Saturday, October 15, 2016

Tokusatsu On the Big Screen: “Shin Godzilla”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 15 October 2016
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese with some English and German dialogue with English Subtitles
Length: 120 minutes
Production Date: 2016
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

It’s an utterly rare event that a Japanese live action special effects (tokusatsu) film is screened in cinemas. But you could say it’s becoming a more regular occurrence with a number of manga to live action adaptions having one off special screenings in the last year or so such as “Paraysite” and the two part “Attack on Titan” films. Interestingly Madman has decided to have a limited theatrical release for this film over a week or two. It’s quite significant as I don’t think there has been a proper theatrical release of any Japanese film (Studio Ghibli and Mamoru Hosoda films being the only exceptions) for nearly five years. It’s a pretty sad statement on modern Japanese cinema.

When I do write ups of cinema screenings, I usually talk about the overall experience. This time there really isn’t much to talk about. I had some difficulty trying to get a ticket online (Dendy somehow cocked up the online ticketing for the film which meant I couldn't order a ticket for any session and had to ask them to fix it), but it was a lovely clear sunny Canberra October Saturday. About 20 people showed up to watch the film. No otakuish types at all. There was nothing of real note to report. So it’s time to talk about the film.

Local police investigate an abandoned cruiser out in Tokyo Bay. Belonging to disgraced zoology professor Goro Maki, a number of curious personal items are left on board, but no clues to his whereabouts. Suddenly the boat rocks violently as a large explosion not far away send jets of water hundreds of meters into the air. A strange blood-like substance pools around the area. Part of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line roadway collapses and floods apparently due to the explosion. The government begins emergence action and decides how to deal with the crisis. All flights are halted to and from Haneda airport and people are evacuated from the collapsed tunnel and the surrounding area. The high ups declare that the phenomena in the bay is due to undersea volcanic activity, however Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (played by Hiroki Hasegawa) alerts everyone to amateur footage found on social media sites which seems to show a giant tail flicking out of the ocean. He concludes that a large creature is the cause. However the older bureaucrats mock his theory and announce publicly that the cause is underwater volcanic activity. Their reasoning being that no creature could withstand the boiling water seeping to the surface.

But the government press conference is halted when TV stations start broadcasting live footage of a large creature making its way through Tokyo’s canal system, which eventually causes significant destruction and havoc once it makes landfall. The strange creature seemingly lumbers through Tokyo without rhyme or reason demolishing residential blocks, causing fires in its wake and killing more than a hundred people. Meanwhile government bureaucrats bicker over who should take control of the situation and under what part of legislation could they deploy the self-defence force. Strangely the creature soon returns to the bay. As if it was never there, life in Tokyo soon returns to normal. Inspecting the damage with government officials, Yaguchi laments that in the two hours the creature caused this damage, the government could not figure out a course of action to stop it.

After dealing with a small band of professors and experts that provide no real help in determining what the creature is or how to stop it, Yaguchi is tasked with building a research and countermeasures group. His choices are unconventional with mostly young staff with little experience; however the group soon collectively discover that the creature is emitting radiation. One junior staffer from the Environmental Department, Hiromi Ogashira (Mikako Ichikawa), theorises that the creature could be powered by a natural nuclear fission reactor in its body. Though initially dismissed, the theory later seems more plausible when further information arrives. This is in the form of material brought in by US special envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara). She reveals that Goro Maki had prophesied that such a creature would appear after hundreds of barrels of radioactive waste had been secretly dumped into the bay many decades ago. Maki had left a very strange document which apparently shows the DNA structure of the creature. However none of the staff can make head or tale of it. Patterson does a deal with the Japanese government to provide Maki’s research in exchange for samples the creature left behind. Maki’s documents also give a name to the creature; Godzilla.

Yaguchi’s team theorise that Godzilla went back to the ocean in order to cool down as it is in its next stage of growth. They discover it uses its blood and fins as a cooling system for its internal fission reactor. They suspect that they could freeze Godzilla using a coagulating agent and kill it or at least stop it in its tracks. But before they can come with a workable plan, Godzilla returns in its next stage. Twice as large as before, it lays waste to three of Tokyo’s wards. The self-defence force proves ineffectual. And though the US military via its use of stealth bombers seems to making headway, Godzilla soon wipes them out and causes a major disaster within Tokyo. With the government and the capital in taters, the UN, with a push from the US, decides to use nuclear weapons on Godzilla. However Yaguchi is determined that his team can stop the monster before they strike.

