In 1954, Ishiro Honda created a monster—quite literally—with his film Godzilla, where the titular monster levels the city of Tokyo. While Honda’s original tale of Godzilla is about the horrors of nuclear war, it created a franchise of films that became primarily focused on the spectacle of giant monsters rather than the consequences of human actions. The nihilism Honda imbued within the 1954 film slowly dissipates and is replaced with campy and entertaining battles between Godzilla and giant moths, three-headed space dragons, sentient pollution and more. But, in 2016, directors Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi harkened back to the 1954 film’s hopelessness and absolute terror with their 2016 film, Shin Godzilla. This is no longer about the entertaining spectacle of monsters; this is about an unstoppable, rapidly-evolving malevolent god with no regard for humanity.
Shin Godzilla is Anno and Higuchi’s interpretation of Honda’s original film, but with a modern twist that includes a scathing look at the continued incompetence of an unnecessarily complex bureaucracy, the first-person perspectives of those on the ground and a horrifying reimagining of Godzilla himself. Just like 1954’s Godzilla, the giant lizard levels Tokyo while government officials helplessly watch from afar. Anno and Higuchi imbue the film with the prevailing sense of nihilism seen in the original. There is no hope, only temporary solutions.
The terror inflicted by Godzilla in this film triples as he undergoes three evolutions, each more destructive than the last. He is able to quickly adapt to his surroundings, going from a bumbling creature with only back legs to a gargantuan monster with atomic breath and the ability to asexually reproduce. The first form, the “larval form,” crashes on land as his two hind legs propel him forward while the rest of his body scrapes along the ground, carving a path through the city like a snake slithering through grass. Frilled, shark-like lungs spew out a red liquid that drowns the city in a bloody substance. Then, before everyone’s eyes, he stands up.
The second form most closely emulates the traditional Godzilla design. He is wreaking typical havoc as he topples buildings, but is still gaining strength; he is not done growing, a harrowing realization that there is even more hell to be wrought. His third and final form is his most destructive, as he evolves to have Anno and Haguchi’s version of atomic breath. Godzilla’s jaw unhinges and unleashes not a fiery blast, but a concentrated laser beam that can slice through buildings, drones and fighter jets. But that’s not it. Godzilla is virtually indestructible and cannot be killed like the 1954 version. While he is frozen with liquid coagulant, this is only a temporary solution. Even worse, humanoid creatures are frozen mid-spawn from his tail; Godzilla is able to create his own beings, further illustrating his godlike abilities. This is his planet now.
But this horror isn’t just created by the lizard deity. Perhaps even more horrifying than Godzilla is the bureaucracy that bogs down any hope of rapid response from the government. Officials with vague titles gather around giant wooden tables for back-to-back meetings where solutions are discussed but never executed. The prime minister is rendered essentially useless as he tries to make a reassuring speech about how the creature cannot come on land and in the midst of that speech, Godzilla makes landfall. Instead of honesty, the Japanese government is more focused on its image; their continuous denial of the gravity of the situation only increases the number of casualties. This mirrors 2011’s three-pronged real world catastrophe—the Tohoku earthquake’s subsequent tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown—in both scope of damage and mismanagement of the disasters by the Japanese government. While 1954’s Godzilla is about a force of nature, Shin Godzilla is about bureaucratic reactions to that force of nature. Anno and Higuchi build upon the original film’s discussion of the effects of manmade disasters (ie the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) to create a biting commentary of the current Japanese government’s lack of accountability.
Shin Godzilla innovates not only in its reinterpretation of Godzilla, but it also adopts elements of found footage to truly illustrate the terror unfolding for those evacuating the city. These sections emulate the most horrifying parts of Honda’s Godzilla, where Tokyo’s citizens are shown screaming in the streets, not just through wide shots, but through short vignette-like scenes that give the film a more personal—therefore devastating—tone. In Honda’s film, a woman clutches her three sobbing children as a building collapses on them saying, “Don’t cry, we’ll be with daddy soon,” a heart-wrenching moment that focuses not on Godzilla himself but on the people he is killing. Anno and Higuchi take that ethos and place it within a 21st century context—and what better way to provide that context than through the prevalence of social media in society?
Live streams, Instagram posts and tweets are the only ways for the government to have any idea of what’s really happening in Godzilla’s wake, not unlike how government officials in the 1954 film only understand the scope of destruction through television coverage. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is shown glued to his phone, watching footage as it’s posted, such as people escaping a collapsed tunnel and the sound of Godzilla’s footsteps shaking the ground. This footage is what leads Yaguchi to propose that there is a creature approaching the city; there is no denying its truth as the same images flood news feeds and timelines. This “on the ground” footage creates a sense of realism; there are seemingly no well-crafted shots or scripted dialogue here. It is raw and shaky, making its contents all the more believable and all the more terrifying.
While wide shots are used in many kaiju films to capture the spectacle of the monster, a first-person POV shifts the focus to the actual effects on people that are sprinting away from Godzilla’s feet. Similar to the 2007 film Cloverfield, found footage elements are used here to emulate the scale of the monster and the abject terror Tokyo’s citizens are facing as they try to evacuate the city.
In the 67 years since the release of Godzilla, dozens of films have been made as part of the franchise, bringing about decades of creative and entertaining cinema with a political message. While both 2014’s Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters are more recent adaptations of the monster, they still do not capture that same fear, as neither take risks with their creature: He is not made to be a destructive, hateful god but one that wants to be a protector. In that context, despite being a gigantic kaiju imbued with nuclear energy, he does not want to wipe out humanity—unlike both his 1954 and 2016 counterparts, who were purely focused on destruction and reclaiming the Earth as their own. It took 62 years for a film to truly capture the fear of the first Godzilla, but with Shin Godzilla, Anno and Higuchi translate the fear and hopelessness of postwar Japan into a modern nihilist context illustrating that perhaps humanity hasn’t come as far as we’d like to think.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.