Godzilla Resurgence is actually a biting political satire

Japan's new-- extremely successful-- Godzilla film is actually commentary about the Japanese government-- and Fukushima.

Early in Godzilla Resurgence the Japanese Prime Minister zips on his emergency management jumpsuit and addresses the press. The government has been studying the creature that has surfaced in Tokyo Bay, he says. Experts have assured him that the creature’s feet will not be able to support its weight on land.

An aide rushes to the podium and whispers in the his ear. The PM’s eyes go wide and he stares into the news cameras.

Cut to a monster ravaging Tokyo.

This is the moment where Godzilla Resurgence (also known as Shin Gojira or “New Godzilla”) reveals its final form: as a dry political comedy. Though funny on its face -- the Hong Kong audience laughed -- the joke also mirrors a real event. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his cabinet donned similar work coveralls in 2011, when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated east Japan and kicked off the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Like in the film, Mr. Kan downplayed the meltdown and suppressed reports of high radiation levels, eventually costing him his job.

But this joke goes beyond a one-off gag. In fact, Godzilla Resurgence transcends being a mere monster movie, and instead reveals itself to be full-blown satire of Japanese politics. Because sure, there’s a kaiju menacing Tokyo -- but once the threat’s dealt with, who will take the political fallout?

Godzilla has always been a pliable brand. Previous entries in the series range from radioactive horror (the original Godzilla) to outright slapstick (Son of Godzilla). In the most recent entries from the early 2000s, the big guy smashed buildings with his tongue planted firmly in cheek -- so there was already precedent for a comedic Godzilla film. And given the series’ origin as a parable about nuclear warfare, the films have always played with political ideas. Therefore, when Shin Godzilla casts itself as a dry comedy lampooning Japan’s political bureaucracy, the result feels like a natural evolution.

Considering the film’s pedigree, we probably should’ve expected this deeper level. Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno penned the script for this new version, and shared the director’s chair with fellow Evangelion veteran and special effects guru Shinji Higuchi. Interestingly, Evangelion also told a story about a bureaucracy fighting giant monsters, but there the leadership was sinister and wily, while in Resurgence they’re just inept and risk-averse. For example, early on in Resurgence the Prime Minister consults experts over the evolving situation, then cherry-picks the rosiest assessments -- the ones that don’t require him to act. You don’t have to be Japanese to understand that situation, but it has extra ring in a culture that dissuades lower-level employees from telling the boss things he doesn’t want to hear. In Godzilla Resurgence the villains aren’t monsters, but indecisive cabinet members who (often rightly) fear doing the wrong thing.

An abandoned radioactive "hotspot" near Fukushima in 2012. An abandoned radioactive "hotspot" near Fukushima in 2012.

It’s a criticism that sticks, given the real events surrounding the ongoing Fukushima crisis. When the 14-metre tsunami hit the plant -- which was close to the sea in order to draw water -- it crested the inadequate seawall, swamping the generators and shutting down the reactor’s coolant system. With the water unable to circulate, the super-hot fuel rods turned the coolant to steam and the steam to hydrogen, kicking off three explosions that blew open the plant and scattered radiation far beyond the 20-kilometer evacuation zone. Despite this, both the Prime Minister’s office and plant owner TEPCO specifically avoided the phrase “core meltdown” for two months, instead terming it “core damage.” When bureaucrats from the Prime Minister’s office discovered that radiation plumes had spread beyond the evacuation zone, they hid the data to save face and avoid the political cost of resettling massive amounts of people in the land-scarce Tokyo area. Everyone, from TEPCO employees -- 90% of whom ran from the complex -- to the Prime Minister Kan’s office were in total disarray. When Kan asked his key nuclear safety advisor what to do, he discovered the man had an economics degree and knew nothing about physics. Unbeknownst to the public, the government came close, very, very close, to evacuating Tokyo. This chaotic, cover-your-ass culture among older Japanese bureaucrats is what Resurgence plays off so well.

Instead of the Prime Minister and his silver-haired cabinet, we spend most of the film with wunderkind Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi and his research team full of young “nerds and misfits.” Unlike the cabinet, Yaguchi’s team throws the government culture of deference and buck-passing aside and approaches the problem as equals. In manner (if not age) he resembles Fukushima plant manager Masao Yoshida, who defied orders from the top and halted a total nuclear meltdown. The film’s tension comes less from a race to stop Godzilla, and more from trying to deliver a solution before America gives up on conventional weapons and nukes Tokyo.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Godzilla Resurgence is the latest entry in the burgeoning “disaster management genre,” which includes films like The Martian, Contagion, and Apollo 13. Like those films, it includes an ensemble cast that mostly fill stock roles -- The Secretary of Defense, The Head of NASA, The Science Weirdo -- and relies on costuming and line delivery to keep them visually distinct. Like those movies, it also focuses less on individual character arcs than on how the team itself changes to handle a developing threat. But on top of that very self-serious structure, the filmmakers layer situations more akin to Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop or Veep -- stories about incompetent politicians who try to contain a disaster and instead make it worse. Godzilla Resurgence never quite attains the heights of those examples, but the results prove unique and hilarious nonetheless.

