shin godzilla (godzilla resurgence)
Shin Godzilla (シン・ゴジラ — Shin Gojira), the new Godzilla movie co-directed by Hideaki Anno (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) and Shinji Higuchi (who worked on the Gamera movies from the 1990s), turns out to be a scantily concealed allegory about the failure of the Japanese government to deal adequately with the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region. The screenplay, written by Anno, draws a great deal of attention to the weak decision-making of government officials, as well as the complete lack of adequate systems for gathering up-to-date information, a total breakdown in communication between administrative sections, and an almost willful blindness to the initial severity of the situation. These criticisms almost precisely replicate those put forth in the final report of the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company, which, according to an article from The Guardian, concluded that the “The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties.” The final determination of the report was that the disaster had been almost entirely “man-made.”
1. Godzilla and nuclear catastrophe
The original 1954 Godzilla (ゴジラ — Gojira), directed by Ishiro Honda, introduced Godzilla to the world as an explicit metaphor for atomic devastation. Godzilla’s rampage and the destruction wreaked upon Tokyo was intended to reflect the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla may have all the destructive force of a natural disaster but is, in fact, fundamentally man-made — a radioactively mutated gorilla-whale that is the product of of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
The creature in Shin Godzilla (which literally means “new Godzilla” in Japanese) is also man-made — this time a product of barrels of nuclear waste dumped into the ocean by the United States (the US was far from alone in this practice — and Japan itself is responsible for dumping its fair share of radioactive waste into the ocean). Anno’s decision to refer to the creature as “new” Godzilla functions in two ways. First, Anno is signalling a break from the evolutionary arc of the Godzilla franchise, in which Godzilla is initially featured as a chaotic force of destruction but rapidly transforms into a benevolent, and at times even goofy, protector of Japan. It’s not much of a stretch to draw a parallel between this representational trend and the way in which the threat of the atom bomb was ‘domesticated’ in the form of nuclear power under the auspices of the Atoms for Peace program. In this sense Anno’s “new” Godzilla can be seen as a new version of the original Godzilla, a reemergence of a cinematic ethos that was meant to be chaotic and terrifying rather than comforting and entertaining. Secondly, Anno’s “new” Godzilla is meant to be new in the sense of iteration: the first Godzilla was Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and nuclear testing in the Pacific, while the latest Godzilla wears havoc in the guise of the reactor core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
What’s remarkable about Shin Godzilla is the way in which the the trajectory of the movie so closely matches the timeline of the meltdowns at the Daiichi plant. First there is an explosion at a tunnel that runs under Tokyo Bay, but rather than doing anything about such a potentially catastrophic event all of the parties involved — including Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line transit officials, the mayor’s office, regional safety officials, and representatives of the national government — end up in a series of round-robin meetings in which everyone keeps repeatedly assuring each other that everything is under control while, outside of the meeting rooms, everything is spiraling further and further out of control. When Godzilla first appears on land — in the form of a mutated sea creature that looks a bit like a giant confused chicken carcass with lots of teeth that’s spewing a red, blood-like substance everywhere — the official response is for everyone to sit around and watch events unfold on television while doing literally nothing. Godzilla destroys neighborhood after neighborhood on the waterfront while those in charge of disaster management sit and watch it happen, in much the same way that the Kan government waited for three days after the meltdowns had already begun to convene a panel of nuclear experts. The description of the communication breakdowns and delays surrounding the Fukushima disaster is worth reading in full if you want to get an idea of just how badly the disaster was mismanaged — and just how incompetent the response to Godzilla’s first foray into Tokyo is portrayed as being in Anno’s film.
The scenes showing the destruction of the waterfront district of Tokyo are exacting recreations of the damage caused by the tsunami all along the coast of the Tohoku region and the landscapes of piled rubble left behind by Godzilla’s rampage could be from a 2011 photo documentary.
In the end, Godzilla is stopped by, essentially, being frozen. A team led by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (if the opaqueness of his title doesn’t give you some idea of the bureaucratic convolutions involved in this movie, then nothing will) ascertains that Godzilla’s blood works as a kind of cooling system and they speculate that if they add coagulant to the system it will trigger a reaction that will cause Godzilla to freeze. The scenes of the water trucks surrounding the prone Godzilla and pumping coagulant into the creature’s open mouth may look hilariously like some kind of complicated maneuver in a dental office but these scenes also mirror the initial emergency response to the overheating reactors at the Daiichi plant in which a fleet of trucks with cranes and water canons filled the reactors with sea water in an effort to cool them enough to keep them from exploding. The plan to save Tokyo by freezing Godzilla also recalls Tepco’s ice wall — the underground barrier of frozen earth constructed in a (failed) effort to limit the amount of groundwater seeping into the Daiichi site and keep releases of contaminated water from entering the Pacific ocean.
In the final sequence of the movie, Godzilla — skin blanched white with frost — looms over what remains of the Tokyo skyline, frozen mid-attack in an aggressive stance that figures dormancy as threat. Godzilla’s enormous unmoving bulk radiates an inescapable static menace that is the tangible analogue of the crisis at the Daiichi plant that remains largely out of sight and out of mind — temporarily neutralized, but with the chronic potential of returning explosively to life.
