Ikigami: Reflections on Shin Gojira in 2017

This past week I treated myself to two recent Blu-ray releases that oddly seem to compliment one another: The brand new Collector’s Edition release of Species from Scream Factory (which gives the film a proper HD transfer for the first time and features a whole slew of interviews, making-of featurettes and commentary tracks), and Funimation’s Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack release of their localization of Shin Gojira, known as Shin Godzilla in the US.
I currently don’t have access to an HD TV so I can’t actually watch most of the material here yet…I haven’t even touched Species, which is killing me because this set looks really interesting: Just the prospect of getting people like Natasha Henstridge and Michael Madsen to talk candidly about their experiences with that curio is tempting enough, but add to that the fact there’s an alternate ending included and I truly cannot wait to be able to put this set through its paces. Whenever I get the chance I’ll be sure to give this release a proper analysis and any re-evaluations I come to will definitely influence the revised version of the Species essay that will go in what will hopefully be next year’s book release.
I also can’t watch the main disc of Shin Gojira yet, but since a print of the film is included on DVD in this set I am able to watch that on my laptop. So the other night I sat down to watch the first new true Godzilla movie in twelve years for only my second time to see how it holds up a year later, and to see if I could hopefully make better sense of it this time around.
I’ve loved the Godzilla series forever. Godzilla 1984 is a movie whose imagery is burned into my psyche, and was probably one of the first pieces of genre fiction to really have a big impact on me. I always remember being mesmerized by the movie poster and the haunting, out-of-context movie stills of Godzilla prowling around the disquietingly empty neon canyons of Shinjuku, still lit up as if the night shift salarymen were still making their rounds. In fact, it’s probably directly responsible for a not-insignificant portion of my aesthetic preferences. In the 90s I remember being exposed to both the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon show and the Trendmasters Godzilla action figure line (which was my big clue the film series was still going) at about the same time, and I always made an attempt to watch the older movies whenever they would show up in horror movie marathons or if I found a copy at the local video store. When I first saw the original Gojira I was blown away by its maturity and tone, and it’s a film that’s only grown with me and I understand better the more I learn about Japan and East Asian history and culture. Then came 1998 and the TriStar reimagining and Godzilla was big in the West in a way I’d never seen before, and getting to see Godzilla 2000 in theatres two years later was a thrilling experience even if I was one of only four people there. I absolutely loved it, and it’s still a series favourite of mine.
(I suppose another reason Species and Shin Gojira kinda feel like they go together for me is because they’re both sci-fi stories that were huge influences on my development during the mid- to late-1990s, supplanting Star Trek in the focus of my genre fiction lens.)
I was beyond excited then to hear that Toho would be returning to the series with Shin Gojira last year and, in a rare event, it would actually be getting a Western theatrical release. When I saw it this past October though I confess I didn’t really know what to make of it: This was unmistakably a unique and oversignified film, and it gave me more to think about and kept me thinking about it longer than any other work of scripted fiction I can remember of late, but at the time I felt it had pacing and tone issues and I wasn’t quite sure what it wanted me to take away from it. I had scheduled a podcast with a fellow connoisseur of Japanese media around the time the movie was still in theatres to talk about it in which I was planning to air my simultaneous admiration of and frustration with Shin Gojira, but it kept falling through and in the end it never happened.
Now the film is out on home video though, and I’m incredibly glad to have another chance with it. The distance has afforded me time to reflect, learn and focus more on the Japanese and East Asian cultural and spiritual themes, and the privacy of getting to be alone with the movie helped me piece together a far more solid reading I can get behind. Also, I’m not sure if it’s just not having the toxic and anxiety-inducing political climate of 2016 swirling around my head anymore or if the movie has actually been cut and edited for home video (there seem to be at least two scenes I swear I remember seeing in the theatrical cut that I don’t recall seeing on the Funimation DVD-Provided I’m not hallucinating, one was a good cut in my opinion and the other I do kind of miss), but for whatever reason the movie seemed to flow much, much better this time and came across as far more thematically coherent and consistent. And with that, I’m easily comfortable calling Shin Gojira a masterpiece and a triumph of modern cinema: This is not only one of the greatest Godzilla movies ever made, I’d put in up there with Mad Max Fury Road as a blockbuster movie that, due to a confluence of factors, ends up transcending its medium to say something much more radical and profound.
