After 12 years in storage (or on Monster Island) a Japanese Godzilla is roaring again. Toho film studios has revived the world’s favorite atomic-breathed monster in “Shin Godzilla,” which is set for nationwide release today.
However, a lot has changed since the big guy last tromped through Japan in Ryuhei Kitamura’s widely panned box-office flop, “Godzilla: Final Wars” (2004). For one thing, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 “Godzilla,” a Hollywood-produced CGI hit that earned $529 million worldwide and paid homage to the Japanese franchise (though without the series’ classic practical effects), revived fan interest in Toho’s signature character. Japan, where the film made a solid ¥3.2 billion, was no exception.
In addition to that, the series’ 60th anniversary in 2014 prompted retro screenings and reappraisals that centered on the work of the men who had started it all: Ishiro Honda, director of the 1954 “Godzilla” film, special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and long-time series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka.
So when Toho revealed in December 2014 that it would finally reboot the series, fan expectations were understandably high. They rose even higher with Toho’s later announcement that the new film’s co-directors would be Hideaki Anno, creator of the cult favorite “Evangelion” sci-fi anime franchise, and Shinji Higuchi, a veteran effects specialist responsible for the live-action “Attack on Titan” films. Once shooting began in September 2015, based on Anno’s script, “Godzilla” otaku (obsessed fans) tried to root out every tidbit of news on the production, with Toho doing its best to thwart them.
Higuchi, who is in charge of the film’s effects work, has taken what he calls a “hybrid” approach to animating the title monster and the destruction he wreaks, incorporating both advanced computer-generated imagery and traditional practical effects. But one thing that has not completely changed since the original “Godzilla” is the use of “suitmation,” where an actor wears a monster suit and trudges through a miniaturized cityscape. It’s a workaround that Tsuburaya developed for the 1954 film to replace expensive and time-consuming stop-motion animation, which was Hollywood’s preferred method for its big-budget creature features, going back to “King Kong” in 1933.
Higuchi and his team, however, have used three humans, not the traditional guy in a suit, augmented by various digital enhancements to bring Godzilla lumbering to life.
Another series constant found in the new film is the concerted effort of Japan’s government and Self-Defense Forces to battle Godzilla — which at 118.5 meters is the biggest in the series’ history. (The monster’s actual on-set size differs, of course, though last year Toho unveiled a life-size Godzilla head looming over the eighth-floor observation deck of Hotel Gracery in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.) In many “Godzilla” films, these uniformed and dark-suited men (and a few women) watch anxiously as the conventional bullets, shells and missiles of the authorities only stir the monster’s rage — not stop the rampage. Earnest these folks may be, effective they are not.
Norman England is a life-long Godzilla fan and former reporter for Fangoria magazine who has spent months on “Godzilla” film sets and saw “Shin Godzilla” last month at a special industry screening. He notes a dramatic departure in the new film from the series’ traditional pacifistic stance.
“This is the first film in the series to go for the jugular in trying to elicit rah-rah support for the military and sympathy for the government,” England says, likening the film’s not-so-subtle nationalism to the blatant flag-waving found in Roland Emmerich’s 1996 sci-fi epic “Independence Day.”
“Godzilla was originally imagined as a metaphor for the horrors of war and the devastation war brings to people, whether deserved or not,” he continues. “How this new approach will play domestically and internationally is anyone’s guess.”
Toho has an answer of sorts: It has sold “Shin Godzilla” to nearly 100 territories. In the United States, Funimation Entertainment has acquired the film for a late 2016 theatrical debut. This does not guarantee that it will be a success there — or here for that matter. Emmerich’s 1998 “Godzilla,” which reimagined the titular character as a kind of giant iguana, received a similar worldwide release but was a box-office disappointment in both North America and Japan, the latter of which should have been its strongest overseas market.
Other, less negative views of the film will no doubt emerge — but not from this writer, at least not immediately. Toho has not held the usual press screenings for the media and the industry, opting instead for what it called a “world premiere red carpet event” on July 25 in Tokyo that brought cast and staff on stage and was streamed to fans by the Line Live service. The lucky viewers, however, did not get to see the entire film. This keep-it-under-wraps release strategy is highly unusual in Japan, though not in Hollywood, where studios have long limited media access to certain films, typically turkeys whose critical savaging is only delayed, not avoided.
Fortunately for Toho, post-premiere reviews have been mostly positive. Writing for Eiga.com, Kazuo Ozaki raves that, “Hollywood, even with all its money, can’t approach this kind of perfection,” while Koichi Irikura of the website Cinema Today hails the “birth of a masterpiece that boldly announces the revival of a Japanese Godzilla.” But given these and other reviews with a pro-Toho, anti-Hollywood tinge, the film seems to be stirring the patriotic sentiments that England found in its story line.
In any event, Anno and Higuchi’s film seems likely to recoup any costs. Since 2004, Toho and its partners have perfected a production committee system in which committee members, typically big media companies, share the cost of production and the work of promotion, while retaining certain rights. Not every film made by this system is a hit, but Toho’s box-office record is the envy of the industry, especially for its releases at peak times in the film-year calendar: New Year’s, Golden Week and the summer school holiday. In 2015, eight of the 10 top-earning domestic films were Toho releases, including the summer’s biggest hit, Mamoru Hosoda’s animation “The Boy and the Beast” (“Bakemono no Ko”).
Also, the dual directors of “Shin Godzilla” are not newcomers to the genre like Kitamura, but respected sci-fi/fantasy veterans. Anno especially has acquired a large global fan base and garnered critical kudos for his “Evangelion” sci-fi franchise, beginning with the original 1995-96 TV series and continuing with the “Rebuild of Evangelion” (“Evangelion: New Theatrical Edition”) cinematic tetralogy.
At a press conference on July 19 that announced the completion of the film, Anno confessed that he had initially turned down Toho’s offer.
“For me, the appeal of Godzilla is summarized in the first film,” Anno explained. “I refused (the offer) since I didn’t have confidence that I could exceed the first film or come close to equaling it. But I thought that if I were to come close even a little, I would have to do the same thing (as the first film).”
By that he did not mean a shot-by-shot remake, but an origin story in which humans see Godzilla for the first time.
“The fascinating thing about films in which monsters appear is the interest of something different coming into view, of a foreign object in contemporary society,” he explained.
In creating that “foreign object” he and his team reached deep into the CGI toolbox to make a digital version of Godzilla that old-school fans, attached to the series’ suitmation tradition, may not approve of. Not that Anno minds: “We got wonderful results — (this film) will change people’s impression of Japanese CGI. With this film, Japanese cinema may even change.”
“Shin Godzilla” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.shin-godzilla.jp. Mark Schilling is set to review the film next week on the Aug. 3 Film page.