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I stopped watching Shin Godzilla

3.27.2022

Another powerful earthquake struck the Fukushima area on March 16, 2022, five days after the eleventh anniversary of the nuclear meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 (known as Japan 3/11). I was reminded that “Shin Godzilla” is still standing over Tokyo Station thawing out. Since the release of Shin Godzilla (July 29, 2016), five years after 3/11, the two have become synonymous for me.

I was motivated to write because recently, a fellow fan said to me, “I just couldn’t get it.” And that makes perfect sense to me because Shin Godzilla is not the typical Godzilla movie. It makes perfect sense if the moviegoer does not know and cannot see the relationship between Shin Godzilla and the events of 3/11. The film is unlike the fan-favorites of the Showa and Millennium eras and of the Legendary Monsterverse. Shin Godzilla stands head and shoulders above them because it is the closest and most connected to the story, origin and identity of the tragic beast in the original film Godzilla (1954).

Of all 32 films Shin Godzilla is most faithful to the meaning and significance of Shodai Godzilla but repurposed for the contemporary crisis facing Japan. And like the first film, I now found myself unable to watch it regularly as I do with the other films which I grew up watching over and over again. Like Godzilla, Shin Godzilla cannot and should not ever be divorced from its historical context. Every scene prods the moviegoer to recollect their memories of 3/11. Like the original Shin Godzilla become an instant classic because it was immediately relevant to its Japanese audience. Godzilla was used to embody their fears and concerns, yet the film offered hope and a way forward through purposeful, responsible and informed government.

Steeped in the tragedy, pain and memories of 3/11, Shin Godzilla has become a metaphor and representation of that day. It has come to embody my memories of that day. I don’t watch the film to be entertained. So I don’t think of Shin Godzilla as entertainment. The film repeated that dreadful drumbeat of death marching toward us on that day. Shin Godzilla was impersonal evolving in front of our eyes as the hours went by. He threatens to sweep away everything in its path using its many forms such as an earthquake, tsunami or radiation. This is not entertaining. The seriousness tone of the film is set in its opening moments which follow the suicide of man in despair because his warning of impending doom had fallen on deaf ears. Shin Godzilla tells us to pay attention to our victims, scapegoats and neglected because their pain will be our pain in the near future if we are not careful.

Shin Godzilla is not entertainment. It is a serious film and deserves to be approached, seen and understood as such. The film is a retelling of a shared experience of those living in Japan on 3/11 through Godzilla. To watch Shin Godzilla for entertainment is not the way to watch this serious addition to the Godzilla movie series. Going to the movies is supposed to be an entertaining experience and an escape from reality. And this is true most often but it is not the rule. Although creation of Godzilla was inspired by King Kong (1933) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Godzilla (1954) was born out of tragedy from the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki nine years earlier in 1945 and the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb tests in March of 1954, nine months before its release. Japanese moviegoers, worried about eating fish contaminated by radiation, were not entertained and did not escape when they saw Godzilla spew radiation across Tokyo. They were uncomfortable as their worst fears conjured and reimagined in Godzilla on the big screen.

I believe Shin Godzilla is also a drama. The twenty-ninth Godzilla film is certainly a horror and monster film. A horror film seeks “to elicit fear or disgust in the audience for entertainment purposes” and a monster movie “uses a deformed or supernatural creature or set of creatures, to introduce elements of horror.” But Shin Godzilla is easily at home as a drama that focuses “on emotions and defined by conflict, often looking to reality rather than sensationalism.”1

Some have described the film as a political satire to the point of eclipsing its rootedness in 3/11. I vigorously push back on that. A political satire “specializes in gaining entertainment from politics.”2 and that plays out in front of the camera parodying the fumbling and failure of the Japanese government officials mishandling of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. But Shin Godzilla is representing a national crisis and how the country responded and should respond going forward. Since the 1995 the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (Kobe earthquake), the government had taken measures to established the Emergency Disaster Countermeasures Headquarters much more quickly. The Shin Godzilla directors investigated the movement of the government during 3/11 in great detail and utilized it in the story. The film’s critique of the government is part of a much bigger project.

Shin Godzilla should not be reduced to politics. We don’t that with Godzilla (1954). In the end, it was young, smart, courageous government formed out of outcasts that saved their country and halted the disaster from spreading. I’ve sensed among some Western critics and fans a fear and suspicion of World War II Japanese nationalism. I believe it clouds their interpretations of the film. Such fear is unwarranted. Consider the following and adjust how you think about the film.

