting and the awkward face-on shots that make Shin Godzilla feel like a showreel of audition tapes at times. Not to mention the scenes in a government board room where you'll see notes getting passed around. Sure, you can kid yourself that those pieces of paper contain some important, top secret governmental information, but being little scraps torn out of a spiral-bound notebook makes it hard to imagine they contain anything but the actor's lines.
Still, those flaws aside, Shin Godzilla managed to keep my attention for most of its slightly overstayed two hours. If a giant, unidentified beast washes up on your shores, there's going to be chaos, and the fast-paced editing, scatty acting and rushed conversations certainly enhanced that feeling of disorder. Conversations between the cast members are interspersed with footage of the city being destroyed, which, until you see a glimpse of Godzilla in his earliest form, is pretty impressive.
But then you see Godzilla. And your high hopes for the CGI quality of the film goes out of the window.
The cinema - which was full, I'll add - erupted into stifled chuckles. Shin Godzilla's monster is one that evolves throughout the film, and its earliest form is an amphibious beast with flipper-like arms and cold, beady eyes. Not knowing that Godzilla is going to take on an evolutionary arc, however, those staring eyes are laughable, like two giant marbles stuck into a lump of brown, scaly plasticine.
As the film progresses though, and Godzilla's form changes, you can forgive his appearance somewhat. It becomes apparent that the producers intended him to resemble some kind of fish-like creature; a giant tadpole ready to transform into a more powerful form. While Godzilla's transformation isn't particularly remarkable, his final form is heavily modelled on the classic Godzilla image from the eponymous 1954 film. In fact, looking at the poster art for that film, it's hard to spot any discernable differences, despite a 60-year age gap. For the Godzilla purists then, Shin Godzilla may just hit the spot.
Through the second half of the film, the action mounts up and focus shifts from stiled boardroom discussions to explosion-filled battle scenes. There's plenty to like as army tanks and helicopters descend upon the beast; bomb-loaded bullet trains smash into it and buildings topple down in an impressive display of CGI. Godzilla itself puts on a good show too; fire reigns from his mouth and magnificent destructive beams of light ripple from his skin. Entire blocks of the city become blazing infernos and fighter jets rain from the sky. It’s a shame that it takes a while for Shin Godzilla’s action to get going, because surprisingly, it’s what the film does best.
I’ve been skirting around the socio-political issues that the film has at its core, though: by and large, Shin Godzilla is a political film. Told through the lens of a government in disarray, it touches on international relations, dealing with national disasters, the possibility of nuclear fallout, and all the democracy that goes alongside all those things. It’s clearly making statements about Japan’s own disasters and makes references to Fukushima and Hiroshima (and even going so far as to cut to an out-of-place piece of footage of the latter). Even as someone with little knowledge on politics, it’s hard to miss those blatant undertones. There’s a lot to read into - if you want, that is - but if you don’t, you can just enjoy it for the monster flick it is on the surface. I did.
Shin Godzilla isn’t the best kaiju film by any means. It’s clunky and poorly-directed in places and its flaws are boldly on display for all to see. Yet, despite that, I still somehow found myself enjoying what the film had to offer. There’s definitely a place for it in the annals of Godzilla films, and its focus on Japanese politics adds an almost believable feel to what’s otherwise a very far-fetched and overused genre. It’s a film that certainly wouldn’t work as a western release, but Shin Godzilla is, for the most part, a uniquely engrossing alternative to what we’re used to seeing come out of Hollywood.