Friday, October 14, 2016

Persecution Of The Masses: Kentai Reviews SHIN GODZILLA (2016)

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As deeply frustrated as I've been at the glacial pace director Hideaki ANNO has taken with the "Renewal of Evangelion" project, I'm not without sympathy; good films take time to create, and love them or loathe them, the new Evangelion films have some of the most spectacular traditional animation the world has to offer. With three out of four films having been released in 2007, 2009 and 2012 - in Japan, anyway - it seemed reasonable that he would spend the next three to four years finishing off the reboot of what's easily his most beloved and viable franchise. In other words, we're due for the final chapter, and at long last Neon Genesis Evangelion can be put to rest alongside Aim for the Top! Gunbuster as "Complete". Which, incidentally, is still more than we can say for the Evangelion manga.

Director Anno HIDEAKI/庵野 秀明, circa 2014.

Things are never quite that simple, though, are they? After a commercial and critical success was found in Gareth Edwards' Legendary Pictures' produced 2014 Godzilla film - a serious, heavy film that seemed to be made to wash away the perceived sins of the self-aware 1998 Roland Emmerich film of the same name - Toho Studios admitted their biggest star ever was coming out of retirement for a 2016 release. What wasn't revealed until several months later was that none other than Hideaki ANNO had teamed up with Shinji HIGUCHI - best known as the director of practical effects for the trilogy of 90s Gamera films, but most recently the director of the live action Attack on Titan films - to direct a full on reboot of the Gojira monster, with Anno himself in full control of the film.

The "International" title given to the project was Godzilla Resurgence, but in typical weeb fashion, literally no-one called it anything but "Shin Godzilla", until FUNimation Films announced they were using the original Japanese title as-is. It's worth noting that the title itself, シン・ゴジラ, is written in simplified, phonetic katakana; this isn't because the film is aimed at children, but because the meaning of "Shin" in the context of a title could mean a lot of things: New, True, and Holy all use the same phonetic reading Anno chose, and the fact that it isn't directly clarified appears to be completely intentional.

Yes, I'm still salty that we're probably not going to see Evangelion 4.444: We Do [Not] Know When To Quit until at least 2018 as a result. But to say my curiosity on the new monster movie  we were getting was piqued would be an understatement...

The non-Legendary Legend.

It's no secret that Anno has always been a fan of kaiju films, or even that Evangelion's core development process revolved around trying to equate the fanciful, physically impossible nature of giant monsters into a somewhat more scientifically grounded existence, and it could be easily argued that the EVA units themselves are some of the most iconic giant monsters in Japan's long and colorful history of animation. The film is in many ways a thematic successor to the action sequences he brought to life in Evangelion over 20 years ago, and it's only fair to acknowledge that one thing likely lead directly back to the other.

It's also worth noting - without delving too far into spoiler territory, of course - that Anno's film isn't "just" another monster mash. While the Toho films are now rightly regarded as silly camp catering to a young audience with over-the-top costumes and silly practical effects, it's worth remembering that the original 1954 film, directed by Ishiro HONDA, is about as serious and grim as a 1950's B-movie about a nuclear dinosaur was ever going to get. Godzilla was such a popular character he became something of a superhero through the 60s - to the point where even the somewhat dour, mostly monochrome Hollywood reboot gave him a grotesque, dangerous insect nemesis, just to cast him as the "good guy" to the audience.

The original film was substantially more nihilistic, suggesting the appearance of Gojira itself was the direct result of the continued testing of the hydrogen bomb in Japanese waters, and the combination of his blistered skin, atomic breath and destructive presence that turns Tokyo into a literal sea of fire all give the original film an obvious, allegorical bend to the monster being a not-too-subtle reference to the atomic bombings that forever altered Japan's culture, politics and identity.

I bring all of this up because unlike every other single Toho produced Godzilla film... this is a total reboot of the concept. This is the first time Godzilla has been seen by the world, effectively allowing Anno to reinstate Godzilla as the force of nihilistic destruction he was initially envisioned as. And if you think Anno's obsession with literal, biblical apocalypses isn't going to factor into his presentation of Godzilla, you might want to stick with Gareth Edwards and his reptilian bear.

