[Review] Shin Godzilla is not what you think it is

You’ve probably seen posters of this epic monster around town, flaunting its beady yet slightly comical eyes, giving you a hint of this darkly comic satire. Shin Godzilla finally hits Singapore after its huge box office success in its home country months earlier.

If you’re looking to watch an action movie about a monster destroying Tokyo with laser rays and mere mortal heroes saving the day, then you should save your money for another movie. While Shin Godzilla does deal with the giant lizard that evolved from nuclear waste, the focus of the movie is Japan itself – particularly the people who run it.

The movie begins with the unknown threat that is Godzilla, which wreaks havoc along its path from Tokyo Bay to the city of Tokyo. This spurs the PM’s office into a hive of activity, which results in a coordinated attack on Godzilla – first by the Japan Self-Defence Forces, and subsequently by the US Army. The last attack reveals Godzilla’s thermonuclear ability, as it destroys the city with – you guessed it – laser beams!

As a last ditch effort to contain the monster, the US decides to nuke the creature before it evolves further. In order to prevent the next Hiroshima/Nagasaki, it’s up to the young cabinet members (because the PM and his senior advisors are clueless) to figure out a solution.

But enough of the plot – it’s not what makes this film so watchable. Let’s break down why it is:

You’ve never seen action like this

Seriously, the main “action” comes from… meetings. Yup, a bunch of people gather around tables to talk about stuff. There are even meetings to assess the need for more… meetings.

As such, more than half the movie takes place in boardrooms and meeting rooms,  comically depicting how ridiculous the process of getting something done is. There’s a lot of sitting around – but ‘bored rooms’ they are not.

Viewers may already be familiar with thrillers that focus on the people behind making decisions in the army (think Eye in the Sky), and this movie runs along similar lines by exposing the Japanese need for order and hierarchy.

Godzilla is a metaphor for impending doom

Big budget CGI it is not, and at times Godzilla looks like a plastic toy placed in the middle of a model town – it doesn’t move much. Or at all, in some scenes. This takes us way back to Toho’s Godzilla of the 1950s. But unlike a fast-running T-Rex in Jurassic Park, Godzilla’s lumbering pace reminds us that not every danger comes in high speed – this seems to be the movie’s analogy for the slow demise of Japan itself, hinged on the slow pace of decision-making that the Japanese hierarchy has bred.

I see what you did there with Fukushima

The Fukushima incident is probably something that the Japanese are not keen to experience again, especially on the world stage. So what better way to comment on the Fukushima incident than having Japan face its own demons in the form of a walking nuclear reactor that is Godzilla.

There are so many parallels between the way Japan reacted to the Fukushima disaster (and the Tohoku tsunami) and the way the movie did with Godzilla: the lack of preparedness for a disaster and the slow response exacerbated the aftereffects.

It is a political commentary on Japan

As a whole, Shin Godzilla exposes the cracks in Japan’s age-old hierarchical system which prizes years of service (ie. older folks) and connections over those more capable at the job. Case in point; when the US sends a special envoy to the Japanese in the form of Kayoko Patterson, the older men bemuse her young age and dismiss it as ‘a Western thing’. And when an Acting PM needed to be elected on the spot, they put their longest-serving minister on the hot seat – he was previously in charge of agriculture.

Even a simple order to evacuate civilians has to go through at least a hundred people like some retarded form of Chinese whispers. Thank the old guards with their overly complex and corpulent bureaucratic ways.

Alas, it is also how Japan is IRL. There are rules to follow, and everyone has to conform. In Japanese society, it doesn’t pay to think different, reflecting the Japanese proverb “A nail that sticks out will be hammered down.”

The movie also exposes Japan’s thoughts on the US being its ‘big brother’ – as the young Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yaguchi, puts it: “is post-war forever?”, referring to the reason for Japan’s absence of a proper military and its political status.

It’s a new hope

The movie pretty much follows the POV of the younger generation of parliamentarians, nerds, and scientists who basically echo the sentiments of a younger Japan: in order to save the country, drastic change is needed, first with a total overhaul of the old system. In the words of the Prime Minister’s Aide in the movie, they’ll have to “scrap and build”.

Shin Godzilla is more than just a fight between man and beast – it’s about fighting a corrupt old system. However, between the retro CGI effects, the movie’s propensity for meetings, and the rather cringeworthy Japlish, the satire that is Shin Godzilla borders on comedy. The ending is as strange as it sounds – Godzilla gets proverbially brainfreezed with Slurpees coagulants. Which pretty much sums up the entire experience.