Godzilla Resurgence / Shin Godzilla / Shin Gojira* (2016) ***½
You might expect the Japanese, of all peoples in the developed world, to be leery of nuclear power. In fact, though, Japan was an enthusiastic adopter of the technology, so that by the beginning of the 21st century, the country derived some 25% of its electricity from nuclear sources, and had initiatives in the works to raise that to 40% over the next decade or two. (To put that into perspective, the corresponding figure for the United States is just under 20%. France is the outlier at the top of the range, with a power grid that’s more than 75% nuclear.) That’s because nuclear power in a lot of ways is ideal for a country in Japan’s position, committed to First World lifestyles despite relative poverty of natural resources. There are still disadvantages, of course, not the least of which is that serious accidents or malfunctions at nuclear plants are apt to skip over mere “disaster” status, and head straight to “catastrophe.” Furthermore, Japan sits atop some of the world’s most volatile real estate, frequently beset by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, and tidal waves (to say nothing of the landslides, fires, and disease outbreaks that so often piggyback onto those things). Granted, the Japanese have for that very reason become extremely skilled at building things to withstand Mother Nature’s bitchiest moods. That skill didn’t help, however, on March 11, 2011, when a magnitude-9.0 earthquake rocked the ocean floor some 45 miles east of the Oshiku Peninsula. It was the most powerful recorded quake ever to hit Japan, and it was followed by hundreds of aftershocks— a fair many of which surpassed 7 on the Moment Magnitude Scale themselves. The quake inevitably caused a tsunami of similarly extraordinary strength, and all of that seismic firepower came to bear on the Fukushima I nuclear power plant. It’s hard to imagine mere humans creating anything capable of standing up to that.
The plant’s safety measures actually performed quite well at first. Three of the six reactors were already shut down for refueling when the quake hit, and the other three shut down automatically when the ground began to shake, just as they were supposed to. The same went for the auxiliary diesel machinery that took over running the coolant pumps when the reactor itself stopped generating electricity. But then the tsunami arrived. With a wavefront as high as 50 feet, it easily overtopped the plant’s sea wall to inundate the entire facility. The diesels for the coolant pumps, located in the basements of the reactor buildings, flooded out and died almost immediately. Emergency backup pumps kicked in at that point, but their batteries would last for only eight hours of continuous use. Meanwhile, flooding throughout the rest of Fukushima made it almost impossible to get replacement parts or outside repair crews to the stricken reactors. All three almost inevitably suffered core meltdowns, followed by titanic explosions as hydrogen released by the interaction of seawater with molten zirconium from the fuel rods filled the upper reaches of the reactor housings. All in all, it was the worst nuclear power plant failure since Chernobyl, and the only one to date to approach Chernobyl in severity.
An important difference between Chernobyl and Fukushima, however, was the pace at which the latter tragedy unfolded. There were 50 minutes between the undersea quake and the breaking of the tidal wave over the power plant’s sea wall. Onsite repair crews were able to maintain emergency power to the coolant pumps for some 24 hours before they ran out of batteries to hook up. Even then, only one of the reactor buildings blew up that day; Unit 3 followed only on the 14th of March, and Unit 4 on the 15th. And finally there were months’ worth of worries about releases of radioactive water or steam as repair crews labored to stabilize the damaged reactors, along with the even more disturbing possibility of renewed fission within the melted fuel rods. So instead of a sudden, panic-inducing shock, the Fukushima meltdown functioned more like a slowly rolling juggernaut of woe, affording overconfident authorities repeated opportunities to tell the public, “Settle down— we’ve got this,” before circumstances made fools of them again and again. The firms that built and operated the power plant, the nuclear power industry in general, and all levels of the Japanese government emerged from the affair looking hapless and irresponsible, and they looked even worse when the committee empanelled to study the cause of the disaster released its findings.