But while the younger generation looks for a solution, the older crowd sets to work worrying about their decisions and getting mired in custard-thick procedure. Since Resurgence is a reboot, Japan has never had to face down a giant monster before, and doesn’t have any playbook to follow. As Godzilla smashes through the suburbs (pushing boats up canals, filling streets with debris, and causing other damage reminiscent of the 2011 tsunami) the cabinet argues over whether the monster constitutes the “foreign threat” necessary for them to legally activate the Self-Defense Forces. Once the military are finally activated and on-site, the Prime Minister stalls on the use of force because he’s worried about being held responsible for civilian casualties. That indecisiveness costs the SDF their best chance of success and opens the door for the Americans to take the lead.

There’s been a lot of talk about how anti-American this film is, and I find myself a little puzzled over it. First of all, American films regularly cast other countries as malevolent, foolhardy, or outright villainous, so there’s no reason the US shouldn’t get the same treatment -- but it ultimately doesn’t. In the film, the United States assists Japan during the crisis, and even their most extreme solutions have a cruel geopolitical logic to them. Here, the film spoofs the very real and complex security relationship between the United States and Japan -- a relationship that can sometimes feel to the Japanese like subordination rather than an equal partnership. Given the deep resentment regarding US military bases in Japan and the multi-decade occupation of Okinawa (issues we’ve discussed in regard to Hideo Kojima) I’d say those feelings are earned. In fact, one of the great ironies in the film is that the nimble young characters have to answer to their more inflexible elders, who in turn end up answering to the United States. When all’s said and done though, the US emerges as a crucial partner in the solution. The message seems to be that the Japan-US security relationship isn’t perfect -- and occasionally verges on extortion -- but it’s ultimately beneficial for the country. Godzilla Resurgence isn’t anti-American as much as it casts the United States as a powerful ally that occasionally makes Japan take it on the chin.

However, this depiction of the US isn’t helped by the addition of Japanese actress Satomi Ishihara, whose portrayal of a Japanese-American diplomat -- with the most unconvincing accent possible -- is the film’s only outright bad performance. Still, Hollywood does the same thing on a regular basis, so it’s almost quaint to see it reversed.

You may have noticed that we’re 1,000 words deep into this article, and I haven’t mentioned Godzilla. Get used to that. Godzilla isn’t onscreen all that much in Godzilla Resurgence, but his absence never feels like cheating the same way the 2014 Godzilla did. Even when the Big Guy’s not onscreen, he’s the sole topic of conversation. Characters don’t call home in the middle of the action, because unlike the Gareth Edwards version, this film realizes we don’t give a crap about their families. However, what the film does do is not only put Godzilla’s rampages back into the realm of natural disaster by mimicking tsunami footage, but essentially turns the lumbering beast into a gigantic, leaking nuclear reactor.

Godzilla is Fukushima on legs. He plows through cities, irradiating everything around him. He drips radioactive saliva from his maw. And the research team fights him less like a monster than an ambulatory reactor meltdown. In fact, the research teams sent in to fight Godzilla physically resemble the aforementioned “Fukushima 50,” a group of heroic TEPCO workers who stayed on-site trying to cool the reactors, working without electricity and in extreme radiation to try and prevent a catastrophe. At one point, the workers cannibalized batteries from their cars in order to keep the cooling machinery running. Indeed, while some writers have said the film has a militarist, pro-rearmament message -- itself a hot topic in Japan -- it bears pointing out that Godzilla proves too much for the Japan Self-Defense Forces, and scientists ultimately win the day.

In the end, the heroes only manage to save Tokyo because they do what their superiors can’t: take responsibility for their actions. In fact, the latter half of the film is a litany of characters stating that, if it all goes wrong, they’ll take the blame. This theme brings the film full circle and delivers the emotional payoff, that finally someone’s willing to take ownership of the problem and lay their career on the line.

No wonder the film has proved a hit in Japan, which remains angry at the government’s policy of dodging responsibility for Fukushima. And when I say “policy,” I mean it literally -- the Japanese civil service runs its promotions on a system called gentenshugi or “subtraction principle.” Under this system, civil servants gain negative marks for failures, but no corresponding positive marks for success. Obviously, this tends to de-incentivize new ideas and ventures, while advancing those who keep their heads down and agree with the boss. This fear of black marks played a major role in the unfolding Fukushima disaster -- when officials didn’t want to take responsibility for proposing solutions -- and has continued in the government’s hands-off approach to the radioactive water that leaks out of the plant to this day. Up until a few years ago, the government was still insisting that TEPCO was responsible for the plant, even though a quasi-governmental disaster agency currently owns a majority stake in TEPCO. Worse still, the government can no longer argue that failing to deal with these leaks was due to a fast-moving crisis, since it’s five years later and they still haven’t fixed this totally foreseeable issue. Current attempts involve building a wall of frozen earth around the plant -- while eternally pumping out and storing irradiated water -- but it’s unclear whether that solution will even hold past the 2020 Olympics.

It’s becoming clear to the Japanese people that their government is mired in a crisis of inaction, and making the problem worse by failing to deal with it here and now. Levels of frustration there mirror those Americans have about gun control -- that the government could step in and act, but won’t because it’s easier to wait for someone else to do it.

Given that inaction, it’s nice to imagine a world where giant radioactive monsters attacked the country -- and the government actually got its act together.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp