Spoilers: For the entirety of Shin Godzilla.
Molly Brenan, Peter Fobian, Syra Jenkins, and Frog-kun have a roundtable discussion this week after watching Shin Godzilla, Toho’s third reboot of Godzilla and the 31st film in the franchise, directed by Gainax’s Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. Read on for insights on the representation of female characters, politics in Japan and the US, the allegory of Godzilla, and comparisons to Evangelion.
Molly Brenan: I actually don’t have prior Godzilla experience beyond your average person’s awareness of it as a cultural touchstone, but it was the Anno connection that drew me to Shin Godzilla. It was really a triumph of his common thematic beats at their best – a very resonant and human story. I’m a big fan of robot shows that aren’t really about the robot, so a kaiju film that’s not really about the kaiju was right up my alley.
What struck me the most was how it balanced an ultimately optimistic message with cynicism. Anno absolutely skewers bureaucracy, but doesn’t condemn the bureaucrats as cartoon villains or unsalvageable, corrupt figures. The key characters fight the system but learn to work with it and within it to achieve a greater goal. There were also a lot of callbacks to themes in Evangelion, but Shin Godzilla had a stronger focus on the value of hope for the collective than the individual. Godzilla himself is a vector for the familiar idea of man being more dangerous than outside threats, but this never undercuts the film’s message that trust in your fellow man is worthwhile and noble.
Syra Jenkins: Shin Godzilla was a love letter to any Hideaki Anno or Godzilla fan. I grew up watching Godzilla, so hearing the classic Godzilla soundtrack with an updated twist was rather nostalgic and made the seven-year-old me squeal with delight. If you’ve seen any of Anno’s previous works, like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Kare Kano, you will get a strong essence of him in this film. The cinematography oozed Anno with the close-up and unique perspective shots, iconic to Anno’s directing style.
As to be expected with his writing and direction, the film had some rather dark scenes and gruesome moments, which might not be appropriate for children to watch. As shown in previous Godzilla films, there was a political undertone to the film and a lot of political banter throughout the movie. In this case, the Japanese had to face tough decisions that they had avoided since World War II. In turn, it dragged up the dark history between Japan and other countries, notably the United States. While there were few female protagonists, they still had a strong roles in the movie. Each female character was rather unique, and a major asset to the storyline.
While it has a few drawbacks, it was quite enjoyable to watch and I highly encourage young adults and over to see this film, especially if you’re a fan of either Anno or Godzilla.
Peter Fobian: Like many, I’m approaching Shin Godzilla with limited Godzilla experience and primarily as a Hideaki Anno fan. In that regard, it does not disappoint, hitting all the same beats as Evangelion. Breakneck character introductions, massive logistic undertakings, and rapidfire technical jargon resting just on the outside of hard science fiction. Godzilla itself is, in turns, both ludicrous and nightmarish in appearance, hearkening back to its early days of foam rubber while also successfully portraying Godzilla’s role as an elemental force of pure destruction.
Shin Godzilla has been described as a condemnation of the manner in which the Japanese government handled the Fukushima disaster and the themes are hard to miss. The early portions of the movie are a black comedy lambasting Japan’s bureaucratic infrastructure. Meetings are called during meetings, requiring everyone present to pick up and move down the hall. Elected officials are effectively paralyzed from taking action, always deferring to those above them who, fearing public backlash, postpone decisions as long as possible. Our heroes emerge as individuals who are able to prioritize the threat Godzilla poses above procedure and their own political self-interest.
The directorial style Anno employed for Evangelion is the perfect match for Godzilla. Shin Godzilla is an excellent mix of heavy social themes and destruction to serve as either a standalone or a bridge for anyone looking to get into the Godzilla franchise.
Frog-kun: Like the monster in the opening minutes in the film, Shin Godzilla has an uncanny way of misdirecting its viewers to powerful effect. The film begins as a sort of black office comedy, poking fun at Japan’s hapless government bureaucrats as they fumble their way through a world-changing catastrophe. That their behavior is so utterly plausible lends an air of greater tragedy to Godzilla’s escalating destruction. It brings to mind what Goethe once said: “Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness. At all events, the two latter are of less frequent occurrence.”
Not only is this iteration of Godzilla one of the most overpowered yet (“nuclear breath,” anyone?), it works as an apt metaphor on so many levels: Godzilla is a man-made catastrophe, a cultural import, and a beast which evolves beyond something that can be contained through human efforts. Yet above all, Godzilla represents the vicissitudes of a rapidly changing world. Godzilla’s presence is a call to action; if humans cannot connect with each other, then they cannot hope to protect themselves from disaster. Shin Godzilla is both nationalist and internationalist at once in its outlook, and I think that anyone interested in Japan will find it a fascinating allegory of the pressures facing the country today.
