by Eli LaChance
American fans certainly understood Shin Godzilla in 2016, but in 2020, they’re living it. Disaster is at the heart of every Godzilla film, whether that’s human-made or natural. The nuclear monster has been used as a silver screen sounding board for a host of Japanese struggles and global anxieties for nearly seventy years. The catastrophe provides little more than an action-packed backdrop for two mountain-sized creatures to duke it out. Occasionally, the beast’s jaunt with destruction will shift focus away from the spectacle of disaster towards the toll, much like the 1954 original. Created as a protest against nuclear power, Godzilla has represented many things throughout the years, everything from US interventionist politics to pollution. It’s natural to expect our current global health crisis would work its way into the subtext of a future Goji film; yet viewing Shin Godzilla, it appears it already has. Released smack dab between two big-budget Hollywood Godzillas, Shin Godzilla is quieter and more somber than Gareth Edwards’s 2014 Spielbergian thriller, Godzilla, or 2019’s larger than life homage to 90s Godzilla films, King of the Monsters. Purists may struggle with the departure from traditional depictions of the lizard, but in spirit, he arguably shares more DNA with his 1954 ancestor than any other iteration of the monster.
It isn’t that I believe Toho and co. were making a Godzilla film about the coronavirus in 2016, that would require a tin-foil hat and perhaps an antipsychotic prescription. Watching the film today is like seeing echoes of the past projected into the future. Shin Godzilla is a very different experience for American audiences in 2020. It’s one thing to read about institutional failures putting lives at risk, it’s another to live it.
With the scars of the Fukushima meltdown still tender in the collective cultural consciousness of Japan, filmmakers Anno and Higuchi play into the obvious allegorical antecedent right out of the gate. A boiling vortex in Tokyo Bay is discovered with a strangely abandoned fishing vessel. Blood pours into collapsing automotive tunnels as the ground violently shakes.
While the imagery of overturned boats and cars was no doubt intended to signal the tsunami and nuclear disaster of 2011, parallels to how many nations are handling the coronavirus pandemic can be drawn almost instantly. Denial is first experienced as the Prime Minister’s cabinet rushes to determine the cause of this strange phenomenon. In the absence of real understanding, many officials simply concede that the problem will go away on its own and that it’s nothing to worry about. This is where we meet our hero Yaguchi who is willing to entertain the possibility that a G.U.L.F(Giant Unidentified Life-Form) is the cause and even cites real evidence before being silenced and accused of making a joke.
The room reacts in shock as a video plays, revealing an enormous tail swinging out of the ocean, confirming Yaguchi’s assertion, a giant creature is the cause of the anomaly. We’re immediately thrown into a panicked whirl of voices trying to determine whether to capture or exterminate the animal. Each of the officials shuns responsibility, passing the ball from agency to agency, lest they fail and suffer a career blow. Leadership is clearly in over their head, the Prime Minister is at a loss for how to deal with the crisis. Urged to calm the public, he heads to a press conference, instructed only to share verified information and to offer assurance. In doing so he outright lies, claiming that the creature in no way can make its way to land, just as it slithers ashore leaving a wake of destruction.
The resemblance to the denial phase experienced by so many governments over covid-19 isn’t just stark, it’s uncanny. Even as Godzilla comes to shore, the economic damage is the focus. One official dismisses Godzilla claiming it will take days for it to get anywhere, remaking its slow speed. Yaguchi is outraged at the lack of concern for human beings. In the streets of Tokyo, we’re treated to glimpses of this weird monster’s destructive rampage. Rivers of blood pour from its gills onto panicked bystanders while its serpentine shape levels buildings. The public is depicted rapt for information, desperate citizens cling to their cellphones looking for updates. Yaguchi seethes in rage after the first attack over the wasted time when officials could have been preparing. The Prime Minister is hesitant to declare a state of emergency in the wake of the devastation, because he fears the outcome, despite the already cataclysmic loss of life.
Denial isn’t the only way this fictional tragedy mirrors the one we’re experiencing. The elderly and infirm are more vulnerable as the government chooses a citizen evacuation, despite warnings that at-risk citizens will be left behind. As Godzilla attacks, first responders reach for their radios, pleading to government officials for guidance as there is a draught of leadership and nowhere to send evacuees. News coverage highlights the stock market rather than the death toll. After the initial threat subsides, life returns to normal while an unseen threat waits in the shadows. Citizens are required to isolate as deadly radiation poisons their neighborhoods. We see familiar crowds donning surgical masks for protection. There’s even a small protest movement that sparks up, demanding the protection of Godzilla.
The imagery from this fictional threat of enormous size looks curiously similar to our current microscopic one. The debate during the film’s climax really seals the deal. Near certain failure, our rebellious hero, Yaguchi, grows incensed, demanding to know what good a nuclear attack on Tokyo would do. He’s disgusted that they would sacrifice the city to save the economy. He uses the phrase ‘scrap and rebuild,’ which was significant in post-war Japan as they overcame the devastation faced in World War II. The scene was intended to resonate with Japanese audiences but the heart of the debate is one that’s playing out on Fox News and MSNBC every night. Even in the midst of a Godzilla attack, modern cultures under the pervasive hand of capitalism will still debate the economic impacts over the cost of human lives.
Part of what makes the allegorical disaster so malleable is that like a real disaster, it’s constantly evolving throughout the film. We see this visually as Godzilla evolves and mutates. New information flies in fast in a vacuum, and it can be difficult to sort or even react adequately in the early stages, something we’ve learned all too well in recent days. However; what really makes this metaphor stick to our current situation is that I don’t think Hideaki Anno and Shinji Haguchi were signally just one disaster. They pull imagery from many contemporary crises from around the globe. Godzilla isn’t just the Fukushima meltdown, he’s the fully formed Voltron of 21st-century cataclysms; he’s tsunamis, emerging epidemics like SARS and MERS, he’s the gulf oil spill, and hurricane Katrina. He is all these things because the true villain is none of them. Career politicians are the monsters of this film. They’re more concerned about soggy noodles, and the next election than the little people being irradiated and stomped on. Much of these anxieties can be traced back to the Japanese government’s missteps in containing the Fukushima disaster but the filmmakers opted for a broader brush, creating an enduring metaphor that can be fitted to any disaster.
After being congratulated for defeating Godzilla, Yaguchi makes the ethical choice at the risk of his own career. “The fact remains casualties were high, accountability comes with the job, a politician must decide whether to own it or not. I myself, choose to own it. But now is not the time to quit. Things are still far from settled.” Yaguchi says, knowing that Godzilla will one day wake up, and Japan will once again be under threat of thermonuclear attack. Shin Godzilla ends with a warning. Japan’s fears about their bureaucratic failings aren’t unique, it would seem coronavirus has laid that bare. Having recently dealt with ‘Godzillas’ of their own, Shin Godzilla serves as a cautionary tale for not only Japan but all nations about the coming crises of the new century. It’s a call we did not heed. In an early Atlantic piece on the spread of Covid-19 in the United States, Juliette Kayem writes, “a crisis finds a nation as it is, not as its citizens wish it to be. “ I’m afraid that we as a planet are fighting our first global ‘Godzilla’. We aren’t ready and we’re at its mercy as our leaders refuse to take responsibility and perhaps that’s worse than any ‘Godzilla’ could ever be.
A version of this story will appear in the first issue of Channel 31 at http://www.Channel-31.com
Copyright, Eli LaChance, 2020, All Rights Reserved