What has any of that to do with Godzilla: Resurgence? Well, remember what I said in my review of the Legendary Pictures Godzilla two years ago: each generation gets the monsters it needs, embodying its own unique complex of fears and insecurities. Just as Godzilla: King of the Monsters encoded the trauma of World War II, the existential horror of the Cold War, the humiliation of postwar American military occupation, and the impotent outrage of the Fukuryu Maru incident, Godzilla: Resurgence is as much a fable of the Fukushima disaster and a musing on what it exposed to the Japanese people about their institutions and society as it is a monster movie. Borrow as it might from a variety of familiar sources, it is totally unlike any previous kaiju eiga of my acquaintance.
The first radical departure from tradition concerns Godzilla: Resurgence’s place in the franchise. Whatever else they kept or discarded from prior continuity, every other Toho Godzilla movie since 1955 has positioned itself as some manner of sequel to the original. Not so with this one. Godzilla: Resurgence assumes a world without kaiju, in which nothing like the titular creature has ever been seen before. And its creators take advantage of the freedom implicit in that premise to reinvent Godzilla more completely than even Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich dared to try. It all begins when a coast guard patrol goes to investigate reports of a cabin cruiser adrift in Tokyo Bay. There is indeed no one to be found when the officers board the vessel, and the personal effects they discover below decks suggest a suicide by drowning. But before the men can even begin to ponder that, the water around them erupts into a vast plume of steam. At the same time, commuter tunnels beneath the floor of the bay spring massive leaks, and strange ground tremors shake the man-made island supporting Haneda Airport. The exact circumstances don’t quite fit any of the usual profiles for earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or even the opening of new geothermal vents, but they’re close enough to all of the above to initiate the routine safety contingencies associated with them: the closing and evacuation of tunnels and airports, mobilization of first-responders, and so forth. There’s one troubling detail that seems to go unnoticed in all the orderly preparations for disaster management, however. That water pouring into the tunnel from the hole in the ceiling? It’s tinted red, as if it were saturated with blood or blooming algae.
One person among the authorities is paying attention to such things, but Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa, from Attack on Titan and Why Don’t You Play in Hell?) is so far down on the cabinet totem pole that not even his mentor, Hideki Akasaka (Yutaka Takanouchi), is much inclined to listen to him. Of course, we know that Yaguchi has the right of it when he tries to focus the attention of Prime Minister Seiji Okochi (Ren Ohsugi, of Loft and Crazy Lips) and the rest of the senior officials on reports springing up all over social media of some kind of huge creature out in the bay near the site of the disturbances. I mean, this is a Godzilla movie, isn’t it? Yaguchi is right in the middle of being shouted down as a fool by his elders when the prime minister notices the breaking news on the television screen in the conference room; that sure does look like the tail of some weird marine animal looping up above the water’s surface! Okay, but what the hell is it? Is it dangerous? And what should the government do about it if it is? Kill it? Capture it? Chase it away? Also, what should the cabinet tell the public? While the ministers dither over those questions, holding meeting after fruitless meeting and generally staying one step behind the situation at every turn, the mysterious beast wades ashore and wrecks an entire district before retreating back into the sea.
About the one good decision Okochi and his staff make during the monster’s first visit is to organize a special task force outside the official hierarchy to study the problem and to devise ways to respond should the creature decide to come back. That was Yaguchi’s idea, of course. Meanwhile, Yaguchi finds himself much closer to the center of the action than his rank would normally permit. That’s because Kayako Anne Patterson (Satomi Ishihara, from Sadako and Zatoichi: The Last), a young agent from the American embassy, asks for him specifically to be her liaison to the Japanese government. The Americans, you see, have known about the creature for a while now, and what they’ve learned about it is so alarming that they don’t trust the ossified Tokyo bureaucracy to handle the situation. Patterson’s superiors want her to coordinate as directly as possible with Yaguchi’s nerd corps, and they’ve authorized her to share everything the US intelligence community has on the thing in the bay— which they’ve codenamed GODZILLA. (The name is supposed to have come from the sea god worshipped by the inhabitants of the island where the monster was first observed.) “Everything” includes a dossier on Goro Maki, a disgraced Japanese zoologist whose studies of radiation-induced mutation led him to conclude that the emergence of unprecedented monsters like Godzilla was inevitable in the long run. Maki dropped out of sight a few years ago, but it just so happens that the boat those coast guard guys were boarding in the opening scene was his. A close examination of the papers found onboard reveals what almost has to be a detailed account of Godzilla’s physiology, but it’s all in some kind of elaborate code. The nerd corps won’t have much time to disentangle the encrypted data, either, because Godzilla is on its way back to land— and it’s grown significantly in both size and power since the last time it was seen by human eyes.
