Had an unexpected opportunity to watch this film in an unfamiliar new cinema at 321 Clementi last Thursday.

Short digression: the Eng Wah hall at Clementi has a pretty sharp screen but a rather steep slope for the seats, meaning that the guys at the back are way too far from the screen and the people in front are way too close. The middle seats are mostly couple seats, so single straight men may want to plan their seating carefully. Screen is also relatively small, but sound system is pretty immersive (perhaps because of the smaller hall size). Movie had a couple lag moments (thankfully not at a crucial part), maybe the staff arent very experienced.

For those who are unaware, Gojira first started out in 1954 in a black and white film, focusing on the lizard as an unstoppable force of nature and the grievances of the country in the fallout, a clear allusion to the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The franchise has already had two reboots, and each one tries to come back to its roots as a serious commentary on Japan’s place in the world. However, in each timeline, the famed monster becomes a parody and the movies slowly descend into childish camp. The last Gojira film in 2004 was an absolute clusterfuck with an alien that somehow looks like an average Japanese man decides to destroy Earth by bringing back all of Gjira’s enemies back to Tokyo to fight Gojira. Toho studios stopped making  Gojira films since then.

Godzilla was adapted by Hollywood in 1998, though the butchered the ‘character’ by modelling it more like the dinosaurs from the Jurassic Park franchise (which makes sense, seeing how successful the franchise was in the 90s). There are a lot of insider jokes in the later Japanese films that mock this iteration of Gojira. Hollywood gave a go at it again in 2014, and I loved it for its direction and cinematography. Director Gareth Edwards really nailed the sense of scope of the monsters (kaiju, in Japanese), with lots of shots of the human characters in the foreground against the giant silhouettes of the kaiju in numerous portions of the film. I’ve embedded one of my favourite scenes below, specifically the shot from 2:22 when the lead character turns around and the camera suddenly pans to a further position to capture the size of the creature; it’s intimate, terrifying and awe-inspiring all at once (especially on the big screen). Of course the movie was not replete with its own issues (poor acting, meandering storyline and the now infamous cockteases of the monsters). It did, however, capture the spirit of Godzilla really well.

I am not sure if Toho was inspired to outdo this movie or if a Japanese Gojira film was already in the works, but the new movie definitely respects the original film and returns the franchise to its nationalist roots.

The first 30 minutes of Shin Gojira was absolutely amazing. Rapid footage from handheld cameras and surveillance quickly establish an issue at sea when a boat is found without its crew members just as a monster is emerging. The footage is spliced with scenes from the parliament houses, with the government taking its own sweet time to respond to the situation. It’s also the moment when the song ‘Persecution Of The Masses’ starts playing, as the tension escalates with the creature coming ashore and destroying buildings in its wake. In 30 minutes, the movie already sets up the return of a revered monster that has become a cultural icon, while also contemporarizing it by juxtaposing it with the slow government (a metaphor for the Japanese government’s delay in responding to the 3/11 earthquake). While the original film antagonizes the atomic bomb over which the country had no control over, the new film antagonizes the government, which had no excuse for its bureaucratic cock ups. It’s a subtle shift, but one that shows an awareness that there is no time for self-pity in the modern world.

I won’t pretend the film continued this level of great film-making throughout the rest of the movie. There are many cringe inducing lines (specifically from Satomi Ishihara’s character) and the CGI does not even come close to the Hollywood version (which was itself made on a relatively small budget by blockbuster standards). Directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi handled the themes exceptionally. Considering how this could have been the Japanese equivalent of the Transformers, one cannot help but marvel at lines that take a dig at American trade deals, red tape within the government and the elder’s inadaptability to change or welcome new ideas (yes, this is mentioned in the movie). Black humour was the last thing I expected from a low budget Japanese monster film. The editing is also very quick, with numerous shots clocking a couple of seconds (shot-reverse-shot, basically). It’s a boring technique when drawn out between long lines, but the actors seem to be trying to complete their lines as fast as possible. The result is a very fast-paced film that satisfactorily fleshes out a lot of the themes brought out by the film. For the MOST part, they are well handled.

 

There’s also the soundtrack. Shirō Sagisu re-uses a lot of the tracks from the 50s films, and they do not sound very out of place in the film. There’s also quite a lot of variation (a hallmark of Japanese soundtracks, to be honest), with jazz pieces playing over news reports (mocking?) and sparse drumming whenever military action was taken. There’s also the central theme song (Persecution Of The Masses) and the surprisingly operatic ‘Tragedy’ that plays during a very interesting part of the film. The lyrics speak of pain and sorrow… from the point of view of Gojira? It’s an unexpected level of depth when you actually see what plays on film when the song is used, and I found it particularly profound. Gojira has interesting powers on this one. I am not sure if I’m a fan, but I’m definitely more forgiving since I’m well-versed with how off-kilter the Japanese are willing to go in all their media.

Seriously, I’ve been listening to Persecution Of The Masses on loop for the better part of the month.

The cinematography isn’t up to par with the Hollywood one for obvious reasons, but they are still a lot of fantastic shots: especially at the beginning of the film, and during the military response to Gojira at the end. I also like that the new Gojira is modelled after a shark, with its piercing eyes and mouth shape (the 2014 Godzilla was modelled after a bear).

All in all, I think the film was a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately the film blows its load in the first 30 minutes, and most of what happens in the second half is very predictable. It’s a valiant effort by the production team, and I think it’s the perfect direction to go if they intend to reboot the franchise. I definitely enjoyed the film and the maturity of its themes given that it’s still a movie about a giant lizard rampaging about Tokyo, and I cannot recommend the first 30 minutes enough.

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