While America’s Godzilla Gets Stupider, Japan’s Grows Smarter

With a steady flow of releases from either side of the globe, there's never been a better time in the franchise's almost 70-year history to be a Godzilla fan than right now. Beginning in 2014 with Godzilla, Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse has grown into a fully-fledged kaiju world of its own, while Toho's new homegrown Reiwa era, kicked off by 2016's Shin Godzilla, has been similarly evolving, albeit on a very different scale.

Today a billion-dollar franchise, the MonsterVerse has been taking up titanic space on cinema screens the world over, whereas the Japanese entries have so far been more geared towards television -- specifically, streaming giant Netflix.

Formatting and distribution aren't the only major differentiation. Upon the recent release of Godzilla Singular Point and Godzilla Vs. Kong before it, there are enough titles on either side of the geographic and cultural divide to spot more conceptual and creative patterns. Those being, as America's Godzilla gets bigger and dumber, Japan's gets smaller and smarter.

An important qualifier here: when talking about monster movies, "bigger and dumber" are relative terms. Can Godzilla be big and dumb? From everything we've seen so far, the answer is an emphatical yes. While far from what co-creator Tomoyuki Tanaka originally intended, the sobering symbol of Japan's devastated, nuclear past very quickly became a loveable vehicle for the fast-popularizing 'Vs' format in the '50s, '60s and beyond. Though fondly remembered, most of those films are as disposable as the seat-filling fodder of today, turning the behemoth from the deep from an unrelenting destroyer into a marketable, punchy giant that children could wave goodbye to as he slunk back into the sea. Contrary to his predilection for destroying Tokyo on the regular, Godzilla is now one of the country's preeminent ambassadors for tourism, as well as a seasoned basketball player.

Following the critical failure of 1998's Godzilla -- memorable for creating "Zilla," Hollywood's lackluster addition to kaiju canon and dumping an almost sadistic amount of rain on its cast -- it stands to reason that the more successful MonsterVerse is mirroring Japan's decades' spanning film series with a stream of solo and 'Vs' stories of its own, with Godzilla: King of the Monsters being America's answer to Japan's Destroy All Monsters or Final Wars. It's also been plagued with similar criticism: the human characters are often flat, devoid of personality, while the plots are little more than thinly-constructed set dressing upon which to stage bigger and brasher battles.

But hey -- there's nothing wrong with the superficial pleasure of watching two big things having big fights. Cinema is engineered for spectacle, and Godzilla is a franchise that, from its inception, has been an excellent proving ground for the medium's unsung heroes: special effects artists and choreographers/stunt coordinators. Even if every single human character in Godzilla Vs. Kong is entirely perfunctory, that fight on the ocean is as exhilarating as this subgenre can get.

shin godzilla

The question then becomes should Godzilla be big and dumb? Japan, despite being the originator of the bigger and dumber method, would now say no. Hideaki Anno's Shin Godzilla marked a bold new beginning for the beast, having him burst out of the sea and gradually evolve into the world-famous kaiju before our eyes, while various government bodies came together to frantically halt the rampage waves. Eventually, Godzilla -- famous for learning from his weaknesses -- could only respond by becoming many rather than few; a statement on Japan's worker-drone, committee-led culture. Then came Netflix's animated trilogy of Godzilla movies (Planet of Monsters, City on the Edge of Battle and The Planet Eater), which took the franchise into even loftier, cerebral heights, catapulting Earth into a far-flung future ruled by the largest Godzilla to ever exist as humanity battled to reclaim an unrecognizable homeworld.

This jump into hard sci-fi leaned heavily into the idea of kaiju as not just forces of nature but cosmic entities with godly, reality-distorting powers. At the same time, the remainders of the human race grappled with not only planetary displacement but also the displacement of traditional, human culture from living memory -- an apocalypse so complete, it eradicated the past and present, not just the future. Unlike the more grounded Shin Godzilla, these films decentered Godzilla (despite his gargantuan size) in place of ambitious storytelling about the ultimate decentering of the human race.

Godzilla The Planet Eater

The newly released Godzilla Singular Point continues this trend: a 12-episode Netflix miniseries that doesn't even feature the title monster until over the halfway mark. While other franchise favorites make for decent stopgaps, Singular Point is far more concerned, again, with the human elements of its story, as well as plying audiences with enough head-spinning technobabble to make its sci-fi credentials not just hard, but almost impenetrable. Both of these animated approaches do feature some satisfying action sequences, but there are some deliberately missed opportunities: the payoff for Mechgodzilla's setup in City on the Edge of Battle, for instance, is the discovery that the cyborg clone has reached its logical technological conclusion, becoming an intricate, disembodied network embedded in the Earth rather than something to be engaged in physical combat. In Singular Point, the final clash isn't so much an extended Boss Battle, as fans would expect, but a realization about 'what it all means.'

Naturally, while neither is wholly unsuccessful, there's a measure of disappointment to be had for kaiju fans after some good, old-fashioned monster fights. It certainly seems that currently, America's MonsterVerse and Japan's Reiwa movies could do with more cross-pollination -- both, on the whole, having something that the other is lacking when it comes to spectacle vs. smartness, respectively. In fact, Toho's burgeoning cinematic universe, "World of Godzilla," sounds like it may be the start of this.

Arguably, Godzilla (2014) and Shin Godzilla still sit at the pinnacle of modern Godzilla, with both the human and monster components functioning at the peak of their powers; a little bit of smart and a little bit of dumb coming together to create something big, weird and foreboding. Not only everything Godzilla can be, but everything Godzilla should be.

Spring 2021 Anime
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