On Female Characters
PF: All right, everyone. We’ve already read each others reviews so let’s discuss a few themes. Let’s cover the big one first. What did everyone think of the portrayal of female characters in Shin Godzilla?
SJ: I thought the portrayal of women was pretty unique and that they played an important role throughout the movie. Each female character, whether or not they were considered “lead roles”, was headstrong and assertive in their own way, while not making them emotionless drones. The typical assertion is that to be a “strong female character” means that you cannot exhibit emotions or seem “weak” at times, which is not a true character. I think this movie represented this well, in showcasing the frustration and worry that real people feel and exude.
I also think that each female character helped to drive the story forward in their own way. For instance, Ogashira discovered the radiation connection, and was told that it couldn’t be the case by a male scientist, who then proceeded to come to the same conclusion. Hanamori was the one forcing the Prime Minister’s hand to make a decision when he was racked with doubt and reluctance. Kayoko was, in my opinion, the weakest of the three, she also helped to stall the nuclear bomb launch and convinced the U.S. that Japan was worth saving, rather than forcing them to scrap everything and start over (yet again, as an allusion to WWII)
PF: I mostly agree. I really enjoyed the female characters and I felt like I was on alert after the moment when the scientist was singled out in a room full of men in suits. The movie didn’t spend much time on any individual characters so I felt like, as you said, all three had their moments. I do think that Kayoko was more of a standout though. Her personal ambitions actually really surprised me and the movie treated it as though her success was foregone conclusion.
FK: Would like to pipe in here and say I was glad they didn’t show her hooking up with Yaguchi in the end.
PF: Yes! They didn’t feel the need to include any romantic subplot either. At the end he even joked about how he would essentially be a pawn of hers after they both moved up the political ladder.
MB: My biggest takeaway was with Kayoko and Ogashira, but I do think that it was subversive to put Hanamori, the only woman in the room of bureaucrats, as the Minister of Defense – the thing you would probably be quickest to stereotype as a masculine position.
FK: The current Minister of Defense is a woman though!
MB: Even better! But as for the other two, I thought it was very neat they displayed two very different visions of female ambition, but neither was positioned as being the “better” way. Political cunning and charisma played an equally important role to the hard science skills. I feel like a lot of movies would low-key play off the beautiful, perfectly made up woman as being less skilled or valuable.
And to echo Peter, it was super radical to portray an Asian-American woman saying she’s going to be president as something nobody questions. Sadly, people in my theater laughed when it was first mentioned, which I guess is indicative of how radical it really is.
Just on a general level, it was cool that nobody made a thing about any of the women being women.
FK: How did you feel about her accent, Molly?
MB: I really didn’t mind it because I knew that it was a Japanese actress in the role. It didn’t break the effectiveness of her character for me. Maybe helped that I had read that she was very into the role but nervous about speaking English beforehand.
SJ: It might’ve helped, but my friends that saw it with me didn’t care for her accent. I think the takeaway from that was they found it difficult to believe someone who could not speak English well would ever be President of the U.S. (though that is not the fault of the actress or the film).
PF: I feel like an American actor in the same position would have equally butchered the Japanese pronunciation so I didn’t think much of it. One of my favorite moments was when that guy had to apologize for blowing off Ogashira’s radiation theory. He was obviously uncomfortable with it but wanted to be respectful and she just acknowledged it and got back to business.
SJ: Mmhmm, where she could have been egotistical about the finding, but just brushed it off because it wasn’t important enough.
President and Politics
FK: We have Hillary Clinton currently running for president, who is facing a lot of sexist backlash. I can’t imagine things would be easier for an Asian-American woman.
PF: Considerably worse, I’d think. Racism in addition to sexism. Probably have another birther situation on top of the backlash Hillary is getting.
MB: I was more just impressed at the portrayal of the delicate topic of being mixed race and caught between two nationalities to care about her accent.
FK: On the whole, the film criticised the arrogance of the Americans, and how they underestimated the Japanese. So for me, at least, it was interesting to observe the reactions of the Western audience to Kayoko’s character – it kinda validated the point the film was making.
MB: Mmhmm. My co-worker who saw it on a different day said his theater also laughed at her goals.
FK: There’s no way of knowing for certain, but do you think people would have reacted differently if Kayoko were male?
MB: I do.
SJ: I think they would think the male version to be very naive, regardless of gender.
MB: At least as of right now, a female president is still unprecedented and I think generally people take young, conventionally attractive women less seriously.
PF: I’m honestly not sure. I think people might believe she had less of a chance than an Asian-American male but I think the reaction would be the same.