Not being a press critic, I was happy to go to a limited theatrical screening of Shin Godzilla on opening night... but how does the film hold up? As always, I'll warn you when MAJOR SPOILERS are coming, though between the combination of familiar framework and very unexpected execution, I'd argue that the less you know going in, the better.



For those who's only live action point of reference is Anno's live action Cutie Honey movie, you can relax; Shin Godzilla has some of the same inappropriate and self-aware humor that defined what was essentially a parody of the Go Nagai character, but Shin Godzilla ultimately has far too much reverence and understanding of what makes a Godzilla movie tick to not get it mostly right. That said, the almost purely political nature of the story places it closer to something like Doctor Strangelove than Pacific Rim, which I can see either confusing or annoying plenty of viewers who just wanted to see a Japanese dude in a rubber suit stomping all over Tokyo for some kitschy fun. Anno's film is a lot of positive things, but taking cues from both the original 1954 Ishiro HONDA film and his own literally apocalyptic fascinations, he crafts a narrative that's more about compromising for the inevitable rather than preventing it, told from the point of view of exasperated and confused people who can't afford to be idealistic. But I suppose anyone who knows what Evangelion or Gunbuster is and expected a "normal" kaiju movie is just being silly.

Sure hope you like conference rooms.
And subtitles telling you which conference room...

It's not a monster movie so much as a disaster movie with a political lens, with the rampaging titan of the title being the disaster itself - Godzilla becomes a none too subtle allegory for Anno's - and indeed, a large subset of Japan's - frustration with their own governmental role, showing politicians moving from room to room during a live emergency strictly on protocol,  and assuring the people everything's going to be okay and their top scientists - who in reality made an off handed thought - that there's no way the unidentified creature can come up on land... only for one of his aide's to come up and whisper in his ear that yeah, he's already on land. The images of flooded streets and ruined buildings are a none too subtle reminder of the Tohoku 3/11 tsunami a little over five years ago, and as if to quell any doubt that Anno's taking a jab at the real-world politics criticized savagely for taking too long to do anything helpful, he even has the Prime Minister don a rescue worker uniform while staying perfectly safe in his office and giving press conferences. The real tragedy is that while the film acknowledges that Japan's current bureaucracy is too bloated and complex to efficiently deal with an emergency situation, it still tries to treat those elected officials as people who are simply out of their depth, rather than full on Kubrickian parodies of political agendas.

One thing that works surprisingly well about the film is that - unlike its' 2014 cousin, in which we're robbed of Breaking Bad far too early to spend most of the film with Kick-Ass - there is no hero here. No self insert for the audience to feel like they're part of the action. The film ultimately focuses slightly-more on Hiroki HASEGAWA, the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary - a particularly fancy way to say "note taker for the clusterfuck", really - who's not quite old enough for his obvious intelligence to get respected, or his solution-oriented mindset to cut through the red tape surrounding him on all sides. Yutaka TAKENOUCHI plays the Prime Minister's Aide, ultimately being the filter from the politics to the audience as much as to our DCC Secretary; he knows it's a ridiculous and infuriating song and dance to get the many to lean in one direction, but he also knows the weight of the bureaucracy will crush itself with a little law and order, leaving him to whisper in the old man's ear about what's what, and ultimately - arguably - wields the ultimate power in most situations.

(Also: Shinya TSUKAMOTO!)

Scientists, soldiers and politicians all share the ultimate course of the battlefield, and it becomes clear the reak schism is not between those who want lure him away versus destroy him outright, but between the young upstarts who just want to find a solution and the elders of the previous generation who are so used to dragging their feet and protecting their positions of limited power, they can't adapt when a real emergency creeps up behind them. How much of any of this will be interesting may well be tired to how little the average non-Japanese viewer knows about Japanese politics - of which, admittedly, my interest is mild at best. Anno's script has been accused of being right leaning, and while that's not entirely untrue, Japan has been a fascinating case study for some time: "Post-War never ends" one character laments, disgusted at Japan's lack of military autonomy in the case of their absolute worst-case scenario, their reliance on other nations for capital and the fact that a handful of young, innovate people will be holding up the cowardly old fogies, potentially for the rest of their lives; It ain't subtle, but it seems reasonable, and the characters are all just aware of their position enough to give it a little levity to keep it from feeling too dire.

