Jeff Light’s review published on Letterboxd:
A. the best Godzilla movie, and
B. one of the best blockbuster DISASTER movies ever made.
I know it's very fashionable for cinephiles to look lovingly back at the original film, "Gojira" (the naming explained so tactfully in this one) and love it for everything that worked and excuse it for everything that didn't. It's a good film, a unique film, and very different than all the punch-up Godzilla movies that America knows. And America wants to see giant lizards and gorillas fighting, giant buildings falling, etc., but that's all rather silly and this is....sorry for the pun, a different beast altogether.
I was there in Yokohama in 2011 when the disaster came from the sea, when the politicians predicted there was no danger of it getting far inland, when it lead to massive destruction of the cities north of Tokyo. I remember watching on TV as the government lied and reassured the people, saying there was very little danger of radiation and it was all under control. I had discussions with the Japanese in my co-living space about how complicated it was to bring in soldiers for disaster recovery, about why the Japanese "Self Defense Force", or military, needed to have all the lead positions and be there first. The trifecta of disasters that made up the Tohoku tsunami/earthquake/reactor leak are clearly being portrayed in this film, and Godzilla is just the excuse that Japanese people needed to get away with talking about their government critically.
Criticizing the government openly, or really being critical of ANY authority figure, is anathema to the Japanese spirit. Gender norms and Confucian hierarchy didn't go away when the government was reconstituted with US guidance after WWII. It has been controlled by right-wing Conservatives in a nearly unbroken series ever since, and that brings along a wealth of complications with it that Western audiences likely have no idea of. But part of it is in a simmering resentment among the elites of the country at the restrictions placed on their military by their new, US-approved, Constitution. There is a streak of that old samurai pride still running through the nationalists that control the government, and a sense that they would make things better for everybody if they just TOOK power and made everyone do as they're told.
I've written in detail about this here: qr.ae/TaoDCa and here: nottheacademy.medium.com/lost-intranslation-why-netflixs-neon-genesis-evangelion-is-so-problematic-fbac79113a8c, so I won't go into any more details about the kind of restrictions people feel in Japan. Suffice to say that they've been putting up with their own sort of President Trump for many years now, only he's more subtle, of course. (Btw, when asked how he felt about this film, PM Abe said only that he liked how the SDF were portrayed. Tell me he's not a warmonger.) And all this is to say that while the nuclear bomb metaphor is easy to grasp for Western audiences, I've always suspected that it's only part of the intention. I wrote about it here in my review of the original film: letterboxd.com/nottheacademy/film/godzilla/
What Godzilla is really about is the spirit of militarism. It's that old warrior mentality springing up when threatened, and the message is that Japan going to war would end up with Japan doing more damage to ITSELF in the long run. As much as it's hinted at in the original film, it's made explicit in this remake. The Cabinet all meet to decide what to do about the threat, and all the lead members immediately want to use the SDF. It's only the younger aide who advises caution. Notably, Godzilla at first just moves through the city, forcing his way up from the harbor like Commodore Matthew Perry (no relation) did when he forced Japan open to the West in 1853. It was the beginning of the end for Japan's high period, but that wasn't Perry's intention, it was accidental.
However, this event started a long chain which led to Japan seeking rapid advancement of their military, out of a sudden realization/fear that they were far behind Western countries. And it's argued that that led to the war of expansionism, which eventually led to the US delivering the same ultimatum to the PM as seen here. He's notified that he has to make Godzilla (Japan's warrior spirit) stand down or the US will drop a nuke. The fear is even specifically stated in the film, that the international community is afraid Godzilla will come for them next if not stopped in Tokyo. Ultimately, the bomb will SAVE lives.
Godzilla isn't the bomb, he's militarism, he's the Japanese nationalists. This film, like the original Godzilla film, is an anti-war film, but it has more ability to judge via hindsight, more distance from the war itself. Hideaki Anno is famous for his writing dealing with complicated concepts and finding both the good and bad in all sides. His Neon Genesis Evangelion is a bleak deconstruction of what it means to have a huge monster seemingly sent by god to judge us. Will the sins of our fathers bring doom and destruction on us? Should we just scrap it all and start over? He attempts a more hopeful message here, with a running theme of placing faith in the next generation. Youth will do things differently. They'll save us.
