Dark Horse Manga Editor and anime brain bug Carl Gustav Horn saw Shin Godzilla last night and we’ve been emailing each other all day back and forth about it. Here’s some highlights from our correspondence.
Carl wrote a shorter piece about the links between Shin Godzilla and Neon Genesis Evangelion for the Dark Horse blog before seeing the film. Read here.
CARL GUSTAV HORN
I say that my most selfish desire as an otaku is for the artists I like to challenge themselves and grow. Shin Godzilla has indulged that selfishness. An admirable, thrilling, sobering work first of all for a fan of Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, even before one considers it as a Godzilla film or kaiju film. They thrust forward all their knowledge, all their enthusiasm, all their affection as otaku into making this, yet with a sharpened edge of discipline, perspective and judgment as filmmakers. Despite the captions and jargon, the narrative is rapid, assured, without a sense of bloat or contrivance. There are few false notes in it.
Before the screening was a run of trailers for Hollywood CG-fests made for the American and Chinese markets; more false than their effects was any sense of risk or consequences. Exciting as it often is, Shin Godzilla is nobody's thrill ride of the summer. It's a real film, and in watching you feel the stakes for a real people and a real nation. The best part? Anno and Higuchi's vision paid off, connecting with the Japanese public and box office. Some might say this movie is appealing to nationalism, but I dare say the most patriotic thing of all about the film is that it holds its nation's audiences in higher regard than Japanese studios usually do.
A lot of press is being written about how the film is thinly disguised right-wing “strong Japan” propaganda, especially with regards to how the Self Defense Forces are portrayed in the film. But... the army gets their asses kicked by Godzilla and fails to achieve much of anything on their own. It’s really the private sector (industry and a bunch of misfit outsiders) who save the day at the end, and the framing enforces this by having the army guys stand in the back during the final operation, reduced to a supporting role.
Still, the SDF hook is too irresistible to not play out in the media, especially when Abe’s quotes like “I think that [Godzilla’s] popularity is rooted in the unwavering support that the public has for the Self-Defense Forces” are being printed in the Washington Post. Some US-writers are now wrongly assuming that Anno-Higuchi are in favor of this illusion, too...
Funny, since using a monster movie where the army loses as a recruitment tool is, as my friend Yoshiki Takahashi puts it, “like using The Matrix to try and recruit security guards.”
I think if critics were to think twice about it (and they should, if they're going to bring a political analysis) the film lends no support to Abe's big policy push: amending Article 9 so the SDF can use force abroad (as opposed to the non-combatant support they've done in Iraq, Cambodia, etc.). An example the LDP gives is sending ships of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force to support the U.S. Navy in Korea in the event of a crisis there.
A metaphor for that might have been if Anno and Higuchi had written the script so that Godzilla is first discovered on a distant Pacific island; experts believe the creature will soon head for Japan--should Japan send the SDF to do a pre-emptive strike on the island? This, of course, resembles how America would view the situation, and if I recall, the film cites a 17% chance Godzilla will strike the U.S. West Coast as part of the justification to nuke it beforehand.
But Shin Godzilla is written so the SDF doesn't come into play until Godzilla is literally inside the 23 wards--nobody could say their role in the movie is anything but domestic self-defense. It's even more circumspect than the original 1954 film, where the monster originally appears in the outer islands (albeit Japanese territory) and the government in fact dispatches naval ships to try and kill it with depth charges; only after that does Godzilla strike Tokyo itself.
This brings up an interesting question, which you'd know better than I--what did the Japanese Left, which was much more militant in the 1950s, think about the original films? Did they have any opinion? In other words, is this not a new controversy? I'm reminded of that book you introduced me to, Licence to Thrill, which covered the history of 007 as seen by the British press, including some of their political perspectives.
There's at least four political frameworks that are addressed in Shin Godzilla:domestic Japanese decision-making, the presentation and role of the SDF as a discrete institution, the U.S.-Japan relationship, and the relationship of Japan to the UN Security Council. This last framework is written as critical to the script, and in my view shows Shin Godzilla to have more to say about Japan's place in the world than just "we're America's Neil Connery."
Shin Godzilla’s plot device of the missing scientist “Goro Maki” leaving clues from beyond the grave reminds me of other off-stage, disembodied characters that periodically appear in anime, like the various puppet masters in the Ghost in the Shell series or the ghostly terrorists in the Patlabor films. They make me think of absentee fathers or distant trickster gods that cannot be understood or defeated by conventional means (in Hollywood movies, these types usually get punched out by the hero at the end of act three). Where does this archetype come from?
I’m not saying that anyone is ripping anyone off here, but are enough of these offstage types manipulating plots throughout otaku culture to make me feel like there is an unnamed genre now, and that Mamoru Oshii has been their prime mover (although Shinji's dad in Eva is so remote that he nearly qualifies as "permanently absent" in my book).
Speaking of Patlabor, the 3rd movie, WXII (not by Oshii) was also very much a revisionist monster on the loose film that might have some parallels to Shin Godzilla...
A difference is that Oshii was bringing politik to what was ostensibly a children’s medium (similar to what Frank Miller and Alan Moore were doing with the graphic novel around the same time) that was already acquainted with sex, death, and war... whereas Godzilla films have openly dealt with the atomic age and military-industrial concerns since the beginning in 1954, only to become kid’s entertainment as they evolved.
I watched 1964’s Mothra Vs. Godzilla a few days ago, and there’s an entire sequence showing the US military trying to stop Godzilla on their own Uncle Sam's “Frontier Missile” technology…and failing… that was filmed for the foreign market and not to be shown in Japanese prints. I wonder what would happen if this sort of thing was released today. Oh wait, it just was sorta...
TO BE CONTINUED...