The Godzilla Movie That Can Say No: SHIN GODZILLA (2016)

© Toho Company, Ltd.

A pleasure boat, the Glory Maru, is found drifting offshore near Tokyo Bay by the Japan Coast Guard. Moments later, the Tokyo Aqua Line springs a leak and floods. Deputy Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) and his aide Shimura (Kengo Kora) are notified of the incident and disaster response begins. Yaguchi sees an internet video of the ongoing incident and is convinced that the flood is being caused by a living creature. He warns Prime Minister Okochi (Ren Osugi) and his aide Akasaka (Yutaka Takenouchi) but is scoffed at by the bureaucracy, dead set that it’s an underwater volcano. A cabinet meeting is interrupted by an on-air broadcast showing a giant creature’s tail, proving Yaguchi correct. The Prime Minister and his flummoxed cabinet call on a panel of biologists for counsel. The men of science, fearing their academic careers are at stake, offer little in the way of answers. Shimura calls upon a school colleague, a conservation bureau member named Hiromi Ogashira (Mikako Ichikawa). Observing video footage, she speculates that it has legs and the ability to come on land to the incredulous cabinet. Prime Minister Okochi gives a press conference to reassure the public, only to be interrupted by news that the creature has surfaced in Tokyo’s Kamata ward.

Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi were announced as directors of Toho’s new Godzilla film in early 2015. Those who knew Anno’s prior work like the landmark Neon Genesis Evangelion were excited for him to bring his distinctive aesthetic to a franchise like Godzilla. While overlong, Shin Godzilla is a successful hard reboot of the Godzilla series. It is everything Legendary Pictures’ passable but dull Godzilla (2014) and abysmal Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) are not. Though darkened by a dubious political bent, Shin Godzilla presents the viewer with dynamic images courtesy of co-director Higuchi. It well translates Anno’s anime aesthetic to live action. The first Godzilla brought its traumatized audience back to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shin Godzilla’s visuals bring similar memories to a Japan still reeling from the 3/11 tsunami and earthquake.

A young Hideaki Anno, circa the mid 1980s.

Hideaki Anno (1960-) is one of Japanese pop culture’s most influential luminaries. Anno, now the CEO of his own animation company Khara Inc., is an institution in of himself in Japan. Hideaki Anno was born in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture. His father, who wore a prosthetic leg, was at times abusive to him. As a child, Anno loved watching Ultraman on TV. Visiting Expo ‘70 in Osaka was a particularly pivotal experience for him. As a teenager, he became interested in military history and Space Battleship Yamato. He even would put flyers advertising the show around his school. Anno was an honor student. Akin to his iconic character Rei Ayanami, he is a fervent vegetarian. During lunch, he would often subsist on only milk and bread when there were no vegetarian options. He began making films and animation in high school on Super 8. Accepted into the Osaka University of the Arts, he was regarded as a prodigy. There, he would meet Gainax co-founders and friends Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai and Toshio Okada. His college years would later be documented in the humorous manga and TV show Blue Blazes. During this time, he worked as an animator on the iconic Macross (1982–1983) and on Daicon Film (later Gainax)’s opening animations for the Nihon SF convention. He also produced a short fan film tribute to Return of Ultraman.

A game changer in Anno’s career came when he was hired by Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki, impressed by Anno’s art, was in need of more animators for Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Miyazaki was flummoxed by the disorganized state of Anno’s workspace, but was extremely impressed with his work. Anno animated much of the film’s stunning “God Warrior” sequence. When Gainax produced their first feature, The Wings of Honneamise, in 1987, Anno was animation director. At the age of only 28, he made his directorial debut, the original video animation Gunbuster. A mix of militarism, giant robots and fan service, it took the anime industry by storm. The TV show Nadia: Secret of Blue Water (1990–91) soon followed. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto designed the characters and Anno worked with composer Shiro Sagisu for the first time. Anno had trouble handling the show and fought creativity with his producers. The second half of the show was handled by his friends such as Shinji Higuchi and animated mostly in Korea. The experience of Nadia was coupled with unrequited romantic affections. This plunged Anno into a terrible depression. In 1993 he began to develop his subsequent opus, one that would come to define his career.