Let's not kid ourselves, there's some obvious nationalism going on, to say nothing of the pot-shots taken at Korea, Russia and the States - with the American presence being filled in largely by the lovely Satomi ISHIHARA, who plays Kayaco Anne Peterson, the Japanese Special Envoy to the President of the United States. There's been some rumblings for the film being "right wing", but I don't really see it; if anything the old guard explains that without being open to globalization and allegiances with old enemies in times of crisis, we're all apt to crush ourselves under a lack of capital and resources. Pride in your homeland isn't worth much if it's reduced to a smoking crater. Even the holy rhetoric enacted by Emperor Hideko TOJO is criticized outright, which is the sort of thing you wouldn't expect from blatant pro-military traditionalist propaganda; if anything, I suspect that most American critics who are also aware of Japan's place in the political landscape simply lean left themselves, and are surprised when the film throws ideas from both sides of the aisle in a desperate attempt not to placate any one audience, but to face facts: Japanese Bureaucracy doesn't always work, and nobody has a simple way fix it completely.

Back to Peterson, her role is somewhat more interesting than I expected - a native born American in personality and ambition, but Japanese in both ancestry and culture - which leaves her conflicted as shit starts to edge toward the fan and leaves her torn between the love of her grandmother's country, and her own political gain. I figured I'd hate her the moment I saw her, but in the end she's kind of endearing... unfortunately, her obviously phonetic Engrish is terrible. I mean it's understandable, which is better than some Japanese actors I've watched spew nonsense syllable salad, but an American, who lives in America, in politics? Are you kidding me?

Yeah, I know. It's a nitpick nobody but native English speakers (who are hardly the target audience) are going to be annoyed by, but... it's still pretty bad.

Our leads.
(Mostly. I guess?)

It'd also be unfair to talk about a Hideaki Anno film without mentioning the presentation; the film's cast is constantly moving, being expanded and shuffled from place to place as new details come to light, which means that subtitles are almost always on-screen in Japanese, giving the viewer some new nugget of context. Camerawork get more frenetic as plans come together, or the audience is only allowed to peek out from dense legal text explaining why the plan won't get approved in the first place; for a film in which the majority of the run time are guys in suits grumbling back and fourth over how absurd their suggestions are due to walls of red tape and a lack of resources on hand, the presentation is about as dynamic and engaging as it was ever going to get. It's not as memorable looking as Cutie Honey, sadly, but I try to picture the monster of this film being "2.5D" as Honey herself was and... then I just don't know how to feel anymore.

The soundtrack, composed largely by Shiro SAGISU, is also as eclectic and beautiful as you'd expect, with the operatic original tracks - including "Persecution of the Masses" and "Who Will Know", tracks that can only be described as operatic. It goes another direction, too, which we'll get into shortly, but all of the original pieces - even those fans of Anno will be intimately familiar with - are fantastic. Anno knows how to use a full surround stage to great effect, and if for no other reason, I'd say see this in a theater just to hear how amazing things are when things start to go downhill for humanity.

In short, Shin Godzilla offers fans a very polished and absolutely unexpected reboot of one of cinema's most iconic antiheroes. I don't think everyone will love it, nor perhaps should they, but Anno seems to have crafted an intense and one-of-a-kind film that's best described as a political thriller with a grotesque sense of humor over its' walking disaster. Yes, it's a dialogue heavy movie less about characters than about ever changing conflict, but considering how much everyone and their mother hated the "dumb action" focused Roland Emmerich movie, this may well be the ideal alternative. It's a fine film, and one that's going to be hotly debated and derided by long time fans of the iconic monster - and not without reason.

To be fair a lot of people hated Emmerich for screwing with Godzilla himself, and hey, about that...