In an interview, lead actor Hiroki Hasegawa, who played Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, said, “It [Shin Godzilla] is a fantasy special effects entertainment, and it’s a social question about how Japan should be in the face of a big crisis.” In the same article, Actor Yutaka Takenouchi, who played as Hideki Akasaka, aide to Prime Minister, commented, “It’s been a long time since the first work produced 61 years ago, and this work, which is the 29th work, has become the strongest finish in many Godzilla series, not only for many fans but also for the audience of the world. I think it will be a work that gives a deep message to the heart and to society.”3

Others have called Shin Godzilla “a movie of great significance from the perspective of disaster prevention”4 and as “a depiction that makes 3.11 in the work, and the story itself is a reaction to the Great East Japan Earthquake.”5 Another wrote, “As is well known, in Shin Godzilla, Godzilla is a monster born in response to the radioactive waste of the abandoned nuclear power plant, and when the second form of Godzilla comes ashore, it reminds us of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami rushing to Japan.”6 One Japanese writer argues Shin Godzilla “is not a monster movie but a “real simulation movie.”7

Producer Akihiro Yamauchi said, “Godzilla’s presence in the sense of ‘a raging god’ is a tradition that has been passed down from the first Godzilla. The tradition lives on in Godzilla drawn in the script by Anno. Godzilla in 1954 was a ‘nuclear spawn’ and a symbol of war. The new Godzilla strongly reflects the anxiety that covers Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake.”8 In the same article, it is said, “The government’s response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear accident was criticized, but on the other hand, some bureaucrats must have made a coherent decision and took action.”9

Shin Godzilla Director Hideaki Anno said “that he put all his energy into Shin Godzilla… When creating a new Godzilla, it was the first Godzilla that I was most conscious of… I wanted to get closer to the shock of the first Godzilla…. First of all, Shin Godzilla was made with the Japanese audience in mind, but it has received a lot of attention overseas.”11

Although Shin Godzilla is a monster movie, it is a film based on true events. How moviegoers approach great historical dramas such as Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) is how they should approach Shin Godzilla. They are serious historical dramas that tell their stories in their contexts of world upheaval and war. Moviegoers didn’t watch those for enjoyment and entertainment but rather to learn lessons and to empathize with the characters, their struggle and suffering. I would argue this is a more appropriate approach to watching Shin Godzilla.

Such an approach rejects the temptation to expect Shin Godzilla to be like other Godzilla movies that came before it. Shin Godzilla is in a different movie genre from its predecessors and demands a different approach. Critics and fans certainly don’t approach and explain Godzilla (1954) as just entertainment. When Godzilla is mentioned, few think of the context of the original film, but rather they remember the entertaining movies of the 60s and 70s in which Godzilla is a friendly monster fighting on behalf of Japan and the world. Approaching a Godzilla film as a serious drama doesn’t fit the expectations of most fans and of those who only know Godzilla as pop culture icon. This approach requires that we make adjustments to how we understand the film, how we watch the film, and how we discuss the film.

We miss the meaning and significance of Shin Godzilla when we are unaware of its relationship to 3/11. The same can be said of Godzilla and its rootedness in the near events of Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test and the Lucky Dragon No 5 (March 1, 1954) and the distant context of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II (August 6 and 9, 1945). Both films retell of an immediate existential crises facing Japan. Failure to be aware of these contexts diminishes the value and purpose of these films. Unlike any other in the series, Shin Godzilla returns moviegoers to the original meaning of Godzilla. Although inspired by other monster movies, Godzilla’s creators had an important story to retell for their Japanese audience not far removed from memories that they rather soon forget and for international audiences also.

As fans unfamiliar with Japanese culture and history and removed from the experience of 3/11, let’s do our homework. Before watching Shin Godzilla, take some time to learn about the Great Tohoku Earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown. Read articles and watch videos from that day. Feel the fear of the Japanese people and shed a tear for the victims. Then watch Shin Godzilla and meet Godzilla again for the first time and appreciate his meaning and significance to them.

Shin Godzilla made Godzilla impersonal, unfamiliar and unapproachable once again. He is not the Godzilla we come to love growing up. As the world faces an existential threat from a Cold War nuclear power who holds nuclear power plants as hostages, perhaps we will see to the significance of Shodai and Shin Godzilla and appreciate them as their creators intended, not as entertainment but as a warning to the world.

