Count me among those who outright loved Gareth Edwards’s 2014 American Godzilla. It wasn’t perfect, but it was unquestionably high-quality with a sense of poetry to it that the 1998 Roland Emmerich version lacked to the point of starvation. But Shin Gojira marks my very first opportunity to see a Japanese Godzilla film in a theater. And if you want to do the same and you live in America, move fast! It’s only in theaters here from October 11 until October 18 (an unusual Tuesday-to-Tuesday cycle). When I saw that it was Now Playing In A Theater Near Me, I naturally became super-excited! Part of the idea behind my crusade to see 100 movies in a single year was to get some variety in there. So, I finally have a foreign film and a Godzilla film from his country of origin!
With over 30 films that span seven decades bearing his name, Godzilla is Japan’s most iconic and enduring pop culture export. I can hear some of you, now. I know many people love their Pokémon, but I’ve already stopped hearing about people playing Pokémon Go and the most recent movie made only about $20 million, worldwide, and less than $1 million domestically. That property, while unquestionably successful, has a rabid, but niche fan base. Today, I saw kids, I saw elderly, and I saw everyone in between. I saw all colors. I saw men and I saw women. And it was sold out. Godzilla may not be the hot property that Marvel or Frozen is, but he has a wide variety of dedicated fans and they were all super-excited to be there, today.
And, I loved being in this crowd. The film is presented in its original Japanese language with English subtitles. This is the best (and, in my mind, only) way to watch a foreign film. Dubbing unfairly cuts out half of the performances that the cast works so hard to provide. If you can’t hear them speak, you can’t be drawn into their work. You can’t feel for them or feel with them. They become video game avatars. This crowd knew that and respected it. They weren’t scared off by a little reading. (You do need to be a fairly fast reader. If you can’t read as quickly as people talk – and sometimes with captions at the top of the screen and dialogue simultaneously at the bottom – you’re going to have a problem.) They also appreciated the special effects. There are some computerized visual effects with the assistance of motion capture, but much of it is practical and none of it tries too hard to be mind-blowing. Part of Godzilla’s appeal lies in the nostalgic aspect of a time of simpler filmmaking. Some of it is silly. Some of it is deliberately funny. Some of it is surprising. And terrifying. And brutal. It’s everything. And, we, as an audience embraced it all. This was my top moviegoing experience of 2016, and much of it had to do with that room of people.
This film actually marks the first time that Gojira (which is how I will refer to him, from this point forward, since this version of the character is from Japan) has been completely rebooted in a Japanese film. The original 1954 classic Gojira never happened in the world of Shin Gojira as this is modern-day Japan being introduced to the giant Kaiju for the very first time. In fact, for his initial appearance in this film, he is in his aquatic form and doesn’t yet look like the giant lizard you’re picturing in your head (don’t worry, though. He gets there, soon enough.). He looks downright bizarre – even shockingly so – as the movie kicks off.
And, boy does it kick off quickly! There’s no set-up, no build to Gojira’s arrival. At the beginning, he’s there. Unlike the typical American approach to filmmaking where we get to know the principle characters before the action kicks in, here, we get to know them through the action. As they scramble to collaborate and combat this unexpected and unprecedented threat to their very survival, we see what motivates them as individuals. We learn how each of them thinks and we come to believe in the choices they each make along the way. For my money, the standout is Satomi Ishihara, playing Japanese-American ambassador Kayoko Ann Patterson. Her screen presence equals that of Gojira, himself, and she commands attention whenever she appears.
Underneath the action/adventure surface (which delivers completely), the film is a political metaphor on a couple of different levels. For one, I found it incredibly interesting to see the American government through the eyes of Japanese filmmakers. What I took away from it is that the filmmakers are respectful of America but also skeptical and never quite sure what America’s motivations are, even when helping out. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong. It’s great food for thought, though, and I really enjoyed seeing that perspective.
In addition to that, the film boils down to one fairly simple idea that you would think we, as a species, would have figured out by now, the world over. Yet, it regularly feels as though very few have. That idea is that if the people that are put into any given positions are actually qualified to hold said positions, then when problems arise, they are handled more efficiently and with much less collateral damage. And this isn’t limited to governments. So often, people have jobs due to who they know or who they paid off or because they cheated their way through school and faked their credentials or any other various reasons. Eventually, they’re called upon to deliver and it never goes well. Putting the most qualified people in the position is always the best idea.
Watching the Japanese and American governments figure this out the hard way (the OBSCENELY hard way!) together is at times humorous and at times heartbreaking. But it’s always entertaining and even enlightening, in some ways. And it’s never, ever predictable.
If you’re in America like I am and you want to catch Shin Gojira, you better hurry. Let me remind you, it’s only in theaters for one week (technically eight days), from October 11-18. Which means that, as of this writing, you have three days left. And I urge you to go. It’s getting really difficult for me to bump movies off of my 2016 Top Ten, at this point, but Shin Gojira forced me to do it. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year and, as I said above, my very favorite theatrical experience of the year. Days like today are exactly why I love going to the movies. Digital downloading – legal or not – can’t touch the experience I had today. So, stop waiting for it to arrive on Netflix and go embrace this piece of art. While you can.
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