A dark science fiction story based on his despair, Neon Genesis Evangelion started airing in October 1995. With strong character development and a compelling narrative, it won many admirers. Due to graphic violence in one episode, investor Sega withdrew their funding from the show. This resulted in Anno and his team being forced to work with a lower budget for the remaining episodes. The last two episodes, composed mostly of recycled animation, were the most controversial. He followed the show up with a pair of Evangelion movies intending to properly conclude the show. The second of them was the stunning The End of Evangelion. The ultra violent but well animated film is either an alternative or proper ending depending on interpretation. Evangelion would be an international phenomenon. It spawned merchandise of every kind and, nearly, a Hollywood live action movie.

GOD WARRIOR APPEARS IN TOKYO (2012), © Studio Ghibli.

Despite being known for his anime work, Hideaki Anno has had a love of tokusatsu since his youth. A huge Ultraman buff, in college he produced a tribute to Return of Ultraman. His anime opuses Gunbuster, Nadia and Evangelion are filled with visual references to tokusatsu films and shows. In 2012 Anno curated a tokusatsu exhibit at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Along with friend and frequent collaborator Shinji Higuchi, he produced a short film for it. Entitled God Warrior Appears in Tokyo, it was a co-production with Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli directed by Higuchi. An impressive mini-film made with practical means, it featured the “God Warrior” from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind obliterating Tokyo. The short was also shown before Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo in Japanese theaters.

In his book Tokyoscope Patrick Macias called Shinji Higuchi the “Gen-X answer to Eiji Tsuburaya”. Indeed, like Tsuburaya, Higuchi has a tremendous talent for creating dynamic, compelling images. In addition to his special effects and directing careers, he is often called upon to draw anime storyboards. Born in 1965 in Tokyo, he grew up loving Toho’s special effects films. His father took him to see Submersion of Japan and Prophecies of Nostradamus in theaters. A young Higuchi was blown away. He began to entertain dreams of getting into tokusatsu filmmaking. The Human Vapor and Matango were also particular favorites growing up. Entering college, he joined Daicon Film, soon to become iconic anime studio Gainax. He would draw storyboards for some of their early works. This would include their breakout Daicon IV animation for the Nihon SF convention. He then worked as a production assistant for Koichi Kawakita and Teruyoshi Nakano’s FX units on Bye Bye Jupiter and The Return of Godzilla (both 1984).

His big break would come shortly after, doing special effects for the feature length The Eight-Headed Serpent Strikes Back. Directed by Takami Akai, this independent film combined sci-fi tropes with the Japanese myth of Yamata no Orochi. It was considered impressive enough that Bandai bought its rights. Only in his early 20s, Higuchi was on the map as a rising talent. His storyboarding skills became in demand and he worked on anime and live action films. These include The Wings of Honneamise (1987), Tokyo, The Last Megalopolis (1988), Gunbuster (1988–89), Tetsuro Tanba’s The Great Spirit World (1989) and Ultra Q The Movie: Legend of the Stars (1990). In 1991, he helped out friend Tomoo Haraguchi with the special effects on Mikadroid. A modest budgeted film released directly to video, his work on it bolstered his career even further.

Portrait of Anno (left) and Higuchi (right) by Bill Couture.

Higuchi also worked on Tsuburaya’s attempt at an American Ultraman show, Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero (1993). He and friends Mahiro Maeda and Toshio Miike provided creature and mechanical designs. Recreating classic monsters from their childhood, they worked under Hollywood creature guru Kevin Hudson. The show was not purchased for airing in the U.S. and was something of a creative disaster. Yet their designs and the work of Hudson’s team stand out. In 1993, at the age of only 28, Higuchi won the job to direct the special effects unit for Shusuke Kaneko’s reimagining of Gamera. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe took him from rising talent to best special effects director in Japan. The effects sequences won universal acclaim. They were produced on less than half the budget Kawakita was working with on Toho’s simultaneous Godzilla entries. Traditionally, the miniatures for tokusatsu sequences are built before camera angles are chosen. Higuchi planned his shots ahead of time. Model maker Toshio Miike then built the miniatures specifically for the shots. This kept the budget down while still allowing for an impressive sense of scale. Higuchi was brought back as special effects director on Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996) and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). His work for each entry was more impressive than the last. All the while, he helped his friend Hideaki Anno with his masterwork Evangelion. He storyboarded certain episodes and helped script others. Higuchi also shot parts of the live action sequence in End of Evangelion. Other work included the TV movie Space Cargo Remnant 6 (1996), supervised by Ghost in the Shell’s Mamoru Oshii.

