The passing of Haruo Nakajima came just days after I was able to watch Shin Godzilla for the first time. It’s made me pause to reevaluate the way I was going to write this article. Initially, I’d intended it to be a straight review of the latest episode in the life and times of the most well-known lizard beast in cinematic history but now, thinking on what I was going to say, I’ve gone back and watched the original Godzilla (or Gojira) and I think there are some parallels to be found in these two movies made sixty years apart from one another.
Shin Godzilla is the most recent addition to the Toho series of movies surrounding the legendary King of the Monsters. The story itself, however, is an origin story and an entry into an entirely new universe of stories about the titular monster. While this isn’t the first time we’ve had the character reintroduced, it falls more in line with a much older trope in which the creature is far from the heroic defender of mankind that we’ve come to know in American and Japanese cinema over the last few decades. However, he’s also no villain. The Godzilla of this latest film is a natural disaster, an unprecedented nuclear creation that washes onto the shores of Tokyo and threatens the modern mega city with its very existence.
The story follows Yaguchi, a young bureaucrat who immediately sets to work on a plan to neutralize the threat to Japan before the U.S. and U.N. forces intervene with a nuclear weapon. No country in the world has the painfully intimate relationship with nuclear holocaust that Japan does. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have the distinction of being the only cities ever obliterated by nuclear weapons since their first successful test in the 1940s and have served as painful reminders of just how dangerous mankind can truly be. In the decades following the end of World War Two, Japan has devoted itself to peace while maintaining a small defensive force in accordance with the terms of their surrender. But in recent years, the political climate has been changing and the youth of Japan have been seeking out more independence from the global interference they feel the U.S. and its other ally nations have imposed on it over the last 70 years. It’s a political statement made clear through the storytelling using a giant nuclear lizard as a backdrop for a more politically and socially charged tale.
It’s done in very much the same way that we use zombies to tell stories of government overreach, consumerism, and the death of individuality as it is slowly swallowed up in collectivist ideologies. The kaiju (giant monster) genre has been used to tell stories warning of the dangers of oppressive super powers and nuclear holocaust as well as to encourage the youth of a generation to rise up and hold fast against even the most oppressive and unstoppable forces that oppose them.
Where Shin Godzilla is a tale of overcoming foreign powers and warding off nuclear obliteration, the original Godzilla actually ran along a similar line. The story of a creature born of nuclear testing and fallout coming ashore in a reconstruction era Tokyo spoke to the fears of a people who were recovering not only from war but from a complete upheaval of everything they had known as a society. Now reliant on a foreign power for their defense and reeling from the thought of again being the victims of a nuclear tragedy, the giant monster was a vessel to convey a message of hope in the face of such fears. Despite the continued failings of the military and civil defense to ward off the enormous, radioactive beast, it was Japanese intellect and ingenuity that eventually drove the creature back into the sea. Likewise, it was that same ingenuity and vision that brought the creature to life on film. Creating sets, techniques, and a full body rubber suit operated by Haruo Nakajima, an entirely new subgenre of horror film was created. The aesthetic is one that even today continues to live on in all forms of media, as giant monsters terrorize cities from live-action film and television productions to anime, videogames, and comic books.
Shin Godzilla stands proudly in this pantheon of kaiju films and, even amongst the 30+ titles bearing his name or likeness, has to be one of best in terms of storytelling and aesthetic design. Yes, it’s replete with terrible English overdubs including one bureaucrat who talks in a Sean Connery voice throughout the movie. Figure that shit out. It also has the incredibly cool, gross, and somehow hilarious evolution of Godzilla from hellish hatching to his eventual final form as the city smashing monster we know and love. Shin Godzilla is available to stream on Amazon and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.