Only two years after’s Gareth Edward’s rather good Hollywood version, surprisingly Toho decided to yet again resurrect the Godzilla franchise. Of all dates to do so, on 1 April 2015 they announced Evangelion director Hideaki Anno would be helming the project with Shinji Higuchi (“Attack on Titan”) who would co-directing and be special effects director. While some fans were concerned, Anno and Higuchi are certainly no strangers to tokusatsu. Daicon Film, while mostly known for their two short animated pieces for the Daicon conventions in the early 1980’s, made mostly tokusatsu shorts. Higuchi would later work on the 1984 “Godzilla” and was the special effects director for the 1990’s “Gamera” trilogy, considered by many as the pinnacle of daikaiju tokusatsu film making. We all know Anno is a tokusatsu tragic, but also directed the short film “Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo”, a 9 minute short which was screened with “Evangelion 3.0” in 2012. A lot of the shots in that film do feel similar to those in “Shin Godzilla”. Perhaps that film was a demonstration for Toho as some have theorised.

While a lot of reviews bizarrely consider this film to be deeply nationalistic, anti-American and pro-military, I think those comments are almost totally off the mark and totally misunderstand the film makers. First up, Anno is an otaku, through and through. He’s not really pro war, but he certainly does love military machinery. You can see that quite clearly in the film's battle sequences. They lovingly show off the machines in question (complete with on screen text giving the full names of the battle machines in question), especially the tanks. But in the end the military are completely ineffective against Godzilla (perhaps more of an abysmal failure), pretty much the same as most other Japanese giant monster films. The nationalism claim doesn’t hold much water either, especially when you compare this film to mainstream Hollywood features. There is some anti-American sentiment, however it isn’t really pronounced except for a couple of sequences.

There are some really interesting themes in the film. The major theme is the battle of the old guard and the young who feel they aren’t being listened to. This is most apparent in the way the older government staff treat their younger counterparts. The Japanese government bureaucracy is really given a belting and is portrayed as bunch of public servants who can’t take decisive action in times of crisis. This of course is an obvious criticism to the government response to the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and earthquake and the scenes of the initial destruction are an allusion to the disaster itself. Some reviewers have claimed that this film is a satire on the bureaucracy; however in the end Yaguchi’s team wins the battle, so I think its false claim. The most interesting part of the film though is that while the old guard and the military fail in defeating Godzilla, Yaguchi’s rag tag group of otaku, misfits and other assorted people society reject, actually triumphs in the end.

While it is very dialogue heavy and is mostly shot of groups of people around tables and in conference rooms, it really held my attention for the two hour run time. It is literally about the government trying to deal with a situation beyond their comprehension and trying to solve that problem. Somehow it just works as a film. There are three major sequences that involve Godzilla and all three are quite spectacular. It would seem that Godzilla was purely CG in the film. I don’t think there are any suits or models in the film at all. I think it was pretty ballsy for Anno and Higuchi to show a juvenile Godzilla. It does look a little weird (like a salamander), but the idea and the effects seem to work well. The reveal in the second major Godzilla sequence was quite stunning. The actual physical look of Godzilla here is reminiscent of “Godzilla Vs Destroyah”. The new powers may be a little over the top, but I enjoyed it immensely. The climax was a little too much considering the rather realistic portrayal of what had come before.

The acting is pretty good and cast don’t ham it up (thank god). Satomi Ishihara's English is decent, but poor for an American born woman, which she was portraying. A couple of her English lines really need subtitles and were almost unintelligible. At time the film does really feel like an Evangelion film with Anno’s use of onscreen text and even variations of the music track "Decisive Battle" from Evangelion being used in the film (during sequences involving Yaguchi’s team, adding to weight of the theory Anno is championing otaku in the film). A couple of Akira Ifukube’s pieces from the original Godzilla films also make an appearance. Anno also adds in a few other references such as the old Toho titles and having the opening title reference the original 1954 Godzilla film title. This film can certainly stand on its own two feet and I didn’t think this blatant nostalgia was needed. You could also probably say that the film feels very much like an Evangelion film or TV episode to a degree with Godzilla in place of an Angel (and with no actual Evangelion to fight the creature either). Apart from the use of "Decisive Battle", note that Mikako Ichikawa's uniform bear some resemblance the colour scheme of the NERV members uniforms. I also felt this film at times had the same feeling of dread as the Evangelion films had.

The cinematography is quite good (some really interesting POV shots keeping in with our social media saturated world), however there were some rather strange shots and far too many close ups. I also thought that some sequences could have been trimmed (Ishihara’s English quips were grating after a while). The other major problem I had was that final battle. Parts of it were a little too absurd to take seriously. It’s a bit of shame as the film is relatively believable and realistic (or suspension of disbelief was easy) for the most part. It's also interesting to point out that this film was made for less than a tenth of the cost of Gareth Edward's 2014 film. In my opinion it's a far more engaging and interesting film than Edward's. I also think this film easily outshines all of the millennium series Godzilla films. Finally I must say Funimation’s trailer (I’m assuming Madman used that one) for the film is utter shit. The Japanese trailers are far better. Overall, it’s pretty good film. I’m going to give it a solid 8 out of 10.

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