FK: Well, at this point, I’d like to mention what it’s like for women in Japanese politics right now. The current governor of Tokyo won a landslide election victory recently, and she’s been very bold recently about making pro-women statements. The current opposition leader is a half-Taiwanese woman. So the portrayal of Kayoco isn’t actually outlandish, despite what Americans might think of her. I’m not sure how much chance she’d have of becoming President of the United States, but she’d have a decent shot at becoming Prime Minister of Japan.
MB: Do you think the political make up on the Japanese side in the movie was more patriarchal than reality?
FK: Yes. In terms of the Cabinet-level politics, it was realistic to see only one woman there. At the lower/mid levels, however, there should have been more women than were actually shown.
PF: So in this case they might have actually undersold it? I do recall reading about there being 18 female world leaders just at this very moment. So to other countries that have already elected women as their heads it may be less shocking than to us in the USA.
FK: That’s right, the USA is behind the times.
MB: Yeah, I’m betting that Shin Godzilla is coming off as more radical to us than to Japanese viewers. If everyone in one of the most liberal cities in the country can’t seriously conceive of a non-white, female leader.
PF: This seems like a nice segue, so should we move on to political themes? I know Frog and I had a different perspective already based on a Twitter exchange, although I’m thinking I might be wrong given Frog’s superior knowledge of Japan’s political environment.
FK: Please tell us what you thought. Lots of people had different opinions on the film’s messages!
PF: All right, I felt like a great deal of the political uncertainty of the movie was based on the US. At first they didn’t want to get the US involved then requested aid when they felt they could no longer handle the situation. This backfired in two ways. First, Godzilla’s reaction to the USAF attack against it, then the US deciding to nuke the city. After that the characters were struggling to form their own solution faced with a countdown from the US and had to use other international connections to delay the launch. So, at the end of the day, I think the message was nationalistic. Anno just doesn’t appear to have much faith in the current governmental structure of Japan.
FK: And not without reason, to be honest.
MB: Generally I found Anno’s take on politics to be cynical but ultimately tinged with optimism. The film spends a lot of time skewering bureaucracy and inaction in a black comedy setup, but the resolution doesn’t totally denounce the political structure, which I found interesting and nuanced. The characters who worked to get things done did so by working with the limitations of their own governments. I got an almost idealistic message of how politics would vastly improve if people acted with more good faith and trust. I don’t know… It was very different than what I usually see in disaster films – renegade heroes just bucking the system entirely.
FK: Yeah, I can see that message resonating far outside Japan.
PF: Seemed like it was a politician unwilling to take responsibility and make a decision that caused trouble just as much as the bureaucratic structure itself.
MB: Mm, and to me there was an interesting contrast of a sole person not making a decision vs. the productive decisions being made by many people working together.
SJ: I agree with Molly, and I also found it interesting about their reluctance to use their SDF, especially with weapons, as they were worried about breaking treaties and rules that they’ve been under since WWII. We even did an article on my site last week about them changing the SDF insignia to have an unsheathed katana, which caused quite a stir amongst the Japanese, as it showcased “violence” and “bushido”. Even at the end, they were more apt to using scientific ways to resolve the conflict, rather than “brute force” violence. Only when pushed to the extremes did the Prime Minister even break down to allow “any means necessary”
MB: I’m also wondering (coughfrogcough) if using the conflict over using the SDF came across to anyone as Anno’s commentary on recent years’ issues with Abe and rearming Japan.
FK: That has always been a contentious issue in Japan. Abe stoked fires, but it’s always been there. However, that debate is more about Japan coming to the aid of other countries in conflict. Shin Godzilla follows a line of “kaijuu” films in showing the SDF as weak and impotent in the face of a real disaster.
Allegory and Anno
PF: All right, Godzilla is presented in many different ways and has been used allegorically to represent a variety of larger subjects. What do you think Godzilla represented in Shin Godzilla? Either in the context of the franchise or larger political, social, or environmental themes.
FK: Man, you could write an essay about this. One of my uni professors is a Godzilla specialist and I’m pretty sure he has written about this
SJ: Every iteration of Godzilla (from Japan) revolves around the consequences of nuclear experimentation in some way. The original 1954 movie was a direct response to the repercussions of the atomic bombings, and Godzilla himself was used as a coping mechanism for the Japanese citizens. In many iterations, he’s portrayed as a God, mostly of revenge or as punishment for atrocities done to the earth, hence why he’s always protecting the Earth, even if it means destroying cities like Tokyo to protect the “greater good”.
This time, it seems as though he is a sign of revenge against Japan, and the political system itself. He was born out of nuclear waste, and appears to be a reflection of Japan’s ineptitude with handling a major crisis, particularly the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and how they were incapable of handling the power.
