Shelf Life Shin Godzilla
by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,
My apartment building switched from air conditioning to heat this week, which would have been fine if I had been home at the time. I wasn't, of course, and so I eventually returned home to a 90-degree room with the heater on full blast. Nothing says "welcome home" like having your bedroom turned into a sauna. Welcome to Shelf Life.
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Shelf Life Reviews
The plot concerns a young official's attempt to mobilize an effective response to a rampaging Godzilla (the result of US nuclear testing this time) in the face of bureaucratic resistance. Much has already been written about the film's political intentions, and I'll just go ahead and admit that I don't possess the expertise to properly contribute to those, so I'll just link to a few more informed takes for those interested.
To summarize them, Godzilla in this film is a stand-in for the “triple disaster” that hit Japan in 2011 – the Tohoku earthquake, its tsunami, and the resultant meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It seems that Anno (who also wrote and edited the film) did not like his government's response to those events. As a result, this film is his way of calling out politicians for their irresponsibility, while demanding that they accede power to a younger, more effective generation. Basically the olds are out of touch, rigid adherence to antiquated traditions keeps them in power, and this is all making Japan susceptible to sabotage by predacious world powers. Really, US foreign policy is more the villain in this film than Godzilla itself. The kaiju king is treated more like a natural disaster – a destructive force to be dealt with, but not something that can be deemed culpable. So this film ascribes blame to the self-interested cowardice of a nation's would-be protectors, both at home and abroad. Personally I'm on board with this assessment, so I found its expression in a big bombastic political drama (punctuated by the occasional monster battle) enjoyable. Your mileage may vary, however.
As an anime fan, I'll also admit that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film was just getting to see Hideaki Anno direct again. He hasn't worked on much other than Evangelion for the past 20 years or so, so it was neat to see how many filmic elements now iconic to the franchise are really just his personal artistic tics. Men in suits discussing serious matters in a sterile command room while a monster wreaks havoc on their city? Check. Loving shots of the city's mechanistic entrails getting wrecked by a rampaging flesh beast? Check. Radar displays that are extra rainbow-y for some reason? Checkeroo. They basically even reuse the main battle theme from Evangelion in pretty much the exact same context. Well, can't knock a guy for ripping off himself. Honestly, I hadn't quite realized how much I like Anno as a director before this film. He has a talent for crafting such seemingly barren yet evocatively framed shots. This was evident from Evangelion, of course, but it stands out a little more in a story that hasn't already been seared into the public imagination. I feel like I can recreate some Evangelion scenes from memory. Man, when are we getting 4.44?
While I can see Shin Godzilla boring people who go into it looking for a big spectacle disaster film, with sufficient cultural context I was able to enjoy it as a thrilling political drama. That's not to say that there isn't awesome action spectacle in this – it's just concentrated in specific moments of the film, particularly the beginning and the end. The effects themselves are strong. As a combination of CG and practical effects, Godzilla's appearance isn't entirely realistic, but it's still pleasant to look at. It's reminiscent of the effects in the live action Attack on Titan film (by the same FX team), where they also managed to strike a balance between the need for verisimilitude and the premise's inherent cartoonishness. The result is a beast that hearkens back to the original without clashing too hard with the film's otherwise steep realism. The action itself combines elements of both modern CG spectacle disaster movies and the old school “guy in a costume knocking down cardboard” approaches. It's cool to see the two styles brought together like this to create fun and innovative action choreography.
Funimation's release is bare bones, but that seems to be the norm for recent films. There's a dub, but this isn't the type of film I'd recommend watching dubbed, unless you really don't like reading subtitles or something. It sounds very “anime dub” too – breathy, deliberate, and very different from a normal speaking cadence. While this can work for films that are really trying to replicate the feel of anime, Shin Godzilla isn't, so it's mostly distracting. I will note that both the spoken language and subtitles are a separate option on the setup menu. This option is lacking on a lot of releases, which is extremely annoying as someone who likes to watch even English-language films with subs.
While it wasn't a blockbuster outside of Japan, Shin Godzilla is still a must-see film for anyone interested in contemporary Japanese cinema or the Godzilla franchise for certain. I highly recommend it – just make sure to do your homework before watching.
That wraps up the review section for this week. Thanks for reading!
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