The most striking thing about Godzilla: Resurgence is that apart from Yaguchi, Patterson, and maybe the prime minister, it doesn’t really have characters as we’re used to thinking of them. The named participants in the story are numerous beyond any hope of keeping them all straight, and even when some sense of their individual personalities does manage to slip through the constant bustle of meetings, consultations, and panicked evacuations, it doesn’t have much effect on anything in and of itself. The only interpersonal drama to be found concerns the young folks’ struggle to gain the attention, support, and non-interference of their higher-ranking elders, who prove incapable from the start of acting quickly or decisively enough to respond to the crisis posed by Godzilla. In place of a few well-differentiated individuals in conflict, what we have here is a largely depersonalized army of professional problem-solvers acting (whether competently or not) in concert to manage an external threat. It looks very strange through Western eyes, trained to expect loner heroes bucking the system to bring to bear talents that only they possess— especially since that’s nominally exactly what’s happening! On close examination, though, it becomes apparent that Godzilla: Resurgence is offering a bird’s-eye view of countless concurrent “lone maverick” stories. Rando Yaguchi’s is the easiest to extract, but we’d be equally justified in focusing on Kayako Patterson, the tough-as-nails female director of nature conservation (Rampo Noir’s Mikako Ichikawa), or any of the talented weirdos in Yaguchi’s nerd corps. (My favorite among the latter is the girl genius whose eyes never leave her laptop screen even as she announces one literally unbelievable insight into Godzilla’s inner workings after another.) There’s unmistakably a critique of Japanese institutional culture in here somewhere— and possibly a countervailing critique of Western-style hero-worship as well— but I don’t feel quite qualified to try teasing it out beyond a general recognition that writer/director Hideaki Anno thinks Japan would do well not to give so much deference to age and formal rank.
The movie’s parallels to the Fukushima disaster are much easier for outsiders to spot and to process; they also go a long way toward explaining why Godzilla is so weird this time around. The monster has to carry a whole new subtext, after all, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the text had to change to match. The first time we see it (and this Godzilla is very much an it rather than a he), the creature is recognizable only by its several parallel rows of leaf-shaped dorsal spines. Otherwise, it resembles a cross between a tadpole, a frilled shark, and Red Fraggle. The new Godzilla is also weak and uncoordinated at first, and if we may judge from the gouts of toxic blood pouring from its gills, just flopping its way through Tokyo is doing it serious injury. The flight of attack helicopters scrambled to intercept Godzilla might even have been able to kill it at that stage, had they not been ordered to stand down at the last minute for fear of civilian casualties. But as those chopper pilots are the first to witness, this Godzilla evolves when threatened, and its final form is closer to what we’re used to. (Mind you, even it is a pretty strange interpretation of the classic look. My friend and colleague, Brother Ragnarok— whom some of you may know as the proprietor of Cinemasochist Apocalypse or as a guest host on Attack of the Killer Podcast— said the new Godzilla looks like it’s made of cancer and teeth, and there’s no way I’m topping that description.) Even that ultimate evolution doesn’t act like the Godzilla we know, either. For all the talk of Godzilla being some manner of newly emergent god (in the Shinto sense of the word), there is nothing in the monster’s behavior to suggest a mystical connection to the Earth or an embodiment of human malevolence or even just a karmic punishment for technological hubris. The Godzilla of Godzilla: Resurgence exhibits no more intelligence than a jellyfish, and considerably less purpose. It reacts to pain (holy shit, does it ever react to pain!) and it possesses a narrow repertoire of self-preservation behaviors, but I see no indication of anything like a mind at work. Hell, in some ways the new Godzilla doesn’t even act like a living thing. Witness the extended period of total inactivity into which it falls after using up its energy incinerating downtown Tokyo, in response to a bombing attack by the US Air Force. But all those revisions make possible a story whose contours roughly match those of the Fukushima meltdown, as Godzilla plods slowly along, destroying things seemingly at random and out of sheer clumsiness, while well-meaning but unprepared authorities make matters steadily worse with their bungling and inaction.