I don’t watch Shin Godzilla much any longer just like I didn’t watch Godzilla King of the Monsters (1956) when growing up. Like its predecessor, it is a time machine. Shin Godzilla takes me back to 3/11 that I would rather forget. Yet, it gives me a way of thinking and talking about those days. Today, I can better cope with those memories and fears because I share those experiences and stories with Japan and the films creators, who gave me the Godzilla I need.

References

  1.   Wikipedia: List of genres
  2.   “Ultimate Guide to Movie Genres — 90+ Genre Examples for Film & TV” (StudioBinder.com)
  3. 「空想特撮エンタテインメントであり、大きな危機に直面した時の日本のあり方を問う社会的な側面を持った作品でもあります。」「竹野内も、「61年前に製作された1作目から長い時を経て、29作目に当たる本作は、数々のゴジラシリーズの中でも最強の仕上がりとなり、多くのファンのみならず、世界の観客の心に、そして社会に、深いメッセージを与える作品になると思います」と負けていない。」『庵野×樋口版「ゴジラ」に長谷川博己&竹野内豊&石原さとみ!タイトルは「シン・ゴジラ」に決定』 “Hiroki Hasegawa & Yutaka Takenouchi & Satomi Ishihara in Anno x Higuchi version “Godzilla”! The title is decided to be ‘Shin Godzilla’”
  4. 「東日本大震災から5年になる今年、防災の観点から大きな意義のある2本の映画が封切られた。『太陽の蓋』と『シン・ゴジラ』だ。ドキュメンタリーフィクションと、SFファンタジー。」『シン・ゴジラ』『太陽の蓋』、映画に見る防災 “‘Shin Godzilla’ ‘The Seal of the Sun,’ disaster prevention seen in movies” 8/24/2016
  5. 「それは、作中に3.11をさせる描写があり、物語自体が東日本大震災に対するリアクションとなっているという点である。」『シン・ゴジラ』に対してなぜ園子温監督は「クズ」といったのか? 本質を隠す描写がリアルと評価される時代 “Why did Sion Sono say ‘Kuzu’ to ‘Shin Godzilla’? An era when depictions that hide the essence are evaluated as real” 11.12.2017
  6. 「周知のように『シン・ゴジラ』では、ゴジラは遺棄された原発の放射性廃棄物に順応して生まれた怪獣という設定であり、第二形態のゴジラが陸上してきたときに東日本大震災を想起させる大津波が日本に押し寄せる。」Ibid.
  7. 「あくまでシン・ゴジラは、怪獣映画ではなく「リアルシミュレーション映画」としています。」【シンゴジラ】東日本大震災の状況を風刺してる?状況が酷似していてトラウマ? “‘Shin Godzilla’ Are you satirizing the situation of the Great East Japan Earthquake? The situation is very similar and traumatic?” 12.16.2018
  8. “荒ぶる神”という意味でのゴジラの存在感は、初代ゴジラから脈々と受け継がれている伝統だ。庵野総監督の脚本で描かれたゴジラにもその伝統は生きている。1954年のゴジラは、“核の落とし子”であり、戦争の象徴だった。新たなゴジラは、東日本大震災を経た今の日本を覆う不安感を色濃く反映している。「この12年間の中で一番大きく変わったのは震災を経た日本であること。」『シン・ゴジラ』—庵野秀明が今の日本でゴジラ映画を作る意味、”‘Shin Godzilla’ — The meaning of Hideaki Anno making a Godzilla movie in Japan today” 7.282016
  9. 「東日本大震災、福島第1原発事故の政府の対応は批判の的にもなったが、一方で、理路整然と判断を下し、行動に移した官僚たちもいたはずだ。」Ibid.
  10. 「東日本大震災、福島第1原発事故の政府の対応は批判の的にもなったが、一方で、理路整然と判断を下し、行動に移した官僚たちもいたはずだ。」Ibid.
  11. 「『シン・エヴァンゲリオン劇場版:II』にとりかかるのを保留にして、『シン・ゴジラ』に力の全てを注ぎ込んだという庵野総監督。新たなゴジラを生み出すに当たって、最も意識したのは、やはり初代ゴジラだった。」「初代ゴジラの衝撃に少しでも近づきたかったという庵野秀明総監督」「まずは日本の観客を意識して作ったという『シン・ゴジラ』だが、海外の注目度は極めて高い。」『シン・ゴジラ』―庵野秀明が今の日本でゴジラ映画を作る意味 Ibid.