Before we get into that though we’ll need context. Personally, Godzilla appeals to me on a number of different levels, and I’ve found new ones as the years go on. Firstly it plays on my interest in zoology and natural history, particularly paleontology, as well as my love of adventure and exploration. But Godzilla is far more than that: The series and the creature both come out of a particularly East Asian and Japanese perspective that doesn’t really translate well to Westerners, which is probably why the series has historically struggled so much to take real root over here. We’ve all heard of Godzilla, but not many of us, I would posit, know it as anything other than a rubbery B-movie icon. Godzilla is manifestly not this (though there are certainly points in its history where it becomes this), but the fundamental meaning and symbolism goes deeper than that. In order to get that though one needs a real anthropological and empathetic grounding in East Asian and Japanese culture, mythology and history.
Books could be written and college courses could be taught on this so that’s well beyond the scope of this essay, but I’ll try and fill in the blanks as they pertain to Shin Gojira whenever and wherever I can. The first thing to note is that the Godzilla movies would probably be best seen as natural disaster movies first and foremost, but in doing so it would also be best to remember what nature actually means within the context of traditional East Asian spirituality. Nature, all of nature, is sacred and natural creatures and objects are seen as manifestations of divine life energy and power. Humans are part of this melange, but their exact relationship with the rest of nature depends on which specific hyperlocal tradition you follow. At its most basic, Japanese Shinto (which is really a crass categorical label given to an uncountable number of varied and assorted folk spiritual beliefs) is about reverence for the exceptional and the awesome (in the original meaning of the word) in nature, called kami. Kami has often been translated in English as “God”, but that’s actually not quite right, especially given most witches and theologians I’ve spoken with have no real conception of what “God” means to them anyway. Really, though they are at most basic nature spirits, anything seen as extraordinary and deserving of respect could be called kami, a concept which has loose parallels pretty much everywhere in East Asian philosophy.
So in Shin Gojira, Godzilla is explicitly called kami. The tagline for Funimation’s US localization is even *literally* “A god incarnate. A city doomed”. This is not a presumptuous statement for the film to make, and in fact it’s largely the entire point of it as the movie constantly reinforces this theme from beginning to end, starting with the title itself. The word “Shin” can mean a number of different things depending on the kanji used, namely, “New”, “Pure”, “True” or “God”. The intended meaning of this title given the context coming two years after a US-made Godzilla movie and twelve years after the last Japanese-made one is obvious, but it’s the “New” translation paired with the “God” one that’s the most interesting to me. The original Japanese tagline is similarly loaded, translating out to either “Japan vs. Godzilla” or “Reality vs. Fiction”.
Shin Gojira was written and directed by Hideaki Anno, famous for the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, while the special effects art direction was handled by Shinji Higuchi, of Attack on Titan and Gamera fame, who also shares a co-director credit with Anno. It’s the connection to Neon Genesis Evangelion that was played up the most in marketing, and it does seem to be the leading informant into the film’s tone: While Neon Genesis Evangelion is a show whose religious imagery and symbolism has been overstated and overrated, it’s useful to look at in the context of Shin Gojira for other reasons. Evangelion has famously been called a “deconstruction” of the Hard SF giant robot series from the 80s anime period that followed Mobile Suit Gundam in much the same way Western Nerd Culture likes to say Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a “deconstruction” of superhero comics. This, of course, means it’s an utterly incorrect and misleading statement. What Nerds and otaku call “deconstruction” I tend to think has nothing whatsoever to do with the postmodern academic term “deconstruction” and rather everything to do with what I like to call “taking the implicit assumptions of fictional universes altogether too seriously”. The guiding theme being “What would happen if something like this happened in real life?” regardless of whether or not that is a productive or interesting question to ask.
So Shin Gojira, as many have commented on with varying degrees of snark, is fundamentally a contemporary drama about the inner workings and machinations of Japanese government bureaucracy when faced with a natural disaster for which there is no precedent. But this actually works in the case of Shin Gojira, because the Godzilla movies have always been natural disaster movies to one degree or another, so it’s not a gigantic intellectual leap to go from that to delivering a starkly realistic take that shows what the procedure for dealing with that is really like in our world. And Anno and Higuchi have clearly done their research, as nothing in the film feels remotely out of place or unrealistic for how world powers would respond if a giant mutating postmodern radioactive deity suddenly emerged in Tokyo Bay and threw a shit fit.
