Like many children, when I was in single digits, I loved Godzilla's rampages through Tokyo as an expression of how he couldn't be restrained by the polite dictates of genteel society, a sort of vicarious celebration of freedom from adult constraints. Of course, I didn't comprehend his true meaning as a living symbol of the dawning nuclear age until much later. Nevertheless, I hadn't planned on going to the limited release of Toho Studio's first Godzilla film in 12 years, because I just couldn't see what else they could do with him after 60 years and 20-something movies, and my children, now older, have little interest in him.
I was wrong. Not only is Shin Godzilla — known in Japan as Shin Gojira — a completely fresh reboot of the material which presumes that none of the events of other films ever happened, and not only does it significantly alter the mythology and the context behind it, but simply in terms of its staging, editing, and yes, acting, this is the best and possibly most important Godzilla film ever made.
There. I said it. And not without some personal angst and regret. I loved those cornball old movies. Even decades after movies like the schlocky King Kong vs. Godzilla were made, they were safe for my kids to watch.
Shin Godzilla isn't safe. It's not for kids. Not only is it the most horrific incarnation of the legendary monster, his rampage across Tokyo isn't necessarily the focus of the film. The emphasis, through the eyes of civic leader Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), is how to scramble Japan's emergency forces to deal with the threat, how to confront the political obstacles of evacuating 8 million people, whether or not to commit Japan's own Defense Force or to call on America for help, how to deal with a catastrophe which will almost surely bankrupt Japan. It's a mature look at a fantastic situation and what it would really mean for a nation beyond the special effects of city-stomping.
And, of course, what it's really about is Fukushima.
That's the most significant difference between Shin Godzilla and its cinematic predecessors, which were mythical examinations of America's atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the H-bomb testing that went on throughout the ensuing decades. For the first time, the Godzilla myth moves beyond the ravages of war — and imagining the U.S. itself as a latter-day incarnation of a fire-breathing dragon, rampaging through Japan with no concern for its culture or traditions — and concentrates on the dangers of civil nuclear power. This Godzilla was not born of the martial concerns of the H-bomb, but from civil nuclear wastes, the byproduct of commerce. And he's not a mutated dinosaur. He's something completely different, terrifying and nightmarish in a way he's never been before, at least not since his first film in 1954. His first appearance as he slithers through a river and the narrow streets of a Tokyo suburb is just ... wrong. Unnerving. Hideous.
Co-directors Hideaki Anno (Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan) not only stage the action and effects better than they ever have been, but their blocking and editing of the frantic interaction of Yaguchi with his political superiors is so fast, so daring and yes, in the end, so amusing that the "talky" sequences I dreaded as a child become the riveting centerpiece of the film. Godzilla's appearance forces Japanese society to re-evaluate how it enters the 21st century, how it will respond — and how fast it can respond — to threats like China, North Korea, Russia, another inevitable Fukushima and its relationship to the U.S., which makes some Japanese feel like feudal serfs on their own land. How long, the film wonders, will the U.S. dominate modern Japan for the sins of men who died long ago?
There's pretty darned heady stuff here for a movie about a dragon trampling buildings, stuff that's never been dared before, and Hasegawa delivers the best performance in any Godzilla film — however, I'd urge you to make sure you see his performance in his original subtitled language, not any dubbed version which they've threatened to release. If I have any complaint, it's that the movie, honestly, could use about five more minutes of mayhem and destruction — that's all, just five more. Otherwise — and I'm really not kidding — Shin Godzilla is one of the best films of 2016, a claim which, no matter how much I loved Godzilla, neither I nor anyone else could have made about any of Toho's previous entries in their long-running series.