Anno has been making kaiju movies in the form of giant robot anime since the 1980s, so I had little doubt he'd figure out how to make this work. What I DIDN'T expect was for Godzilla, the iconic King of the Monsters, to make his first full appearance as the "Monster A Form" - a bloated muppet impression of a moray eel with stubby legs and pulsating and bleeding gills, dragging his googly-eyed face along the city streets like a literal fish out of water who's had about two drinks too many. 

Dubbed "Kamata-kun" - evidently a pun I don't follow on the legendary Yamata no Orochi, an eight-headed serpent referenced later in the film (subtitled as "Hydra" by the official English translation) - it's infuriatingly stupid watching that gore-spewing amphibious turkey terrorize the populace... and I fucking loved it! Plenty of people won't, and while I know the decision was done to be divisive, I just can't comprehend why we expected any different. It's such an inversion of expectations, such a dick move to pull on such an iconic design that it was built solely to incite fury and confusion, and as far as trolling the audience goes, it may well have set the gold standard. The fact that this absurd fever dream of an introduction is set to the powerful operatic score only enhances how gloriously stupid it all is.

Of course, Shin Godzilla doesn't stay this way for long; after realizing that upward mobility and forearms are required for traversing the world of man, he simply reaches a point where his entire body starts to ripple and instantly mutates into a newer, larger, more mobile form. I'm actually a bit disappointed how brief the Tyrannosaurus shape is on screen for, but the mere sight of him changing the shape and even mass of his body at will is such an unexpected and bizarre sight, I'm fine with the execution overall. There's also something to be said about Godzilla transforming from an awkward sea creature, to a literal dinosaur, to a humanoid monster that uses nuclear firepower as its' final and most horrifying form. I won't lie, I'd have been thrilled to see a few additional "in-between" forms just to satisfy my transforming monster lust, but what we have is a largely logical blueprint... and besides, the subtle shift we get in the third act - to say nothing of the surprise waiting for us in the final shot of the film - suggest other directors less concerned with proving their concept a lot of  room to play with going forward.

Awkward or not... goddamn,
this shot was still impressive.

Whatever misgivings fans may have had for the goofy looking first form, or the fleeting images of the second I'm almost surprised were given action figures, the majority of the film features the almost zombified "Shin Godzilla" we've seen in posters and trailers, and I find myself with decidedly mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, the design is imposing, unsettling - a literal and gruesome monster the likes of which Lovecraft would wake up in the middle of the night screaming over, and then try to figure out how to make it the product of the Jews later on. On the one hand, watching Shin Gojira, God Incarnate, emerge on land for the first time is exactly what fans who weren't impressed by the Legendary Pictures' Hollywood-style reboot were waiting over a decade for. It's pure, unfiltered fanservice, and it's exactly what fans who know the difference between the Showa, Heisei and Millennium films wanted...

And yet, after Kamata-kun's clumsy, casually blood-spewing and laughter-inducing drunken rampage, watching his march like a wind-up toy across towards Tokyo just feels too... sterile. His tiny unblinking eyes, shockingly stiff body language, and complete lack of vocalizations make him look like a massive robot rather than the clever evolving beast we were introduced to prior (and will see again later). Mansai NOMURA provided the CGI motion capture, but here it looks like it's simply a statue being wheeled along a track, only his tail allowed to show the slightest amount of character, despite Nomura giving the beast a certain consistent level of curious personality and grouchy determination in every other scene the film has to offer. 

Oh no, they say he's got to go...
Oh no, there goes Tokyo...

Further adding to this sensation of rickety awkwardness is the literal recycling of - at times - 50+ year old mono recordings of Akira IFUKUBE tracks from the Showa era films. They certainly hit the right notes for nostalgic Showa era fans, but they also feel so afraid to go off-model from such a transparent, literal return to form it manages to have even less personality than the original 1954 monster. Rumor has it that Anno was intending to remaster the tracks in stereo for the film, but "difficulties" prevented it, and in the end they simply went with the decades old mono mixes as-is. For a guy who gets new compositions of public-domain classical music for his cartoon about kids shitting themselves with existential fear in robot cockpits, this just seems lazy.

