Godzilla – or Gojira, as it's more commonly called in Toho's new reboot – may be the thing knocking down high-rise apartment buildings, but Japanese bureacracy is the real villain of Shin Godzilla. That and (of course) mankind's hubristic handling of nuclear technology.
After a mysterious geyser-like eruption in Tokyo Bay, the Aqua-Line (an undersea highway) begins to flood. Japanese bureaucrats are scrambling to identify the problem when a tail begins thrashing around in the plume. Soon enough, an enormous creature emerges from the sea to force its way down canals and city streets, pushing a gathering wall of boats and cars.
Gojira firsts appears in proto form – imagine a hybrid of alligator and newt, about five times the size of a Macy's parade balloon, and you're pretty close. The movie's most arresting image might be this proto-Gojira lumbering mindlessly down a city street, head wagging to and fro, its bugging eyes almost silly but frightening for their complete lack of consciousness. An official tries to describe Gojira's behavior but can only manage: “It just walks.” Gojira is implacable, unpredictable and without any knowable intelligence. As such, Gojira feels more like a natural disaster than a pure monster, and taken this way, the film's inspirations are obvious.
The tsunami that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster happened only five years ago. Japan's response was criticized, and this may explain why Shin Godzilla's politicians grumble about red tape. “It takes forever to get anything done,” as one of them says. The Japanese government indeed seems hampered by bureacracy and honorifics as they try in vain to both identify the threat, and decide on a course of action. By the time proto-Gojira morphs into the more familiar Godzilla form, military action seems to be the only option.
When Japan's rudimentary artillery and helicopters have no effect on Gojira, the government reluctantly calls upon the United States for help. Japan's politicians are both admiring, and wary of, the U.S.'s ability to act quickly and unilaterally in a way their system would never allow. The U.S. drops “bunker buster” bombs on Gojira which actually do some appreciable damage – but in response Gojira activates what seems like an internal nuclear reactor, unleashing a devastating burst of plasma beams from its mouth and fins which causes unbelievable destruction.
As Japan's scientists soon learn, Gojira is (of course) the product of nuclear waste discarded at the bottom of the ocean. It (Gojira is without gender and reproduces asexually) has a new form of DNA, and, science science science! – the only way to stop it might be to inject a coagulant into its system which would essentially freeze its radioactive blood.
Shin Godzilla is essentially three sizable action set pieces, surrounded by a lot of people talking inside institutional walls. This is forgivable when you remember that Gojira itself is a nothing, an inscrutable force that is interesting mostly for the way people respond to it. But the human response may be too slow and esoteric for some. If the film has any heroes, they are Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yaguchi, and Kayoko Ann Patterson, Special Envoy for the President of the United States. These heroes never get within half a mile of Gojira; their heroism comes from their willingness to buck the system, consider the fate of humanity before their own career paths, and to rally an international force to solve Japan's crisis. Most other characters are given perfunctory treatment, even when they die. Shin Godzilla misses several opportunities for Hollywood-style slow-motion, music-swelling death scenes – which is a refreshing change of pace, but this off-handedness may feel effective for some, and cold for others.
Japan embracing unilateralism to shine on the world stage may not be an effective thematic payoff for Western audiences, but thankfully, Shin Godzilla's action delivers the goods. Gojira retains much of the classic “guy in a rubber suit” look, although now, it's a "guy in a motion-capture suit." The CG monster is not as visually polished as in Gareth Edwards' recent American reboot, but this might actually work in its favor – Gojira seems almost extra-dimensional, something our brains can't quite process. The effects in all other instances – toppling skyscrapers, Shinto temples being smashed to bits – are troubling in their realism, and Shin Godzilla often achieves the sense of awe and scale we'd hope for in a Godzilla movie.
Shin Godzilla finds poignancy in the way it handles the potential use of nuclear weapons against Gojira. The wounds of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are forever raw, and the unthinkable possibility of adding Tokyo to that list ultimately drives our heroes toward their goal. Shin Godzilla is a satisfying reboot, and its ending (of course) leaves the door open for a sequel. They're gonna need a bigger coagulant tanker...