Shin Godzilla: Atomic Fears in a New Age

Back in 1954, a Japanese film was made that would forever shake up the ranks of monster movies. That film was Godzilla, a science fiction film that brought to the world the titular monster and so-called ‘King of the Monsters”. In both its original form and an Americanized 1956 release known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the movie captivates with its tale of a nation ravaged by a prehistoric monster given new life through hydrogen bomb tests. Though Godzilla himself may be the stuff of dreams, the film itself was rooted in the cultural fears and shockwaves that stemmed from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Having endured destruction from such a powerful weapon, it would only be natural that such fears would be given new life and examined in the realm of fiction. From those initial fears given life would grow an expansive film franchise and one of the premiere iconic characters of Japanese cinema. Now, in the hands of Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideki Anno, the legendary franchise has received a new chapter. Going by the title of Shin Godzilla, this film is a strong new entry, bringing the series back to its roots by using the crisis of a giant monster to explore current-day fears.

As a new day unfolds in Tokyo Bay, disaster strikes. A mysterious earthquake has struck the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line tunnel, with viral videos shot of the incident suggesting that there might be more than just an earthquake. To deputy chief cabinet secretary Rando Yaguchi, he believes it to be the work of a living creature. Unfortunately, his superiors laugh off the idea and cling to old procedures in dealing with the situation. Despite their reassuring words, the truth comes out as a gigantic lizard emerges from the ocean, bringing destruction in his path. Yaguchi is put in charge of a task force to research the creature, while other government figures become bogged down in procedure and politics. As the creature grows in power, Yaguchi is able to find some help thanks Kayoko Ann Peterson, a special envoy from the U.S. government who offers a clue related to a disappeared scientist named Goro Maki. Now, the race is on to find what Dr. Maki knows about this monster named Godzilla and how to stop it, before the creature becomes a threat to the world or before Japan is destroyed in a self-destructive plan of attack.

As a new entry to the Godzilla franchise, Shin Godzilla is a strong tale and among the better films in the series. It hits the ground running, keeping up a fast pace as the evolution and threat of Godzilla grows. While it keeps up this pace, it also does not lose sight of its human characters. It captures their sense of fear and desperation to find a solution to the Godzilla problem, even as they grapple with politics and frustrations along the way. The human element is captured well amid the fear that stews in this scenario. In fact, it recalls the first Godzilla film plenty in this style. It even brings Godzilla to a more monstrous form than he has been for a long time. Covered in scars with glowing red flesh beneath, lines of jagged teeth pointed along his mouth, Godzilla looks like a living embodiment of radioactive suffering. Even his classic atomic breath is made more threatening, going from the atomic fire of the past to a super-heated laser that rips through whatever it strikes. The threat is certainly captured well, but there is more to this film than just the destruction that Godzilla brings. Much like the original, this film draws inspiration from contemporary events.

A few years ago, back in 2011, Japan was struck by disaster. The first was an earthquake that struck off the coast of Tohoku, a magnitude 9.0 event that had also triggered powerful tsunami waves that brought destruction. That was not the extent of the damage. The combination of earthquake and tsunami had also destroyed cooling towers at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, inciting three meltdowns. Both events are a clear influence on the film, with Godzilla’s initial arrival recalling the earthquake’s strike and the tsunami floods while the scope of radioactive contamination he has caused recalls the fears from Fukushima’s meltdowns. More than that, however, the film calls out the flaws in the human component of these events. Godzilla himself is born through short-sighted handling of nuclear waste, a fault not only from the past but somewhat reminiscent of Fukushima’s own lack of proper safety handling that contributed to the meltdowns. As for the government’s response to Godzilla, they are presented as too caught up in making press conferences and following existing procedure to go and actually deal with the problem. This is a sharp call to real world events, where politics and bureaucratic red tape can get in the way of dealing with the problem at hand. Thus, much like the very first Godzilla film, this movie uses its tale of giant monsters and destruction as a method to examine our world. In this case, it looks at the handling of devastating events and make the call to band together past politics so that we can survive.

Though most may think of the fanciful battles of giant monsters when one thinks of Godzilla, it all started with a somber examination of the impact of the atomic bomb. By taking things back to the first page with this beloved franchise, Shin Godzilla brings a great new chapter with its inspiration from current issues.

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