Shin Godzilla: Proof the King of Monsters only truly feels at home in Japan

It’s all too easy to associate Godzilla with kitsch. Rubber suits, dodgy CGI, extras clutching their heads and screaming up towards the sky. But that’s not the complete story. Not the one that started in 1954, when Toho’s original version of the film was produced by a country still under the shadow of war.

It’s a film shaped by lingering shots of utter decimation, of flattened buildings and streets littered with debris. The shiver left behind by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still a memory barely faded in colour. Monsters are physical manifestations of fear, and Godzilla funnels the trauma of nuclear attack into a being of mythological nature.

This is the spirit carried on by Toho’s revival of the franchise in Shin Godzilla, the first to be produced by the studio since 2004’s Godzilla Wars, but one that takes into account how the King of Monsters, the nightmare of radioactive mutation who can flatten cities with his atomic breath, must change to reflected the modern world.

Disasters are different now. They crowd into our smartphones; a cacophony of names, places, and terrors. Japan knows this phenomenon well, in the aftermath of 2011’s Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and the ensuing Fukushima disaster. In Shin Godzilla, each individual location the creature destroys is dutifully listed in an onscreen caption. These are real neighbourhoods, real homes, and workplaces.

Godzilla’s nuclear terrors are now double fold. It’s momentous to think Japan has now suffered both the only two uses of nuclear weapons for warfare in history, but also the second biggest nuclear accident after the Chernobyl disaster. That leaves its own peculiar kinds of scars, and the country’s intimacy with the ideological terror of Godzilla is what makes a film like Shin Godzilla feel so at odds with its American counterparts.

Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla viewed its threat as apocalyptic. It’s all darkened skies, rumbling storms. But Shin Godzilla is about the reality of disasters and how we deal with them, on multiple levels. The crowds of people run and scream like any traditional kaiju movie, but elsewhere we see people with their phones up. “I’m getting scoop footage!,” one onlooker shrieks. Others are hooked to their news feed, spectating from the safe parts of Tokyo while the other half burns.