FK: Yeah, it certainly seems to have been written as a commentary on Fukushima.
SJ: Even with it being a commentary on that issue, the movie seemed to tie in all aspects of nuclear interactions, including the bombings, radiation aftermath, nuclear waste, etc
PF: Also the international pressure. Evan mentioned to me that the way the US expressed its concerns about a small chance that Godzilla would end up on the West coast of the US was extremely similar to our concerns about the Fukushima radiation spreading through Pacific currents.
SJ: Exactly. And that the U.S. was standing by ready to nuke Japan again as soon as Godzilla reawakened.
MB: In that a solution had been carried out, but Japanese leaders still have to live with this damage and abnormality in their midst as the new normal. I mean, saying that frozen Godzilla was a big visual metaphor for the reconstruction that is still happening and will be for years is maybe reaching… but…
SJ: I can see that. Having him be a constant reminder, towering over the city as a ticking time bomb is pretty daunting to anyone. It made me think of an earthquake, because they know it will happen, it’s just a matter of when, how bad it will end up being, and how they will handle it. The Fukushima disaster happened as a result of an earthquake and a tsunami, both natural disasters. In this circumstance, Godzilla is the natural disaster, wreaking nuclear havoc on the country.
PF: Godzilla’s most popular representations are as the alpha predator king of monsters or a more elemental force of destruction like natural (or nuclear) disasters. The radiation breath and it standing in the middle of the devastation at the end really sold it for me. Although I’m curious about the final shot of the tail in that context.
MB: I think that’s why there was such a focus on displacement, refugees, and homes being lost – that was a huge cost of the 2011 disaster and something that is still a major issue and heartbreaking effect.
SJ: The fact that they mentioned having to uproot 12 million people from their homes, and that there will always be casualties from disasters or the like, regardless of action or inaction. The Prime Minister stopping the original assault on Godzilla because of two people crossing the train tracks is an example of a naive inaction, wanting to save everyone while ultimately putting the rest in danger.
PF: So were the twisted bodies on the tail supposed to be a visual reminder of that, do you think? I got a sort of vengeful dead feeling from it, as if Godzilla was composed of the victims of one of the bombs or Fukushima itself. Anno does have a thing for big bodies made of smaller bodies.
SJ: It could be a signature of Anno’s visual style. Though it does seem to harken to the idea of the original atomic blast and those caught in it.
MB: I’ve heard a lot of decent theories.
FK: It’s amazing that we got this far without discussing Anno or Evangelion.
PF: It is, actually.
MB: Until that shot, we hadn’t gotten that close to the intricacies of Godzilla’s tail or body – so maybe it was to make the point that Godzilla himself is a whole make up of parts. To parallel with the general theme of parts of the government and population having to work together to solve problems and rebuild. That would possibly tie in to Ogashira’s line about Godzilla also representing limitless possibilities.
PF: I recall the American Godzilla had Godzilla babies and I got serious Angel vibes off Anno’s Godzilla so it could mean another stage in its evolution or offspring. Either way it seems like an opening for a sequel.
SJ: Godzilla has always been portrayed as an asexual creature. There was even a baby Godzilla, which was never explained how it came to be. Also, I’d like to point out that Godzilla never shot things from his scales or from his tail ever, so it was very shocking to see that. It was only known to blast from its mouth.
MB: One last Anno thought, though – I did get a huge “the fate of destruction is also the joy of rebirth” vibe from the entire film.
PF: For Godzilla or Japan?
MB: Japan and the new political leaders in the film.
SJ: It could honestly be both, since Godzilla itself was potentially birthing new creatures out of his tail in the wake of his destruction. And from that destruction was also the rebirth of Japan/its government. The original cabinet was mostly destroyed in one of Godzilla’s blasts, and at the end, they mentioned the acting cabinet basically turning over the reigns, leading to an opening for an entirely new (potentially younger) government.
MB: It’s that human angle of the new regime that reminded me of the Eva quote most.
About the Participants
Molly Brenan is a lifelong anime fan whose interest in the medium only grew through studying art history and Japanese. She now works in the manga industry and actually owns the Evangelion pancake pan that looks like Zeruel. You can find her on Twitter @Molly_Anne_Bee/s.
Peter Fobian has been an anime fan for 20 years and a professional writer working in anime, video games, and esports for five years. You can follow him on Twitter @peterfobian.
Syra Jenkins has had an interest in Japanese culture since she was five years old watching Sailor Moon every Saturday morning. She started an anime club in her local college and educated her community about anime and Japanese culture. You can find her traversing your local coffee shop, sipping ice coffee and reading her favorite fanfic.