(Indeed, Shin Gojira is reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion in more ways than one. The film is a great ensemble piece with dozens of main characters, but the three cast standouts, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, Special Envoy for the President of the United States Kayoko Anne Patterson and Environmental Ministry Bureaucrat Hiromi Ogashira are immediately reminiscent of Evangelion‘s breakout characters Shinji, Asuka and Rei, respectively, each of whom have gone on to inspire their own stock anime character archetypes. I could call Anno out for this, but there’s really no shame in returning to themes and characters who have become a part of your style, and all three are used in pleasingly unexpected and counterintuitive ways.)
The film manages a shuddering condemnation of representative democracy without once pointing fingers at intellectual strawmen targets or lapsing into aesthetic fascism: Everyone up to the Prime Minister is depicted as equally human and heroic, earnestly wanting to save as many lives as possible while also constantly thinking about career advancement and things like GDP and international relations, and the military’s eagerness to solve the problem with death-dealing weapons and masculinity is depicted as horrific, deplorable and backwards-thinking. And yet they, just like everyone else, are shown to be capable of human empathy and growth. Given Japan’s current real-world Prime Minister is the reactionary-as-fuck Shinzō Abe, a man literally part of a secret society who explicitly wants to rebuild Shōwa-era Imperial Japan, remove the constitutional prohibition of war and make women second-class citizens, the importance of a movie like this depicting a noble and heroic government cabinet who are just trying to do their jobs and minimize death and destruction cannot be overstated.
This ties into Shin Gojira‘s quintessentially Japanese depiction of a struggle between generations. The dangerously inefficient and incompetent bureaucracy is shown to be a vestige of the old generation and Godzilla, whom former series producer Shogo Tomiyama once called “a Shinto God of Destruction”, can be seen as a cleansing fire come to bring the apocalypse and sweep away the old to usher in the new world, as gods of destruction do in so many world myths. That said though, there’s a fundamental moral ambiguity to Shin Gojira and no one person or group is ever truly depicted as having the moral high ground permanently. As much as Yaguchi and the crack team of otaku he pulls together to save the day talk up how they’re the future of Japan, this is just as frequently shown to be political power play, and most of them have less-than-noble ulterior motives to increase their own status and less than savoury personal infelicities.
There’s a great scene where Hiromi speculates that Godzilla might be radioactive, only to be laughed at by one of her colleagues, who asks if she has a sense of humour. This man, visibly a nebbish otaku, then independently comes to the same conclusion as her, makes a big deal about it and tries to take credit for the discovery until Yaguchi makes him apologise to Hiromi directly. This mirrors a scene earlier on where Yaguchi is laughed at by the cabinet for suggesting the disturbance in Tokyo Bay could be a living creature and chastised for “telling jokes”. And at the end of the film, even though Yaguchi and the team pull everything together at the (literal) last minute, there’s a real question over whether the future they’ll build is going to be any better then the past they’re “scrapping”. The overall tone reminds me of one of my favourite parts of Godzilla vs. Biollante: After the young, up-and-coming Major Sho Kuroki successfully implements a crack plan to delay Godzilla’s arrival, one of his older superiors comments that it’s time for his generation to retire and let the young people take over. But his suggestion is dismissed: “My generation is just like any other. There’s good and bad people and we all learn and make mistakes”. The film’s closing lines echo this, with one of the other main characters saying “Wherever you go, people are the same. There’s good and there’s bad in every country”.
And yet change is something shown to be positive and necessary. Japan is an island nation, and a deeply syncretic one, even if certain reactionary factions within its culture don’t want to admit this. Central to many flavours of Shinto is the idea of recombinatory life force and creative energy, known as musubi, also translated as “the spirit of birth and becoming”. It is good to be constantly creating, evolving and adapting, and this is what Shin Gojira seems to posit will be the true future of Japan. Yaguchi and his team are frustrated by Japan’s ossified government bureaucracy, while many of their superiors in that selfsame bureaucracy are frustrated that after all these years Japan is still functionally a periphery territory of the United States and the United Nations, which are functionally the same thing. Meanwhile, the US president patronizingly comments that Japan has “grown up enough to have backdoor deals”.
(As much as Shin Gojira is self-critique of Japanese society, what it says about the United States is sobering. In the end, it’s up to the combined efforts of Japan, France, Germany, rogue American humanitarians and Godzilla to save Japan from the US and the US from itself. Shin Gojira may be fundamentally a Japanese movie for a Japanese audience, but this is a devastating call-out the film’s periphery audience would do well to hear and internalize.)
