Shin Godzilla [Review by Haus]
I’ve never been a big fan of the pedigree Godzilla films — they seemed suited to convey their key message in about ten seconds of screen time, usually involving a dude in a rubber suit knocking over five foot tall buildings in grainy black-and-white. And the various American big-budget studio attempts have always felt a bit me-too, though Cloverfield was novel and Pacific Rim was at least charming in its head-scratching attempts at levity (“today we are cancelling the apocalypse!“). Turns out, though, that a single Japanese company (Toho) has been pumping out official Godzilla films for decades, and has quietly produced over three dozen of the things since the fifties. That’s the entire James Bond canon, plus half again. That’s a lot of movies.
Shin Godzilla is the latest. It’s a reboot, and it’s Japanese. It’s aggressively subtitled, frenetic, and plain nuts — equal parts stiff political procedural and post-nuclear satire, with a jarring mix of high-quality tsunami-esque disaster CGI with laughable-but-clearly-deliberate stop-motion-grade plastic-looking and nostalgic monster effects. It’s an experience.
What’s it like? A truly massive cast of government bureaucrats operates at full tilt doing not much of anything, as our omniscient-narrator camera cuts furiously between everyone and subtitles blaze by. It’s breakneck coverage of sluggish committees, mixed with a monster that, when I first saw it, I just — I just could not even. This whole movie is really like nothing I’ve ever witnessed.
Movie critics are of course born uttering that Godzilla is the Japanese cultural response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that’s definitely the case here, where Godzilla himself is nuclear-themed, and there’s a strong back-arc about the U.S. “offering” to nuke Tokyo to destroy the monster. The latter plays out in deliciously Japanese form through Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), a young, comely and up-and-coming American politician sent to liaise with the Japanese task force. Ishihara does her best to play Patterson with an American casual flair — a stark contrast to the bows-and-silence, respect-thine-elders bureaucracy that’s grinding gears trying to stop the monster — but she’s hardly the native English speaker her character demands. And believe me, there’s something surreal about watching a Japanese film with Japanese actors playing Americans speaking English (which is then doubly-subtitled, since the directors elected, and not without reason, to subtitle the English dialogue in English as well as in Japanese) while you’re sat in a giant sold out cinema full of Americans who aren’t really sure what to make of it all. I confess, I’ve always enjoyed seeing other countries’ stereotypes of America — caricature is informative. And while it’s nothing I know too much about, based only on Shin Godzilla, I’d say the Japanese have a somewhat conflicted relationship with American policies, manners, ideals, and culture. Well shucks. I should work at the UN.
It’s not a straight up comedy, and the satire isn’t in your face — it’s a bit like Dr. Strangelove with its foot off the gas, or like being stuck in an Andy Kaufman skit. Are we in on the joke? Hard to tell.
I should emphasize that this is not a film to stream on Netflix while you knit or FaceTime with a parent’s puppy. This movie demands nonstop attention. Practice your speed reading and prepare to drink from the fire hose as you parse the barrage of information — if you’ve ever flipped through a Japanese youth magazine, you know what I mean — or maybe just sink into a zen-like state of acceptance that you’ll never keep track of who everyone is or what they’re all saying anyway.
I realize I’m beating a drum about the subtitles, so let me say: I can in fact read, but it’s almost impossible to digest all the subtitles because there are so damn many of them, all over the screen, and they go so fast. They subtitle not only the brisk dialogue but also every new place name and the name and title of pretty much every character the first time they speak, as well as other random stuff throughout, and it’s all on screen at the same time. (There’s also a subtle and subtitled running gag in which the Hiroki Hasegawa‘s job title keeps getting longer and more obscure. Cute.)
The monster is — well, just see it. I see a lot of movies and I tend to think I’ve seen it all. Maybe now I have.
Having read this far, you’re a lot more prepared than I was for what Shin Godzilla delivers. But still — still. No.
It’s a totally different filmgoing experience than anything we’re used to. But once you fall in with its rhythm, Shin Godzilla rewards you with a totally unique, trippy, satirical, worldly, sometimes poignant, very Japanese group effort of a kaiju pic. I had a great time.
Haus Verdict: Shin Godzilla is a stunning Japanese masterclass in what-the-actual-f*&% and a unique filmgoing experience. See it while you can.
Shin Godzilla is a limited engagement, playing in the U.S. only until October 19.
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