Toho Co. has a serious hit on its hands with "Shin Gojira ("Godzilla Resurgence"), which opened in Japan on July 29. I went to a morning showing one recent weekend, and the theater was packed. Judging by their age, many in the audience may have seen the iconic monster's 1954 debut.
The 2016 film is Godzilla's 29th made-in-Japan feature (there have been two Hollywood Godzilla movies), and the first in the past 12 years. The "Shin" of the Japanese title is written not in meaning-laden kanji characters, but in phonetic katakana characters, so it could be read as any of "new," "real," or even "god."
I think the new movie takes the series back to the 1954 original. This is not the Godzilla of the later films, battling other kaiju with the fate of the Earth in the balance. No, this Godzilla is in the pattern of the monster's debut turn -- a creature born of the deep anxieties of the era. It seethes with eerie menace, dire foreboding its animus.
Godzilla rises from Tokyo Bay and sets upon the capital. The prime minister's office gathers officials from across Japan's ministries and agencies in a series of emergency meetings, but the government lurches from one ineffectual response to the next, blaming "unforeseen circumstances" at every turn for its confusion. When young officials try to raise objections to the decisions being made by the old guard, they are cut off mid-sentence with warnings of consequences for their careers.
Interminable meetings, bureaucrats' reports read in somnolent monotones, an emergency that just seems to go on and on and on; echoes of real-life Japan circa spring 2011, when the government descended into chaos in the face of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The catch copy for "Shin Gojira" is "reality vs. fiction." That is, we can see the reality of Japan by looking in the mirror held up to us by the fictional Godzilla.
However, the film is not only a caricature of Japan's political elite in crisis. It is also a realistic portrayal of legions of nameless civil servants and Self-Defense Forces officers giving their utmost to their jobs.
The first Godzilla film grew out of the terrors of the nuclear age, stirred by the 1954 Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident in which the crew of the Japanese fishing boat was irradiated by a United States hydrogen bomb test. In that movie, Godzilla was a "nuclear monster" created by an atomic weapon test, and it burned the heart out of a newly rebuilt and bustling central Tokyo that had appeared to have forgotten the all-to-recent destruction of World War II.
In "Godzilla Resurgence," the monster is born of energy released by nuclear waste secretly disposed of by a number of countries -- a theme for the present day to be sure. Godzilla is terrifically powerful, easily ripping through Tokyo's skyscraper forests. What's more, the kaiju evolves, growing to unimaginable size -- yet another metaphorical echo of our own world.
The U.S. mobilizes the United Nations to help Japan, and also announces it will conduct a nuclear strike on the monster. Some people object, saying Tokyo will "become a difficult to return zone" -- the real-life government term for the most contaminated areas of Fukushima Prefecture. The prime minster turns these pleas aside, saying the Japanese government has obtained commitments from the international community to assist with disaster zone recovery after the nuclear attack. And then... Well, you will have to go see the movie.
Incidentally, in the 16th Godzilla movie, released in 1984, the U.S. and the Soviet Union also ask the Japanese prime minister for permission to use nuclear weapons on the monster. However, in that film, the prime minister cites Japan's three antinuclear principles and rejects the request, saying, "Could you use nuclear weapons if Godzilla was in your country?"
The prime minister in the 2016 version doesn't take this route, but does do something pretty unexpected.
The film's cast is enormous. It is an ensemble drama that gives shape and voice to the bottomless anxiety and danger represented by Godzilla. There is little about it that feels fabricated. That is down to the fact that, just like the very first "Godzilla," though you may be able to see the creature as fiction, you cannot completely sever its links to our own troubled times. (By Kenji Tamaki, Expert Senior Writer)