2. Let’s have a meeting: Verfremdungseffekt
If Anno’s critique of the managerial incompetence surrounding the 2011 nuclear crisis was limited to the hulking metaphor of Godzilla as harbinger of radioactive doom, then Shin Godzilla would be, in many ways, a remake without much of a difference. However, on a formal level what Anno does with Shin Godzilla is remarkable. Unlike any action movie I’ve ever seen, Shin Godzilla is characterized by the way in which the flow of action is constantly interrupted by meetings. These meetings involve a great deal of discussion; in fact, there is so much dialogue in these scenes that the actors are forced to deliver their lines at an unnaturally fast pace in order to fit them all in within the running time of the film. The lines are generally delivered in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, and sometimes accompanied by supplementary informational text that covers significant portions of the screen, often to the point where the speakers themselves start to disappear behind a veil of language. The meetings are interminable and make up perhaps 50% of the total screen time of the movie.
Unlike movies centered around a conflict among government officials in which the conflict itself becomes the source of drama, here the possibility of drama is curtailed by the lack of dominant personalities and the slow pace of the meetings, which purposely drain momentum from the film. These are meetings that often seem to go nowhere and result in nothing getting done. The meetings that involve the Prime Minister are the most damning. In meeting after meeting the Prime Minister listens to a variety of opinions, and each and every time ends the session by replying “I understand,” a phrase that soon becomes evacuated of all meaning as it becomes clear that ‘understanding’ isn’t helping at all with the formulation of a decisive and effective plan of action. The Prime Minister’s repetition of this phrase becomes almost robotic, a pro forma exclamation that gets uttered simply because the Prime Minister knows that what’s expected of a Prime Minister is the performative utterance of just such phrases.
The stark aesthetic shifts between Godzilla’s grandiose destruction of urban infrastructure and the sterile boredom of the workaday meeting spaces where the emergency discussion sessions are held — shifts that completely break down the dynamic rhythms that have come to be associated with a typical action film — end up functioning almost as a kind of Brechtian alienation effect. Verfremdungseffekt — also known as the ‘alienation effect’ or ‘distancing effect’ — was a concept that was developed by Brecht, along with a series of accompanying staging techniques, with the intention of keeping audience members from psychologically identifying with the characters in a play (or movie). By preventing psychological identification, the audience members are able to approach a work on an intellectual level rather than an emotional level and draw their own conclusions about the content of a performance, rather than reading that content through the emotional lens of a particular character’s point of view. If there’s one thing that can be said about Anno’s depiction of the bureaucratic officialdom that forms the human core of Shin Godzilla, it’s that none of the characters are depicted with psychological depth — nor are we given any significant background about the characters’ personal lives, not even the kind of hasty shorthand that is often used in contemporary action movies to provide the ersatz emotional substance that is intended to make the heroic protagonists “relatable.”
It’s almost impossible to identify on an emotional level with any of the characters in Shin Godzilla, but that’s not the only way in which Anno’s film holds the viewer at a distance. Shin Godzilla almost entirely avoids the usual forms of sentimentality that are deployed in an effort to tug at audience heartstrings. There are no weeping hobbits here, or parents who are under the impression that their child has just perished in a collapsing apartment building only to subsequently discover the child happily playing away in a nearby sandbox. There is also a distinct lack of monster movie gore porn. Instead Anno gives us the anti-melodrama of clinical scenes of destruction that keep away from the type of operatic overload that has become the hallmark of so many contemporary action films. This is not to say that there is not plenty of dramatic destruction, but rather that the destruction is mostly framed objectively rather than through the panicked point of view of an observer in the thick of things, and it is not overly aestheticized. Anno often provides tactical aerial views of Godzilla carving paths of destruction through Tokyo that seem to call on the audience members to make sense of the patterns of Godzilla’s movement, as if asked to take on the role of objective kaiju scientists . . . or the role of critically engaged viewers, busily mapping the allegorical patterns of the film against the social and political analogs that link Shin Godzilla to the melted cores of reactor units 1, 2, and 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
3. A sting in the tail
At the close of the movie, the camera zooms in on the frozen tail of Godzilla, which is held high in the air. Emerging from the skin, seemingly in pain, are a series of humanoid forms that look something like skinless human mutations with fin-like protrusions sticking out of their backs. What are these humanoid forms? The movie doesn’t say. Are they a humanoid mob of radioactive zombies that are intended to be at the center of an upcoming sequel? Or are these humanoid figures just another example of Anno’s famously oblique storytelling? Perhaps these humanoids are bits of DNA picked up by Godzilla’s rampaging tail that have, through some kind of radioactive synthesis, resulted in a mutation. Or perhaps this is another metaphor, a message about human activity in the Anthropocene and the way in which we are all a part of of the natural disaster now.
Filed under: cinema, culture, film, Japan | 1 Comment
Tags: alienation effect, anti-sentimentality, ゴジラ, シン・ゴジラ, Bertolt Brecht, Brechtian, distancing effect, Fukushima Daiichi, Godzilla, Godzilla Resurgence, Hideaki Anno, nuclear disaster, political allegory, radiation, Shin Godzilla, Verfremdungseffekt