Big in Japan

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One of the things that happened to me after I saw Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is that I couldn’t, and still can’t, watch a Hollywood big-spectacle blockbuster without noticing just how hokey everything is. Verhoeven’s sci-fi actioner is the quintessential satirical poke-and-jab at the Hollywood Cinema of Spectacle, disguised as a shallow, violent no-brainer featuring a blond, blue-eyed patriotic hero. It takes every Hollywood cliche known to humans and puts it through the special-effects-driven-action-film generator to create a silly, politically incorrect, and yet enjoyable, spectacle that is just about the most self-reflexive movie there is out there. In short, it punches all the right buttons for the action-movie fan and fanboy, yet makes you feel uncomfortable in realising that it is also everything that is wrong with Hollywood movies. It was, and is, the Hollywood action movie to end all Hollywood action movies.

I brought this up because watching Shin Godzilla reminded me of it – the cheesiness and hokeyness of a big-spectacle blockbuster. While it’s designed to please fans of Godzilla and monster movies with “cool” and “awesome” sequences of the King of the Monsters first making landfall and then returning for an all-out visual extravaganza, it’s really also as self-aware as Starship Troopers.

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Normally, the standard procedure for the Cinema of Spectacle is to focus the story on a few characters, to provide an emotional core.  But it seems director Anno Hideaki, who is also the creator of Evangelion, would have none of that. Shin Godzilla is a breathlessly-paced “government procedural” from the get-go. And by “breathlessly-paced,” I really do mean “exposition on speed.”

It’s a story about emergencies, and not so much a cautionary tale about nuclear power like in the 1954 original made a decade or so after Japan’s nuclear twin-devastation, an event alluded to only very briefly in Shin Godzilla. The scenes of destruction in the new film are reminiscent of the many news footage and videos we saw of the Fukushima tsunami disaster. So, in a way, Shin Godzilla is more of a cautionary tale about dealing with disasters.

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And this is where the film reveals its true nature – it’s not so much a monster movie but a film about the cost of becoming a super-efficient, highly regimented nation. The world-famous Japanese efficiency is slowly unraveled in the film as the titular kaiju becomes increasingly dangerous and gets ever closer to the densely populated Tokyo.

It’s a sharp-witted, ascerbic dissection of bureaucracy, a pointed look at how a simple task can be complicated by the incongruous layers of authority. When the military is about to land its first major strike on the marauding monster, the man behind the gun has to hesitate when civilians get in the way, and wait for his report and further instruction to go through the many levels of authority. The end result? The government is constantly frustrated by its own system, a hilarious point driven through many times in the film.

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It’s a smart path to take with an already saturated franchise. How many more stories can you churn out of the Godzilla legacy? Well, here’s one more, probably the most Japanese of all Japanese Godzilla movies, a film about what it’s like living within a rigid staccato of codes and rules. At one point, the US special envoy, a woman named Kayako Anne Patterson – who strangely speaks heavily accented English despite being born in America – asks of her Japanese counterpart if they could do away with all the formalities and honorifics. And the phrase “Do as we like” later becomes a sort of mantra for the many “geeks and nerds” outside of the establishment to rally themselves together for one final blitzkrieg on the monster.

This most Japanese of all Japanese monster movies concerns itself very much with the effects a monster attack would have on, not just governance, but also the Japanese psyche. (This is also why I think Shin Godzilla cannot be remade by Hollywood or anyone outside of Japan.) Anno drives the movie pedal-to-the-metal, with hokeyness, histrionics and cheesy characters reminding us that after all, this is still a monster movie, despite being packed with real-world elements such as Japan-US relations, the pacifist Self Defence Force, the one-sided nature of geopolitics, and such.

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As a monster movie, Shin Godzilla is enjoyable, with special effects that far surpass what you would normally find in Japanese movies, and with more than a nod to the original movie. Even though the yakkity exposition never stops, it somehow never feels tiresome. Perhaps Anno has learned a thing or two after making the increasingly convoluted Evangelion series.

But it’s when Shin Godzilla fully embodies the hilarious satire that it is, that it works best. Just like Starship Troopers.

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