And then it dawned on me: The time before this, we saw Godzilla fully evolve from a wiggling eel into a tyrannosaurus-piranha hybrid, and then he... just, sauntered off. And then when we see him again, he's taken on the "classic" Godzilla form, with no real indication that he had a distinct need to evolve any further, despite his constant exploration of his body in every other scene in the film being the result of him experiencing a threat or hardship, and using his biology to find a solution to it. In that case, why show an interim form at all if the only reason to do so is to prove that he can evolve in real-time? Wouldn't something more drastic - or even some gradual steps in between the "Final Form" on his way to the center of Tokyo - make far more sense from both a pacing and storytelling standpoint?

And, suddenly, all I could think of is this...

Right now there are exactly two kinds of people:
Those who are angry, and those who are confused.


For those totally lost, the original Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series - which started as a fairly "normal", if overly dramatic and "realistic" take on classic mecha shows like Mazinger Z and Space Runway Ideon - became a social phenomenon when it took an almost Twin Peaks-esque turn in the second half, becoming a fusion of existentialist self-flagellation, overlapping religious iconography, and extreme violence.  The hints of these elements are there in plain sight the whole time, they just ramp up from "Oh, that was unusual" to "NO SERIOUSLY, WHAT THE HELL IS EVEN GOING ON?!" via a sort of frog-in-boiling-water nature. Once the weird hits you, it's far too late to save yourself, and you'll find yourself reading up on the Seraphic Tree and Arthur Schopenhauer just to have a baseline understanding of what's going on. Mercifully, Shin Godzilla never goes that far... but I'm bringing all of that up for a reason.

See, the TV series was simply too big to ignore, and the blatantly offensive content - such as giant monsters literally eating each others' hearts, staining the entire countryside in blood while teenagers screamed and begged for them to stop - became such a big deal that while broadcasters had previously let Gainax deliver the finished video masters just hours before broadcast, they now required a 24 hour window to preview everything. Anyone who knows anything about anime production knows that this shit is always polished and fixed at the last possible second - seriously, go watch Shiro Bako for an idea of what animation production actually looks like, and keep in mind that the lack of technology to quickly fix fuck-ups in the 90s made this even harder - that when push came to shove, Evangelion became a clusterfuck of limited animation, off-screen dramatic, events and - in the final two episodes - one of the most surreal and desperate visions of the apocalypse ever crafted.

The finale was so controversial, yet the series so popular, ultimately a Director's Cut of the final 6 episodes was released on home video, ending with an entire theatrical movie - The End of Evangelion - effectively remaking those controversial final episodes from scratch and splicing them back into the "Complete Version" as episodic experiences alongside the, arguably, more cerebral minimalist finale... but, that's another story.


The above sequence with the tiny man in the giant hand? It's actually a minute long freeze-frame as Ode to Joy fades to nothing. In short, when his hands are tied, you can generally tell by the obvious level of pure spite on-screen. And, of course, it's also entirely possible Anno is just an aging pretentious hack and I'm giving him far too much credit... but if it that entire was the result of a little bit of both, I wouldn't be too shocked.

It's also worth noting that the effects crew themselves talked about a "Tadpole" creature that seemingly matches the description of the completely unseen figure lurking beneath the water the whole first act. I could forgive the loss of a "Form Zero" for the sake of getting to the good stuff - by which I totally mean Kamata-kun! - but the literal non-entity of a Tadpole 'Zilla, and the momentary glimpse of a T-Rex Zilla are such oddities that they can't help but give me pause.

With the above in mind, I'm now truly honestly curious if there was an entire reel's worth or so of content jettisoned during production with the "Monster B Form", as having his armored shell before he's been attacked by human weapons doesn't actually make a lot of sense in the context they went out of their way to build about his powerset... but, I guess we'll probably never know. Toho is incredibly protective of their most famous star, and Anno isn't known for talking shit after a project finishes, so the fleeting presence of the red, birdlike monstrosity that goes literally nowhere before scurrying off-screen feels like a last-minute change somewhere along the project, with the trailer-friendly zombified march of the final form likely being more in line with what Toho was expecting of the project the whole time.

Just a sunny afternoon in Downtown Tokyo for Toho.

