The Ninjabot

Shin Godzilla Review: The Fukushima Metaphor

Posted on December 21, 2016 at 12:02 pm by Victor Chaves

shingodzilla_15Before watching Shin Godzilla, there is a massive amount of information to understand in order to appreciate the film, because without that knowledge, one would find Shin Godzilla to be nothing more than a throwback monster movie, when in reality it’s a powerful visual expression of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Some Backstory

For starters, the original Godzilla was a visual expression of nuclear war by the Japanese. The way Godzilla leveled cities, breathed fire (called “Atomic Breath”), screamed like an air-raid siren, and was born from the Bikini Atoll nuclear testing made the monster a perfect metaphor. The film was sterilized when it came to the West, 30 minutes of an American actor were added and the metaphor for the bombs’ horror was dramatically reduced (see Kaptain Kristian’s video on this, it’s fantastic). Due to that, Godzilla as a franchise came to more represent the schlocky B-Monster movie genre, whereas the original warning of nuclear war disappeared.

Shin Godzilla brings back the nuclear metaphor, but instead of the nuclear bomb, this Godzilla represents the nuclear disaster of Fukushima. What this means is if you watch Shin Godzilla, you need to understand the perspective of the Japanese and disastrous events five years ago. In March 2011, a massive earthquake hit off the coast of Japan that produced a tsunami large enough to level cities, and resulted in over 15,000 casualties. In addition, the cooling systems of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima failed causing near-total meltdown, with areas over fifty miles away affected by the meltdown’s expulsion of radiation. Footage of cars, boats, houses, and people pulled in by the torrent exist, and show the terrible devastation that a natural disaster is capable of.

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Well-Crafted Metaphor

Taking all this in, you as a viewer will start to understand what makes the heart of Shin Godzilla beat. Scenes like the Prime Minister walking through the wreckage of the city directly reflects the aftermath of the tsunami. Videos of cars being rolled and pushed around by the tsunami come to mind when Godzilla is walking through town, as waves of cars hurdle by. The maps that show Godzilla’s path correlate to maps of radiation that seeped into the environment due to his mere presence. These and several other moments make reference to the Fukushima disaster, and without knowing these signifiers, Shin Godzilla could only be considered as nothing more than a disaster film.

Of course, there is plenty of disaster to be had here. Buildings topple and cars are tossed like crumpled paper, and thanks to the strong editing and directing by Hideaki Anno, the action is blisteringly intense. Military vehicles and weapons were great to see used not just for the visual effect, but the tension that came with Japan’s desperation to down the monster. The film is worth watching just for the night sequence which not only blew me away from its visuals, but the specific camera work and style of the action left me beyond enthralling. If you thought the end of the 2014 American Godzilla film was amazing, Shin Godzilla will knock you off the couch. All the same there are several moments in Shin Godzilla where the cg visuals look lacking (like Godzilla’s eyes at first look really goofy), but it never dips too far. When the film wants to give a visual treat, it delivers.

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SPOILERS PARAGRAPH

What makes the film great is that Godzilla is portrayed as a metaphor for the Fukushima incident. What makes me feel that way are several things: for one, the two times that Godzilla appears and does damage are done is different ways. The first time Godzilla appears, it is crawling on the ground in a way as if combing the earth; cars and buildings are tossed aside, and a scene showing the aftermath strongly reflects the visual aftermath of the tsunami. The other method of metaphor is when Godzilla attacks again, this time standing, and attacks with both a nuclear breath into the ground, and when Godzilla shoots rod-like lasers from its back that resemble rods from a nuclear reactor. This second set of attacks by Godzilla is heavily reminiscent of the Fukushima nuclear reactors melting down and expelling radiation, and much like those reactors, Godzilla is only stopped when fed a coolant to freeze the reactor that is its body. Here the message is nearly didactic, as the film is stating that nuclear reactors will only destroy the world, and shutting them down (like using coolant) is the only way  to step this destruction. This metaphor even connects with the name of the film, Shin Godzilla where “Shin” meaning “new” (among other possibilities) indicate that this is not the same metaphor for disaster like the 1954 A-Bomb Godzilla, but a new being that is connecting with mankind’s lack of responsibility towards nuclear energy.

END SPOILERS PARAGRAPH

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However, there are some definite misgivings in regards to the story that people will have issues with, and that’s the characters. Most, if not all, of Shin Godzilla‘s characters are government officials trying to handle the stomping crisis outside their window. They are introduced quickly, have little characterization, and experience minimal growth. The only somewhat fleshed-out character is Rando Yaguchi, who is chastised for saying the initial tremors were signs of a giant creature; thanks to his correct call and subsequent struggles against the Japanese red-tape of bureaucracy, Rando fulfills the minimum need for characterization in a story. Obviously monster films are not generous with their characterization, but with the giant cast of characters in Shin Godzilla, as an audience we can’t help but feel ho-hum if and when any of these characters die.

Japan As One

Saying all that, I will contradict myself and say that I still felt that the characters were very fleshed out. The reason for this is because collectively the human characters of Shin Godzilla are one character, that being Japan. The film has several individuals that represent the separate groups of the Japanese government, and altogether they serve as the internal dialogue of that single character named Japan. In a sense this collective serves as the brain of Japan while the military serves as the its arms and legs, which leads me to believe that Japan’s conflict in Shin Godzilla is not just the monster gallivanting around Tokyo, it’s the hesitation that Japan has instead of acting. Several times the film shows Japan’s deciders acting politically to the detriment of the people, and the struggle of several characters in the government trying to act without regard for their political consequences makes us as an audience root for them. In this way the film feels extremely straightforward, as usually Godzilla’s films involve it fighting some monster like Mothra or Destroyah, but this time we can fit that mold by referring to Shin Godzilla as Godzilla vs Japan (funny enough, the subtitle for the Japanese poster translates to “Japan Vs Godzilla”).

This concept is enforced by the subtitles that appear when obliterated areas around Tokyo are on screen. While typical destruction films have mindless obliteration, Shin Godzilla displays the name of each of the locations that are affected, attempting to connect the audience to the disaster in front of them. This is doubly-important as the film is trying to communicate the horrors of the Fukushima disaster to the Japanese audience, which serves to go further by forcing the audience to understand that not only could this happen in Japan, it already has.

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However, this is all lost in translation, as most Westerners will only see this film as a monster movie with some stylish directing and overly-long dialogue sequences. In a sense, history will repeat itself where despite Japan’s victory  at creating a well-crafted vocalization of the fear of nuclear disaster, the West will probably see Shin Godzilla much like how they saw the original Godzilla, a monster disaster flick.

Victor’s Grade: A

Follow Victor on Twitter @fake_brasilian to see him struggle as to why kids love Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

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