And Godzilla itself changes and adapts. This film’s Godzilla undergoes metamorphosis, changing between four different forms, constantly adapting to new environments and new challenges. Godzilla’s ultimate goal, if any, seems to be, delightfully, self-preservation and reproduction: As in many movies of this type Godzilla doesn’t seem to deliberately cause destruction, and various scientists point out how scales shed by Godzilla’s final form could grow into new creatures. This Godzilla, like so many others before it, must then be female, or at least partially female, and the somber lament that plays when Godzilla uses its atomic blast for the first time called “Who Will Know (Tragedy)”, presumed to be sung from Godzilla’s perspective, even has a female vocalist. Not only does this characterization put me in mind of a cleaner, more coherent depiction of Species‘ Sil, but it’s also a charmingly impish and validating critique of the series’ insular and broish Western fanbase. Kami knows no gender. Godzilla has always been portrayed as a tragic monster, and in spite of the unimaginable destruction it causes we’re still meant to empathize with it (a theme the “suitimation”, so maligned in the West, actually emphasizes). After all, human and nature have always been one, and both are divine.
(This is very much a movie for a reclaimed and reappropriated postmodern Shinto perspective, and there other comparisons to be drawn between Shin Gojira and Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s previous work aside from Neon Genesis Evangelion, Attack on Titan and Gamera. The atomic blast scene is reminiscent of Anno’s work on the God Warrior scene in Hayao Miayazki’s anime adaptation of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a film that is very much about mankind’s relationship with a preternatural animist reality. Anno and Higuchi even collaborated on a live-action prequel to Nausicaä showing a God Warrior destroying Tokyo, and Hayao Miyazaki himself even makes a cameo appearance, alongside fellow 80s anime legend Mamoru Oshii, in Shin Gojira. Given the former’s statements about wanting to see Tokyo destroyed by a natural disaster, this adds a fun additional layer of subtext to the film by way of a metatextual endorsement.)
With a face like a deep sea angler fish, this Godzilla looks like something out of the darkest recesses of nature, but just as nothing is truly natural and unspoiled and no culture is truly pure, Godzilla itself is syncretic, born of human and natural forces. Traditionally, of course, Godzilla was a pre-existing creature awakened and affected by atomic radiation, both a victim and perpetrator of the ensuing violence. In Shin Gojira, however, the metaphor is literalized: Godzilla is a new form of life spawned by nuclear radiation, an advent of the modern world, and has adapted and evolved in new ways to metabolize it. It is by no accident then that Hiromi, Kayoko and others state at various times that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its terrible power, Godzilla is a perfect life form above humans. Just as the kami are of Earth but live in a perfect parallel world where they serve as the ideal aspirational role models, so does Godzilla embody the lessons we must learn in our own mortal existences and provide the blueprint for how best to adapt next. A living kami and God Incarnate, Godzilla is an example of who we must strive to be.
In Shin Gojira, Godzilla’s backstory is connected intimately with the mysterious professor Goro Maki, a renegade scholar studying the effects of radioactive fallout who felt used by academia and betrayed by the governments of the US and Japan after he first discovered Godzilla sixty years ago. Right before the events of the film Maki sailed his boat out into Tokyo Bay where we are led to believe he committed suicide. As the film opens, the coast guard found his boat adrift with only an inexplicable cipher and origami figurine left behind aboard it as any sort of clue. Not long after, Godzilla first makes its presence known to the world. Right underneath Maki’s abandoned pleasure craft. Perhaps, like many of us do if we’re lucky, the professor found his true self in his life’s work. Birth and death are always connected through apotheosis, and Goro Maki’s parting words “Do as you will” sound quite a bit like “Do what thou wilt”.
There’s far more to be gleaned from Shin Gojira then I can examine in this essay. If you’re looking for an endorsement, that’s it: This film reminds me that the vapid culture industry can occasionally be gamed to produce something truly remarkable, though perhaps that’s not too surprising coming from a Japanese perspective where all art is considered considered equally valid and worthy of respect no matter what it’s being made for. If you have never seen a Godzilla movie and are for whatever reason squeamish about checking out the first one, watch this one. If you want to understand what Godzilla means within a Japanese context, watch this movie. If you are skeptical about the artistic merit of the Godzilla series, watch this movie. If you’re interested in things I like and recommend, watch this movie. Shin Gojira currently remains the definitive contemporary example of what I’m drawn to in pop culture and what I hope it can provide, and I would encourage anyone who feels they may share part of my perspective and aesthetics to give it their undivided attention.