As of this year, Japanese film studio Toho has created 29 Godzilla movies. That’s a lot of movies about one character and nothing in the horror or sci-fi genre comes close to touching it. But we have plenty of experience of diminishing returns with sequels and that’s even more so for horror movies where the monster or threat is a bit less scary each time you see it. I mean, by the sixth Nightmare on Elm Street movie, Freddy is killing people with his Super Nintendo and making bad puns and no one is really scared by it. So how does Godzilla manage to work? Because I just saw Shin Godzilla and it was a really good movie and had a scary premise.
In my opinion, it’s because of two things: a willingness to constantly reinvent itself and a basis in real world trauma.
The first movie, Godzilla, came out in 1954. We’d seen gigantic monsters before, like King Kong, but this was on a much, much larger scale. Godzilla was a sort of dinosaur that was as tall as buildings, crashing through a city and causing devastation. He was, essentially, a force of nature. Unstoppable, like a tornado or volcano. But he was explicitly based on Japan’s knowing fear of nuclear power. Not quite ten years after having two atomic bombs dropped on them, they created a creature who had been birthed by atomic energy and caused a similar swath of destruction.
It’s in that metaphor that Godzilla worked so well. We may not be able to relate to a lizard the size of a building but we can understand a powerful force causing death and destruction without any awareness. America would end up going through a very similar process of using the trauma from 9/11 to eventually create a monster metaphor with Cloverfield, about a monster destroying New York City.
Shin Godzilla again comes from a very real place of societal pain and fear over destruction – the 2011 typhoon that caused the Fukushima nuclear plant to go into meltdown. There are scenes in the new movie that show wreckage and bodies that mirror that of the typhoon’s destruction. The first iteration of Godzilla moves from the sea through some canals and into streets, creating a type of destruction the world saw in newspapers five years ago. And the protagonists of Shin Godzilla are not the army or a scientist, but the politicians that have to work on organizing news for the public, emergency health and evacuation, and coordinating an international response along with the military. The characters are dressed in blue suits much like we saw in 2011.
So using a gigantic monster to represent destruction that we have seen in real life is an essential component to a good Godzilla movie, or at least one that’s frightening. The further away from that tragedy, the more sci-fi Godzilla movies tend to get. That can be entertaining but not as disturbing.
Another important element to make Godzilla movies is reinvention. I’ll explain how this was used in Shin Godzilla, but first I’ll go over some Godzilla history to give his constant reinvention some context.
There have now been four explicit “eras” for Godzilla movies where they have been rebooted. This is because the studio understands that seeing the same thing too often takes away what makes it scary. So Toho has given Godzilla intentional breaks and then rebooted it. The original Godzilla era is called the Showa era, named after the Japanese Emperor at the time. From 1954 to 1975 there were 15 movies produced in the series and it rapidly evolved into a more family friendly sci-fi series where Godzilla was more of an anti-hero battling worse monsters. It reflects the post-war rebuilding optimism that Japan was feeling at the time. Only about 4 or 5 of these offered a scary Godzilla and by the time the 8th movie, Son of Godzilla, came around Godzilla was protecting Japan, raising a cute son, doing jumping dances and running dropkicks. This was the era that had the most movies in rapid succession and a bunch of them are pretty goofy so a lot of the public’s memory is based on this time, but the original Godzilla remains a disturbing film. After Terror of Mechagodzilla, Toho took nearly a ten year hiatus.
In 1985, Godzilla returned in… The Return of Godzilla. This and the next six movies are called the Heisei era, again named after the Emperor during the time most of the movies came out. Return took an interesting tack – it acted as a direct sequel to the original Godzilla, ignoring the intervening 14 movies and taking place 30 years later. This was done to ignore Godzilla as an anti-hero and bring him back to his terrifying, nuclear-powered force of destruction. Godzilla’s scale was increased from 160 feet to 260 feet so that the new, modern skyline didn’t dwarf him. Godzilla was explicitly brought back to remind audiences of the terrible potential of nuclear power. In fact, the final movie in this era, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah dealt with a Godzilla who had entered a type of meltdown. He was glowing red the whole time, about to explode and poison half the world with nuclear fallout. The series then took a four year hiatus.