Higuchi continued his work as special effects director into the 2000s. He worked on Haraguchi’s Sakuya, Slayer of Demons (2000), The Princess Blade and Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera (both 2001). His feature length directorial debut was the little known Mini-Moni the Movie: A Sweet Adventure (2002). He also did storyboards for Dragonhead (2003), Casshern and Anno’s Cutie Honey (both 2004). Additionally, he acted as production coordinator for the Tokyo leg of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. Tarantino would use Toshio Miike’s miniatures from Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack for shots of The Bride arriving in Tokyo.

Art by Dark Red Gear.

After the creative and financial failure of Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004, Toho would cease production on Godzilla entries for their longest period yet. A fun sequence in Takashi Yamazaki’s Always: Sunset on Third Street 2 (2007), would whet fans’ appetites. Yet it would be almost twelve years until another Japanese-produced Godzilla entry was released. Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi signed on to Shin Godzilla in late 2014 and an announcement was made on April 1st, 2015. Some believed it to be an April Fools’ joke as Higuchi was still deep in post-production for his Attack on Titan duology but it was soon confirmed. Shooting on the movie would begin that fall with Higuchi’s Attack on Titan: The End of the World being picture locked. The shoot would last three months. Anno instructed the actors to speak quickly in the bureaucratic sequences, emulating the fast speech of Japanese politicians. Godzilla’s main form was to be brought to life through use of a CGI enhanced rod puppet like the Colossal Titan in Higuchi’s previous film. This was scrapped after some test footage. Godzilla wound up rendered entirely with CGI in the final film. Kyogen performer Mansai Nomura did the motion capture for Godzilla. A sequence showing Godzilla’s “Shinagawa-kun” form projectile vomiting a blood-like substance was cut. There was a considerable amount of miniature work done for the film, with models built by Higuchi’s longtime associate Toshio Miike. Anno’s usual composer, Shiro Sagisu, would create the lavish score. As with the Evangelion Rebuilds he makes heavy use of a choir chanting in English. “Decisive Battle”, a memorable piece from the Evangelion soundtrack, was reused in Shin Godzilla as well. In early 2016, images of the Godzilla puppet were leaked online to much fan speculation. The trailer then dropped in late April.

Godzilla designs by Mahiro Maeda. © Toho Company, Ltd.

When it opened in Japan, followed by a small stateside run a few months later, Shin Godzilla would be controversial with vocal detractors. Yet with a provocateur like Anno one should expect nothing less. This was the man who filled the last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion with existentialism and recycled animation. He then doubled down with End of Evangelion, a haunting bloodbath of a finale designed to supplant the show’s ending. This is a filmmaker who, love or hate or him, cares little about his audience’s approval. Anno, with Shinji Higuchi at his side giving the images polish and weight, brings to life a unique depiction of Godzilla. It is far superior to Gareth Edwards’ or Michael Dougherty’s Hollywood takes. Shin Godzilla keeps reverence to Godzilla’s history while presenting a dramatic reimagining of the creature some fans consider heretical. Anno and Higuchi show off their diehard fandom from frame one. Shin Godzilla opens with the 1965 Toho logo and an exact replica of the opening shot of the 1954 film. They mix in Easter eggs like the Glory (Eiko) Maru, Goro Maki (named after Son of Godzilla’s protagonist), Odo Island and having Godzilla attack Shinagawa ward. Additionally, Anno and his sound designers sample Ifukube tracks throughout and use Toho’s stock effects library with glee. Shin Godzilla is even, oddly, mixed in 3.1 rather than typical 5.1 surround sound. This is perhaps a nod to Perspecta, a three to four track early surround sound system used in many of Toho’s classic films from the late 50s to early 60s.

The unused Godzilla puppet. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Shin Godzilla is often evaluated as something of an auteurist piece from Anno. In reality, it is just as much Shinji Higuchi’s film and his end of Shin Godzilla is impressive. The destruction scenes feature almost seamless composite shots, mostly supervised by Higuchi’s right hand man Katsuro Onoue. It can often be nearly impossible to tell what is computer generated, live action and miniatures. Anno and Higuchi’s life-like images of mass destruction and civilians fleeing it are unsettling in the wake of the 3/11 earthquake. Like the monsters in the ’90s Gamera films, Godzilla was designed by Mahiro Maeda. His Godzilla design was controversial but is quite creative. It retains the Japanese aesthetic missing from the American incarnations while taking its potential in a new direction. Anno and his team brilliantly recreate his anime aesthetic in live action, the shot compositions and cuts invoke his Evangelion works. The military attack scenes resemble the final act of Evangelion 1.0 in their staging, pacing, editing and imagery. The “Operation Yashima” sequences in that film were storyboarded by Shinji Higuchi. Anno and Higuchi’s talents compliment each other like a contemporary equivalent to Honda and Tsuburaya.

