Overview: The King of Monsters returns in this thrilling update to the Godzilla franchise that doubles as a glimpse into the troubled yet resilient soul of twenty-first century Japan. Funimation Films; 2016; Not Rated; 120 minutes.

The Fourth Time’s the Charm?: After the thunderous, unexpected success of Legendary Pictures’ 2014 Godzilla, it was only a matter of time until the Japanese followed suit. After all, Japan had always taken a smug pride in how the West had never quite gotten their national icon right—see the unceremonious curb-stomping of Roland Emmerich’s “Zilla” in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). But then unthinkable happened. The Yanks actually made a good (and profitable) Godzilla movie. Yes, yes, Toho Studios had been planning a new Godzilla film for years. But they only officially gave the project a green light a few months after the American one took the global box office by storm. It’s not hard to see what really happened there.

But in this era of reboots and “re-imaginings,” it wasn’t enough to simply make a new Godzilla film. Toho settled on nothing less than creating a fourth Godzilla continuity. For those unfamiliar with the franchise, let me give you the cliff notes version: there have been three official Godzilla timelines. First was the Shōwa series which began with Ishirō Honda’s inaugural Godzilla (1954) and reached all the way into the mid 70s with Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). This was when many of Godzilla’s greatest friends and foes—Anguirus, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla, and more—were introduced and the titular character transitioned from amoral metaphor for nuclear devastation to cute-and-friendly mascot and defender of Japan. The Heisei era (1984-1995) saw Godzilla return to his roots as a devastating force of nature. Largely abandoning the aw-shucks camp that dominated so many of the Shōwa films like the rightfully despised All Monsters Attack (1969), widely considered the nadir of the franchise, the Heisei films were bombastic, intense, and occasionally operatic. But they were also usually convoluted, overlong, and prone to bizarre genre pastiches. Remember when Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) suddenly became a spy thriller featuring Terminator-like American cyborg assassins? But the Millennium era (1999-2004) was when the franchise officially went bananas. Each film was a one-off belonging to its own separate continuity. The only thing tying these disparate films together were their shared lunacy. One of the more…interesting of these continuities saw Godzilla as the embodiment of the lost souls of World War Two returned to seek vengeance against a nation that had forgotten them. Like I said: completely bananas.

But with the tantalizing prospect of a modern-day franchise, Toho seems to be taking their prize property a bit more seriously. For this film, they enlisted none other than Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuichi to write and co-direct. Higuichi was a no-brainer: the man has extensive experience in anime and tokusatsu, most notably in the recent Attack on Titan feature films. But Anno? His work directing anime classics like Gunbuster, Nadia: The Secret of the Blue Water, and Neon Genesis Evangelion—this last one considered by many fans and scholars as literally one of the best anime series ever made—made him a shoe-in for writing and perhaps even storyboarding. But directing? Anyone who ever had the misfortune to sit through the bizarro art house train-wreck Shiki-Jitsu (2000) knows that he isn’t the most coherent live-action director. If anything, Anno seems to use live-action as a means to experiment with as many odd angles, camera lenses, and unsettling visual effects as possible.

Mob vs. God: So imagine my surprise to discover that Shin Godzilla is not only thoroughly coherent, but quite possibly the best Godzilla film since the first one in 1954. Shin Godzilla nails the proper spectacle, tone, and emotions one would expect from a film where a monster named after God arises from the depths and wreaks havoc on a unsuspecting humanity. The film wisely avoids one of the biggest stumbling blocks of any kaiju film, the human characters, by not really focusing on them at all. Which isn’t to say they aren’t there: there may be over 100 characters introduced with their name, rank, and government position flashed momentarily onscreen. And there are even a few characters who stand out, the most prominent being Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), a head-strong half-Japanese Special Envoy for the President of the United States with torn allegiances between the US and Japan. She easily rivals Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) and Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) as the most interesting human character in any Godzilla film. I could definitely see her character supporting a movie on her own.

But back to my point: individual characters don’t really matter in Shin Godzilla. Instead, they are only individuals in a mob of ants struggling to fight off an invader. Again and again, Anno stresses the anonymity of the masses of soldiers, specialists, civilians, and politicians scrambling to make sense of the chaos. I’ve heard many people describe the film as a satire of the Japanese government and its labyrinthine bureaucracy. And certainly the numerous scenes of military orders being relayed through 3-5 different officials on their way to and from the Prime Minister makes the government seem like the most stressful game of Whisper-Down-The-Lane imaginable. But here’s the thing: ultimately, the bureaucracy works. The government succeeds because of, not in spite of, its complexities. Anno suggests that in times of crisis, the human element will always shine through.

New Millennium, New Godzilla: As I mentioned, Godzilla was originally imagined as a metaphor for the nuclear devastation sustained by Japan in World War Two: he flattened cities, sprayed atomic breath, and even had his scales patterned after the scars sustained by atomic bomb survivors. But Anno seems to be modeling his Godzilla after a different set of anxieties: the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and resulting meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This new Godzilla first appears looking like a giant tadpole—nothing more than a stump with a gigantic pair of googly-eyes on one end and a massive tail on the other. As he squirms his way down the choked streets of residential Tokyo, the ensuing wave of debris and boats spilling into the roads brings back memories of news reports showing entire seaside communities being carried inland for miles by that terrible tsunami. But this new Godzilla isn’t done. As a creature that literally feeds off radiation, it metamorphoses a pair of legs and arms right before the horrified eyes of the military. After it disappears back into the sea, it returns once more having grown to twice its old size. Here is a Godzilla that evolves faster than humanity can keep up. And this one has a few more tricks up its sleeve than just atomic breath…

New Godzilla, New Japan: It could be suggested that Shin Godzilla is somehow nationalistic, that it argues that Japan has the right and need to re-arm itself as a military power. Yes, the film is decidedly pro-Japan. Yes, it takes great pains to illustrate how the various laws and regulations placed on Japan’s military after World War Two hampers their capabilities to respond to a Godzilla-size threat. And yes, it takes every opportunity to indignantly sneer at the political machinations of the US and UN. But just because it’s pro-Japan doesn’t mean that it’s anti-everyone else. Quite the contrary: though opportunistic and morally dubious, the Americans are depicted as instrumental allies who sacrifice many of their own soldiers to stop Godzilla. The US may strong-arm a resolution through the UN to nuke Godzilla (and with him, all of Tokyo), but nobody fights harder to prevent this than Patterson, a woman who literally wants to be the US President one day. Yes, the US can be a unilateral asshole. But at least we’re a unilateral asshole with our hearts in the right place. The truth about the politics behind Shin Godzilla are much more complex. It declares that Japan has every right to be a major political and military power in the world. But it also realizes that that power is worthless without the aid and support of allies. Godzilla may attack Japan. But it takes the entire human species to stop him.

Overall: Many viewers may be turned off by the political subplots and intrigues in Shin Godzilla. But those same elements make it the most interesting and cultural significant Godzilla film in decades. But fine: people don’t go to Godzilla movies for the nuances of international politics. Rest assured that the film brings plenty of kaiju action. I went into Shin Godzilla thinking that nothing could top the military para-drop sequence from Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla. I was wrong. When this new Godzilla whips out his atomic breath for the first time, it’s nothing short of orgasmic. It’s one of the most horrifying moments of destruction I’ve ever seen on film. But it’s also one of the most poetic. Looks like the ball’s in Yanks’ corner again.

Grade: A

Featured Image: Funimation Films