This film is superior to the original on every conceivable level, not only in its handling of the war themes, but also in the way it brings in the Tohoku disaster. I think it's actually rather forgiving to the politicians in that respect, showing them as simply unable to conceive of things differently than the past, rather than (as many Japanese suspect with the Fukushima reactor) deliberately lying to cover their asses and protect their business partners. I suppose criticizing the government on that level would be too much for even the outspoken Anno-san to pull off in the current legal state of Japan. But he does put in a clear theme of the young people and the women being the ones who'll play a key role in changing things, a massive change to how Japan has been run.
The film also does a realistic job simply portraying Godzilla, paying tribute to the rubber suit days while making tactful use of CG. The sea lizard at the start of the film looks slightly ridiculous, but I love how it slithers and scrambles over buildings in some undefined quest to get to the heart of Japan. I think the goofiness is partly intentional and works to set you up for how terrifying the real Godzilla is when it shows up. And Godzilla IS terrifying. Much like the original (only more so), this film never loses sight of the death and destruction caused by this giant beast. It's not some sympathetic defender of the galaxy... we're firmly rooted in the human point of view, in the tens of 1,000s of people losing their homes, fleeing for their lives. The film is a real showcase for the miniatures and model-building skills in Japan, as much of this is obviously practical.
I loved how much of this gives nods to previous major entries in the film series, but skirts most of the ridiculousness. Anno works in many of the dynamic old scores used in previous Godzilla battles, and at one stage, Godzilla moves very stiff-necked and stalking like in those old films. Anno also cheekily makes the theme for the Disaster Task Force the same "Decisive Battle" theme used in Evangelion. The bold drums feature prominently in each version of the tune as the team figures out how to defeat the current threat destroying the city. It's the same here as the score gradually gets more complex and frenetic through multiple versions of the team pulling together. Anno probably spends too much time on these scenes later in the film, but I did smile every time to hear Shiro Sagisu's iconic notes.
The two points you might criticize in this film are the drama and the cinematography. Now, I actually think the directing is pretty great, and Anno-san has some impressive landscape shots and uses a variety of sources at different times to communicate the scale of Godzilla. From i-phones, Go-Pros, and Red cameras to more traditional lenses, this is a much more experimental film than most mainstream Japanese movies. But also much of it looks really flat and dull, like any series you'd see on Japanese TV. The cinematographer here has done some good work before, so I'm not sure who to blame. Some of those interiors at the end look really cheap though.
And these scenes also drag due to there just being so many talking heads. The film is generally great about keeping the political and military drama quick moving. There are a million players and it's impossible to keep them all straight, but it doesn't really matter. That's how every Japanese institution actually IS, and I was grateful that we kept the focus on masses of people and teams working together. I'm over the trope of disaster movies having That One Family that's just simple folk trying to get through this and do the the right thing but they're so goddam annoying that you end up hating them by the end. Thankfully, that's not here. We DO get poor Satomi Ishihara, who I think is miscast. She's too glamorous for the role of this "future U.S. president hopeful", and she's just DYING trying to get through all the English dialogue.
That said, this is a fantastic film that's just a bit overlong in the third quarter. I could've done with trims to "the science team figuring stuff out" section and moved along some of the personal politics, but mostly this was a very insightful film that also really delivered the large scale action. It's much smarter and slower than the typical Hollywood disaster film, and I think that's a very good thing. This will age remarkably well, and it's the best Godzilla movie anyone could've hoped for. 7 Japanese Academy Award wins and another 4 nominations certainly paint this in a different light than the Oscars think of Godzilla. Western audiences may still prefer their giant gorilla fights but this speaks so much to my experience, I'll be recommending it to everyone instead.