Shin Godzilla is a complex and multi-layered film. On its surface, it’s a Dr. Strangelove-like political satire on the inefficiency of Japanese bureaucracy. Science fiction in Japan has tackled this before. Even in Honda’s original there’s a scene where opposing politicians in the Diet clash. Shin Godzilla takes Shusuke Kaneko’s idea of “What if giant monsters really existed’’ to a logical conclusion. It guts any past world building in the Godzilla series and assumes “What would happen if Godzilla just showed up in Japan tomorrow?”. The film’s view toward Japan’s postwar bureaucracy is best summed up in one shot. As the Prime Minister prepares to have a public conference with his cabinet, the cabinet members must walk across the hall into a room reserved for official conferences. The image of a gaggle of politicians shambling from one room to another is one of the most comical in the film. It drives in the utter ridiculous inefficiency of Japan’s government.

A major influence came not from Ishiro Honda, but from Blood Type: Blue’s Kihachi Okamoto, featured onscreen in a photograph. Japan’s Longest Day (1967) and Battle of Okinawa (1971), two World War II-based docudramas Okamoto directed for Toho, are Anno’s favorite films. Both feature a similar gaggle of politicians, bureaucrats and military officials, frequently named onscreen, coping with historical crises. Japan’s Longest Day, with an all-star cast including Toshiro Mifune as War Minister Anami, focuses on the turmoil gripping Japan in the last day before its surrender. A faction of militarists believe the Emperor was coerced into capitulation. They try to stop Japan’s bureaucrats from broadcasting his surrender speech. Shin Godzilla depicts a kaiju attack in a similar docudrama tone. Anno and his editor Atsuki Sato even copy Okamoto’s cutting style near verbatim. Shin Godzilla was cut on Adobe Premiere Pro, a popular and versatile video editing application.

SHIN GODZILLA being edited in Premiere. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Like Okamoto, Anno names every official who shows up on screen along with every piece of weaponry, showing off his military otaku roots. Covered in Gainax’s OVA Otaku no Video, there’s a subculture of otaku (a derogatory yet iconic term for “fanboy”) obsessed with military history and hardware. They bear similarities to American militia and survivalists but are less politically active. Unable to play cowboy with real firearms like their American counterparts, instead they make do with airsoft replicas thanks to Japan’s strict gun control. The character Aida in Evangelion, a nerdy kid with an obsession in all things military, was based on Anno as a teenager. The film’s trope of nerds coming together to save the world brings Studio Gainax’s foundation to mind; when a group of otaku joined forces to break into the film industry.

A Self Defense Force recruitment poster also advertising SHIN GODZILLA.

Unlike classic entries which feature outlandish weaponry, Shin Godzilla’s military hardware is taken entirely from life. The Japanese Self Defense Force threw their full support behind this project. Shin Godzilla would even be used in SDF recruitment posters during its release. This provided fuel to the film’s critics who accused it of being neo-fascist. Anno’s script is spartan in character development as it deluges the audience with one bureaucrat and meeting after another. Yet Yaguchi, Shimura, Akasaka and Ogashira are given the largest focus. It is Yaguchi’s unorthodox methods that drive the narrative forward. There are some shared tropes between Shin and previous entries. Yaguchi, like Serizawa, defeats Godzilla with a chemical compound. U.S. forces attack Godzilla with missiles that have little effect like the scene used in only the American version of Mothra vs. Godzilla. Like 1984’s Return of Godzilla, which Higuchi worked as an assistant on, the United States tries to bully Japan into letting them use a nuclear weapon on Godzilla. Yaguchi also plays into the trope, popular since Submersion of Japan, of the “sky is falling” scientist who is disbelieved by the establishment. If Shin Godzilla has any real flaws, the endless string of bureaucratic meetings get a little tedious. The film could have used some cutting.

The film’s cast is fairly novel. With the exception of Akira Emoto (Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla) and Jun Kunimura (Godzilla: Final Wars), no Godzilla series veterans were cast. Kyusaku Shimada (1955-), who played the iconic black magician Yasunori Kato in the Teito (Megalopolis) films, also plays a military official. Rumor had it that Akira Takarada expressed interest in appearing in Shin Godzilla, but Anno turned him down. Allegedly, the director wanted to avoid casting anyone strongly associated with the series, feeling it would distract from the narrative. Of the players, Mikako Ichikawa makes a particular impression as Ogashira. Ichikawa (1978-) had previously appeared in Anno’s Cutie Honey (2004). Ichikawa’s Ogashira has the “cool”, even tempered energy of a traditional Japanese woman with an outspokenness of the modern age. She is the brilliant mind behind Yaguchi’s plan. Satomi Ishihara (1986-), however, is miscast as Kayoco Ann Paterson. She plays a supposed American character who speaks English with a thick Japanese accent. There are many pop stars in Japan with Western roots who speak perfect English, so the decision to cast someone who doesn’t seems odd.

