There is no middle of the road in a discussion of Hideaki Anno's Shin Gojira. Like so much of the man's output, it's a love-it-or-loathe-it experience. You either admire it for attempting to do something different with the Godzilla template, or you hold your nose and long for the days of a guy in a suit kicking over a scale model of Shibuya. I got what Anno was trying to do: use the story format to make comments about Japan's culture of perpetual political intransigence, and how inadequate that has become in a post-everything world. But a little of this goes a long way. Maverick and bold as it is to make a Godzilla that's about the real-world politics of dealing with the monster, it's maverick in a way that for many fans is going to be more interesting to analyze than to actually watch.
Red tape vs. the king of the monsters
The broad outlines of Shin Gojira conform heavily to a template used by the franchise. An odd something-or-other appears out at sea or in a remote place. Government and academic types scrutinize it. It quickly reveals itself to be dangerous. Mankind must learn how to destroy it, and also how to overcome its own intransigence and foolishness. Sometimes it was Godzilla who was the monster; sometimes Godzilla was the "good" guy, if only in the sense that he wanted to kick the other monster's ass as badly as we did.
Here, Godzilla is definitely not the good guy. He (he?) smashes up an underwater tunnel, swims ashore in what I guess could be described as a "larval" form, creates havoc, then dives back into the deep again. The authorities, led by the Prime Minister (Ren Osugi, the go-to Japanese actor for officious martinet types) respond in fits and starts, spending more time convening meetings to hold cabinet sessions to deliver press conferences than actually doing anything.
The joke, such as it is, is that the bureaucracy is so paralyzing that at first the government can't even figure out what agency is responsible for this, even after chibi-Zilla has crawled on land and thrown around cars. Anno milks this for something like the first twenty solid minutes of the film, with occasional payoffs. E.g., when the PM goes on TV to declare "There is no danger of the monster coming ashore!", he's interrupted by one of his aides telling him it has done exactly that.
Eventually, both the government and the film itself get out of neutral. A task force is convened to study Godzilla and to prepare for its return from the waters. The gravity of the situation impresses itself on the PM, and soon he's thinking less about looking bad on TV and more about the way this poses an existential crisis to Japan as a whole. Then Godzilla returns, all blazing spines and killing radioactive breath, and lays waste to a vast chunk of Tokyo in a moment that's as reminiscent of Evangelion as it is anything else from Godzilla's previous installments.
Make a plan and follow through
The second half of the movie, though, stacks almost all its chips on the "politics and planning" side of the felt, where the Godzilla special team and its ambitious young leader Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) race against time to figure out how to disable Godzilla before a joint UN strike force decides to drop the literal and figurative bomb. In theory the concept is a good one: Show teamwork, problem-solving, and the tiresome, thankless task of governance as being the real heroes of the day, instead of mindless violence, daring-do, or superhero-dom.
Whether or not it works in practice is another story. For me, it worked in bits and pieces rather than in the whole. I liked how Osugi's Prime Minister character goes from nattering about his public image to making a truly grave decision about his future, and I liked how his replacement, a former agricultural minister, realizes by degrees how totally unsuited he is to the job of making the kinds of life-changing decisions required of him now. But they are only individual elements; they are adrift in a swirling congee of scenes that play too much like a cutesy government-propaganda movie for comfort.
Much of how Anno tries to keep this from becoming static is through the pacing, editing, and cinematography. Every heel-and-toe walk from press conference room to cabinet session is cut together in triple time; calls from other ministers, discussions with scientists, and people-on-the-street reaction shots are machine-gunned out at the viewer. But even that starts having limited payoff after a while, and it ends up only contributing all the more to the movie feeling overstuffed and compulsively busy instead of genuinely absorbing.
Building a less imperfect beast
One thing I can't complain about, and I suspect few others will, either, is how Shin Gojira more than lives up to the name when the Big G himself is onscreen. It's a mix of homage and upgrade: Godzilla and his surroundings are now forensically precise CGI rather than a guy in a suit on a model set, but the original old-school crush-crumble-and-scream sound effects have been preserved. Ditto Akira Ifukube's iconic score, something the U.S. Godzilla was also wise enough to preserve (if only over the closing credits). And when Godzilla cuts loose with his powers, it looks like they used Noriyoshi Ōrai's iconic Godzilla poster art as the storyboard.
There's little question Godzilla, like Star Trek, has needed fresh blood for some time. My favorite prior attempt at rejuvenating the franchise (by slamming the door on it, as it turned out), was Ryuhei (Versus) Kitamura's utterly berserk Godzilla: Final Wars. I wanted to see more of that kind of totally uninhibited fun, the sort of thing you'd get from the likes of Takashi Miike, or Sion Sono, or Kitamura himself. The one thing you can't say about Shin Gojira is that it's the same-old, same-old, but what Anno has brought in its stead feels like a step sideways rather than a step forward.
I need to admit that much of my difficulty with the movie stems from it being a deliberately pungent pairing of franchise and approach. Call the movie boring, and you risk ignoring things about it that are actually timely and relevant, and not just for Japanese audiences. But most people, I suspect, don't watch Godzilla movies to get a heavy dose of bureaucratic intransigence. Then again, we didn't watch mecha anime to get a heavy dose of teenage angst and cosmic nihilism before Hideaki Anno came along either. He changed things there, although it's up for grabs whether it changed for the better. The same applies here.