Watching “Shin Godzilla,” Toho’s reboot of its signature monster series, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the non-Japanese fans forced to read a blizzard of subtitles for this extremely talky and densely populated film, with a break every 10 minutes or so for Godzilla rampages — the real reason they bought the tickets.
But those rampages — staged by effects veteran Shinji Higuchi and his team, with co-director and sci-fi/fantasy maestro Hideaki Anno supervising — are worth the wait. Working with a fraction of the budget that Hollywood CGI spectacles get, they have created scenes of frighteningly realistic destruction, with a beast that has evolved far from his “man in a suit” origins of Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya’s 1954 original “Godzilla.”
Similar to that film, “Shin Godzilla” unfolds in a contemporary Japan that has never heard of Godzilla. When the beast first makes its presence known in Tokyo Bay in the form of strange rumblings, water sprays and a catastrophic tunnel flooding, the authorities scramble to come up with answers — and decide the cause is a volcanic eruption.
But the sight of an enormous tail, instantly spread everywhere by the media and the internet, scotches that assumption. Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), a fiery young deputy chief cabinet secretary, realizes they are dealing with a living creature and urges government action, though what that might be, no one knows. The manual for monster attacks has yet to be written.
As in many other Toho kaijū (monster) movies over the years, there are meetings after tense meetings, followed by futile counter-attacks against Godzilla, which mutates from a big-eyed serpent-like creature into a towering, heavy-hipped, seemingly indestructible terror.
The original Godzilla was conceived as a metaphor for nuclear devastation, most notably the then-recent Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Anno’s beast, however, is also clearly inspired by the March 11, 2011, triple disaster, with Godzilla serving as an ambulatory tsunami, earthquake and nuclear reactor, leaving radioactive contamination in his wake.
The government officials, Self-Defense Forces officers and others scrambling to meet this monster menace are held up as heroes similar to the famed “Fukushima 50” (the workers who risked their lives laboring round-the-clock to stabilize the crippled No. 1 nuclear plant). Despite some initial bumbling, most of these folks, especially Rando and the anti-Godzilla task force he heads, are hardworking, dedicated and formidably bright, rattling off jargon-packed dialogue with nary a pause for breath. And, of course, they are doing it all for the greater good and glory of the Japanese nation.
A sharp contrast is Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), a Japanese-American special envoy to the U.S. president. Arrogant, condescending and flaunting her sexuality while the other female characters have all but obliterated theirs, she is the “Ugly American” personified. But, as Ishihara says in a program interview, “the blood of her ancestor’s country stirs within her,” and Kayoko starts to side with her Japanese counterparts, becoming more sympathetic in the process.
Still, the badly miscast Ishihara and her shaky English are not meant for export. Not that the film’s soft nationalism, with its big shout-out to the Self-Defense Forces (who gave its makers their full cooperation) and celebration of core values, self-sacrifice high among them, will hurt it at the local box office.
The film is also packed with Anno’s beloved mecha (mechanical objects), from whirling helicopters to lumbering cranes, filmed in stirring, real-life action. (Unlike the inventive Tsuburaya, Anno and his team have foregone the pleasure of dreaming up futuristic weaponry.) And though he may resemble a big glowing chunk of charcoal, the film’s title star represents destructive forces, natural and man-made, that now extend beyond Honda’s original nuclear holocaust vision. Today Tokyo, tomorrow, the planet.