Now, that having been said, every complaint here is nullified, instantly, by the time Godzilla gets to central Tokyo. Watching this monolithic beast suddenly lose its' stoic cool after being nearly a statue for so long has a certain inherent shock to it, and what follows is the most amazing instance of city destruction porn I may have ever witnessed. It's breathtaking, technicolor beauty and satisfyingly massive scale is the stuff that you could make love to, and the fact that it begins with Godzilla, breaking his own fucking face, just to make his trademark atomic breath physically possible is exactly why I was fascinated at the thought of Anno picking up the reigns in the first place. The obvious body horror, physicality of the chemical changes, and final otherwordly beauty are the sort of creative images that nobody else on the planet delivers quite like Anno, and Higuchi brought them to life in a way nobody else could have realized.

After this jaw-dropping scene, however, the film shifts gears back to the offices of the Prime Minister and quickly finds itself back in the hands of the floundering politicians; brave, clever, and desperate to find a solution before the rest of the world finds one for them... yeah, that stuff's still pretty good. But it didn't make me nearly as erect as watching Anno's vision of Tokyo turned into a sea of a flames.

Aside from the real-world military hardware (which is pretty damn satisfying to watch!), it's never photo realistic or cutting edge as far as the effects go, and anyone who expects that from a Japanese Godzilla film is so amazingly far off the mark I'm not entirely sure why they're watching this to begin with. Gareth Edwards - for all of his tedious second act filler trying to convince us its' human drama - has already crafted the ultimate, "realistic" Godzilla, and I'm surprised how intrigued I am by Legendary's similar upcoming treatment of Kong: Skull Island. For Anno and Toho to even try to top that would have been a fool's errand, so instead we get bug-eyed turkeys smashing their face into shit. I'm fine with this, and I think once the obvious reality of what the movie was always going to be sets in, most of the people grumpy about it now will come to the same conclusion eventually.

And as for the final, unsettling shot of the film... hoo, boy. I can't wait for what's an obvious visual metaphor of Godzilla trying to achieve his final, perfect form to be misinterpreted for the next 10 years! Though damn it all, I AM curious if the sequels will pick it up from there and go batshit crazy with what it implies...



That said, for all the things that frustrated me about the above mentioned monster-porn build up, there was a handful of shots - curious, high up, almost introspective shots of the monster - one of which shows it rearing, which is features in many of the film's trailers. It's clear to me this particular shot was the giant mechanical puppet - it was too big to be a "suit" in any traditional sense of the word, and is closer to the stunt-suit used for various shots in the original 1954 film. Those shots bothered, not because "they're not CGI and you can tell" (even though you can), but because... well, Shin Godzilla's face was an entirely different shape than the CGI model. It was longer, had larger eyes - I suppose it was a bit more crocidillian whereas the "normal" CG model was more humanoid. Something about this bothered me, and it took a conversation with the better half to pin down where the issue was...

With all the attention to detail in the figures and so on, why are the proportions of his head a different shape in the actual movie? How would they not catch that?

> Wait. The original Godzilla had two different suits, didn't it?

Well sure. The prototype was turned into the fire breathing head, and it had a longer snout and bigger eyes and...!!!

> What's your problem.


> Yeah. That's what I said.


...I mean, it could be a coincidence that Hideaki "Evangelion" Anno - known for layers of subtle foreshadowing, obscure external references, and generally being a mischevious bastard - accidentally replicated the same mistakes as the film he's effectively remaking... but if that's a coincidence, it proves Anno's a hundred times better at this shit than anyone's giving him credit for. Even if it's completely by accident.

Whether Shin Godzilla's greatness - and curious flaws - is the result of cautious, intentional craftsmanship or accidental genius are ultimately irrelevant. It did the impossible and justified both Legendary and Toho producing fully independent and tonally opposite Godzilla, for different (if oft overlapping) audiences, and there's something gloriously fun about that. If you can see this in an American theater before October 18th, I'd recommend it... the sheer scale of the massive, explosive elements are worth seeing on the biggest screen possible, even if you'll also be able to tell exactly when Anno cribbed some shitty YouTube stock footage.