Technically speaking, Godzilla: Resurgence is an extraordinary achievement, especially considering that it cost something between one tenth and one seventh of what Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers spent to make their Godzilla. In this context, you should consider it a compliment when I say that Toho managed to make a combination of puppetry, animatronics, and motion-capture CGI look like the best man in a rubber suit ever. The destruction of downtown Tokyo is the most breathtaking scene of its kind that I’ve seen yet, revealing a Godzilla that isn’t merely powerful, but apocalyptically powerful. Similarly impressive, although less garishly so, is the Japanese military’s mobilization against the monster’ second foray ashore. Virtually every kaiju movie I’m aware of has gone through some version of this routine, but here at last we see it as it was always meant to be.
Really, there’s just one point on which I’m forced to take serious issue with Godzilla: Resurgence— and it isn’t the slow pace or the relatively low quotient of monster content that so many longtime American fans have been bitching about. No, my gripe is with Satomi Ishihara’s Kayako Patterson, and with the English-language dialogue that breaks out like a plague of audible boils whenever she appears onscreen for more than 30 seconds. Patterson is a ludicrous caricature of American manners, and Ishihara speaks English like a white performer in a 1930’s Poverty Row Yellow Peril serial attempting to sound Oriental. (Who knew that accent was a real thing?!) Furthermore, her English-language lines are English only by a very loose and generous definition; the individual words are English, but the sentences they form are utter nonsense. To be fair, this is not entirely Ishihara’s fault. She didn’t write this crap, after all, and apparently no one told her until the last minute that she would be expected to demonstrate her character’s bilinguality. (Also, for whatever this is worth, the poor gaijin bastard who plays the President of the United States in one scene has it even worse. I can’t imagine what he must have thought while reading over his script pages for the first time.) Still, it’s impossible to believe that this girl is either an American or a native English-speaker, and the size of Ishihara’s role is such that that’s a real problem. Most of Godzilla: Resurgence’s Japanese viewers probably never noticed at all, but this is one case in which a respectful and competent dub would have been clearly superior to subtitles for Anglophone consumption.
*It’s worth looking closely at this movie’s Japanese title, which exploits the ambiguities of the language in a way impossible to duplicate in English. Japanese is wild about homophones, even more than our tongue, and there are at least 28 distinct ideas that can be expressed by the syllable “shin.” Normally, each different shin would be written with its own unique kanji ideogram, so that the reader knows at once which meaning is intended. (Although that creates an ambiguity of its own, since most kanji have at least two completely unrelated pronunciations, one a native Japanese word and the other derived from the Chinese reading of the equivalent character. For example, the “dai” in daikaiju and the “o” in Osaka are written with the same kanji.) Here, however, Toho has spelled out shin using the katakana syllabary, so that both “New Godzilla” and “God Godzilla” remain equally valid interpretations, along with amusing yet strangely defensible possibilities like “Sleeping Godzilla,” “Earthquake Godzilla,” and “Pregnant Godzilla.” Shin can also mean “true,” so my preferred reading of Shin Gojira is “Suck It, Hollywood.”