In 1999, the Millenium era of Godzilla began with Godzilla 2000: Millenium. This included six movies through 2004’s Godzilla Final Wars. The Millenium series came one year after Toho licensed Godzilla to Sony for the poorly received 1998 U.S. Godzilla. In some ways it seemed to be Japan saying, “no, this is how you do it.” Again, Godzilla was given a sleaker, scarier design. But one odd thing about this batch of films is that only the fifth one, Godzila: Tokyo S.O.S. is a sequel to the previous film. Every other one is a reboot which follows the original Godzilla. Kind of a strange formula but the constant reinvention does allow Godzilla’s appearance to the public in each movie to be portrayed as unique and terrifying.
After Godzilla Final Wars, the series took another lengthy hiatus only returning now after 12 years. But when it comes to reinventing Godzilla’s look, the one in Shin Godzilla is in many ways the most changed (excepting the drastic redesign in the U.S. 1998 movie where he looks more like a weird T-Rex). First of all, it is the first time Godzilla is completely digital in a Japanese movie. But the technology is there such that it’s a very convincing creature. I legit didn’t know whether it was a man in a suit or a digital creation composited until I read up on it. Because he looks real. This Godzilla is larger than ever before and has an absolutely massive tail. Like, I cannot exaggerate how long and powerful it is.
This Godzilla has tiny, stubby arms but there’s a reason for that that I’ll get to. He is also sort of glowing red in cracks all along his body. It’s reminiscent of his look in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. His eyes are reminiscent of the almost googly eyes from the original Showa era. So there are callbacks to his previous iterations. That’s all because this Godzilla is evolving. He begins the movie in a more fish-like form that’s disturbing in its own gross way. For instance, blood gushes out of his lungs. It’s not pleasant. But the radiation that powers him is the real threat. He’s leaking that radiation anywhere he goes. It’s what is also causing him to mutate. So his eventual stubby arms are only partially formed. It’s implied that he’s still evolving.
I thought that was a cool way to subtly call back to earlier versions of Godzilla while also addressing the concerns from the typhoon/Fukushima disaster. This Godzilla is much more grounded than you might expect. That means there is a lot of scenes dealing with government employees.
However, you’re always going to have to include the human perspective if you want to show the terror of Godzilla and using government employees works in two ways. First, these are the people that are responsible for the life and death decisions being made. Which area to evacuate, what information to give to the public, what creates a panic, how do you get medicine to them, who gets mobilized to evacuate citizens and so on. It deals with the chain of command. In fact, in many ways it satirizes just how much red tape people must cut through in an emergency no one could have predicted. That’s the second reason for using government employees. The theme to the movie is allowing the new generation, who is more nimble and less devoted to the old way of doing things, to take charge and get things done. I really liked that.
Shin Godzilla utilizes the things we must have in a Godzilla movie: massive destruction of a city, the classic roar, the classic theme music. That’s not to call this perfect. There are a small handful of Americans in the movie and they’re pretty uniformly terrible. Just stiff, soap opera-esque line delivery. No recognizable faces either. You’d think you could get some TV stars from here to be in a big-budget Godzilla movie in Japan these days. One character is played by a Japanese actress but is supposedly a U.S. politician with a Japanese mother and U.S. senator father. But her English is stilted and she doesn’t seem to be American in any way. It’s much better when she just talks to her peers in Japanese.
Still, this movie is enjoyable. I was not annoyed or bored by the human characters. I was engaged in their struggle to address an emerging emergency. And there’s more Godzilla in this movie than in last year’s U.S. Godzilla film. Overall, I’d give it somewhere around a B+. But the key takeaway is that the scenes of destruction aren’t truly anything you can revel in – because it’s stuff that happens in real life.