Art by Bill Couture.

Japanese filmmakers have a knack for “layering” their themes and Anno is particularly fond of that storytelling style. Festering beneath the surface of Shin Godzilla’s satire on bureaucracy is a “Japan First” mentality. It’s akin to Shintaro Ishihara and Sony founder Akio Morita’s (in)famous book The Japan That Can Say No. Ishihara (1932-), brother of actor Yujiro Ishihara, was the conservative governor of Tokyo known for his denial of Japan’s wartime atrocities. The book revolves around how an infantilized Japan needs to take back its autonomy on the world stage. This is Shin Godzilla’s hidden message. The film makes the case that, per the U.S. taking away Japan’s military sovereignty, if a monster like Godzilla were to show up the Japanese would be woefully unprepared. Ren Osugi’s ineffectual Prime Minister Okochi seems to represent Naoto Kan more than Shinzo Abe. Anno’s work has had nationalistic tinges since his directorial debut, the OVA Gunbuster. Gunbuster uses World War II imagery in a manner that’s nearly fetishistic in intensity. Anno, amusingly in Tomoo Haraguchi’s Death Kappa (2009), portrayed the leader of a right wing terrorist group desperate to restore Japan’s Imperial might. Higuchi is no stranger to right wing suspicions either, his second film was a controversial adaptation of Harutoshi Fukui’s novel Lorelei (2005). In that novel a renegade submarine gifted by the Germans stops a third atomic bomb from being dropped on Tokyo in 1945. There are some unsettling fascistic elements to Shin Godzilla. The text of Japan’s pacifist Constitution is flashed on the screen in a manner that seems almost mocking. A firm in Germany also helps Yaguchi’s researchers analyze their data with a supercomputer, which could be interpreted as two old allies working together again. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Germany is also a major ally (at first) of the Japanese NERV branch.

At the end of the day, Anno and Higuchi have a point. Japan is indeed infantilized on the world stage and what right does a country like the U.S. have to keep it that way? On Islamic terrorism, right wing author and professional “bad human being” Ann Coulter cruelly said that “Japanese kamikazes (sic) pilots hated us once, too. A couple of well-aimed nuclear weapons got their attention. Now they are gentle little lambs.” This about sums up how American conservatives view Japan: a tributary state in perpetual “time out” for its past misdeeds. Yet one must remember that Japan is the same country that tried to conquer the rest of Asia in the mid 20th century. A country that once orchestrated the massacre of a Chinese city, forced women in occupied countries to sexually service their troops and conducted medical experimentation. This would not be an issue if Japan’s government showed remorse for their past actions. However the last administration led by Shinzo Abe outright denied such atrocities. Can a Japan with politicians like Abe or Yoshihide Suga at the helm really be trusted by the world to have military autonomy?

Yet Shin Godzilla is a compelling and well produced update to the Godzilla mythos. It was released the same year that Donald Trump became U.S. President and populism was gaining traction in a chaotic world. Love it or hate it, as the original Godzilla is the perfect portrayal of Japan’s postwar zeitgeist, Shin Godzilla is an accurate snapshot of current day Japan. As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, Shin Godzilla will no doubt take on even more relevance. Its themes of governments mishandling a catastrophe as science races to save the day already resonate. Its downbeat ending, implying Godzilla is far from defeated, perfectly bookends the Godzilla legacy. It is the essence of shoganai. These cataclysms are inevitable. Humanity and Japan’s challenge is to learn how to adapt and live with them. As Anno returns to Evangelion for the final Rebuild, he and Higuchi are collaborating again for an Ultraman reboot. The film, entitled Shin Ultraman (2021), was written by Anno and is being directed by Higuchi.

J.L. Carrozza (1986-) is the author of the book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (2021). This article is excerpted and edited from chapters in that book. Carrozza has written for such publications as Asian Cult Cinema, Monster Attack Team and Otaku USA.

Jules L. Carrozza (1986-) is a film director, video editor, writer, graphic designer and general crazy person.