Godzilla And Shin Godzilla: A Comparison

Godzilla, a franchise that has inspired the creation of an entire subgenre of movies called kaiju films, was first released in 1954, and written and directed by Ishiro Honda. The film functions somewhat as a Golden Age science fiction story, with our two novums being the discovery of Godzilla, and the invention of the oxygen destroyer. Godzilla, a 2 million year old dinosaur which is at an evolutionary stage between land and sea creatures, destroys a few fishing boats and eventually comes up onto land after its natural habitat is destroyed by hydrogen bomb testing. The main scientist, Kyouhei Yamane, follows Godzilla around, and he is amazed as a biologist, and does not wish for Godzilla to be killed, even after seeing all of the destruction caused. The other scientist of the movie, Daisuke Serizawa, is the creator of the oxygen destroyer, and he is first opposed to using it against Godzilla, because of how he believes the governments of the world will use the weapon after it is discovered. He eventually gives in, uses the weapon on Godzilla, and takes his own life along with it so that no one is able to recreate the weapon.

Shin Godzilla, Shin meaning “new” in Japanese, is a film directed by Hideaki Anno, who also directed the famous animated television series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The film functions somewhat as a homage to the original film, in that it involves a monster named Godzilla coming onto land from Tokyo Bay, and destroying the city, before finally being defeated by human ingenuity. This is contrary to many of the 33 Godzilla films, many of which treat Godzilla as a hero of mankind, as opposed to a natural disaster brought about by humans. In addition, much like the original, it also contains a deeper meaning than a mere movie about Godzilla. I argue that the original film functions as a Golden Age science fiction story, and more specifically as a disaster story. The character types follow the patterns of Golden Age science fiction, and the problem is ultimately solved by a new technology created by mankind. Although Shin Godzilla has some similar points on the surface, I argue that the film is a satirization of the Japanese government’s handling of the 2011 earthquake, and the tsunami and Fukushima disaster that followed. I argue that the film is saying that there are many more people in government than are needed, and many of the politicians are incompetent and selfish.

The first point to compare is the characters. In Godzilla, although the character types are not completely what we expect, they still follow a pattern. The main scientist, Kyouhei Yamane, turns out to not be the heroic scientist, as he put the life of Godzilla before the lives of his fellow humans. The man who seems like the mad scientist at first, Daisuke Serizawa, turns out to be the one to sacrifice himself for the betterment of humanity, making him the real heroic scientist of the story. He creates the oxygen destroyer by accident while researching oxygen, and decided to never tell anyone of his discovery, because of what would happen if such a weapon came into the wrong hands. In the end, he uses the weapon on Godzilla, but takes his own life so that no one who knows how to make the weapon is alive. Kyouhei Yamane’s daughter Emiko is the love interest, and Hideo Ogata is a coast guard who functions as the everyman. Godzilla is our bug-eyed monster, spending almost all of its time on camera looking menacing and wrecking things.

When looking at Shin Godzilla, the difference in characters is striking. The discovery of Godzilla is still the novum, but it is much more difficult to classify characters in normal science fiction character types. I believe that part of what the film is trying to say is that much of Japanese government is not necessary, and this can partially be seen through the sheer number of characters. The film starts with a cabinet meeting being held in the Prime Minister’s office to discuss the extremely high temperature of the water in Tokyo Bay, and we are introduced to several characters, along with their titles. After this scene, however, many of them do not have more lines. Our main protagonist, Rando Yaguchi, is one of the lower members of the cabinet, and suggests that it may be a living thing causing the heating. His idea is quickly shrugged off, and he is laughed at by many of the other members. The meeting is moved to a conference room for no apparent reason, a common occurrence in the film, and immediately after, a giant tail comes out of the water, proving Yaguchi’s point. Another important character is Hiromi Ogashira, who is also a lower member of the cabinet. Her statements, although given with supporting arguments, are also often shrugged off as impossible. The first example of this is when Hiromi suggests that although many biologists have stated that this creature making landfall is impossible, it is possible. This is ignored, and a press conference is held to calm the public, and when the Prime Minister announces that the creature will not come onto land, he is immediately informed that it has made landfall. Because Hiromi’s suggestion was ignored, the citizens of the area where Godzilla came onto land did not have enough time to evacuate, and this resulted in many casualties. This scene parallels a press conference that happened during the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and will be discussed later as how the movie functions as a satire. These first several scenes also show us what each member of the cabinet is worried about. Some of the members, such as Yaguchi and Hiromi, are genuinely worried about the problem at hand, while other members, including the Prime Minister, are busy attempting to save face, and clearly have this high on their list of priorities. When Godzilla makes it onto land, the Prime Minister is angry with the fact that he just announced something false, and is preoccupied with this even though his word is needed to successfully evacuate the civilians in the area. This will be further discussed later.

The idea of government and seniority slowing down the appropriate response to disasters continues when we look at how decisions are made in the first half of the movie, and compare it with the latter half. In the beginning, the Prime Minister does not give any real opinions of his own, and he only makes decisions when he is asked to make a specific decision. However, to make an attack, or to mobilize the military, or even to put together a special team to come up with a solution to this problem, the Prime Minister’s confirmation is needed. Every command that is made has to go through upwards of dozens of people before anything can happen, and this clearly slows down the response time to disasters. In the latter half of the film, the Prime Minister, along with many of the higher-ups in his cabinet, are killed while in a helicopter, and even though an acting prime minister is put in place, decisions are made at a much quicker rate, further supporting the idea that many of these roles in government are not necessary. In both films the military is shown to be completely useless in killing the monster, and the issue is solved by scientists in both cases.

Next we will compare what historical disaster each film is representing, but first some historical context is required. Part of the inspiration for this movie is most likely from the Lucky Dragon Five incident, which happened earlier in 1954. After World War II, the United States was using Bikini Atoll, an island with some Japanese citizens on it, for hydrogen bomb testing. On March 1, 1954, a fishing boat called Lucky Dragon No. 5 had gotten close to the border that the United States had announced as the danger zone. The bomb’s radius was slightly larger than predicted, and when the bomb went off, all of the fisherman became sick with radiation sickness and died by November of the same year. Godzilla first destroys a fishing boat in the film, and leaves radioactive waste wherever it walks. In this way, the film can be seen as a representation of the dangers of atomic and hydrogen bomb testing. However, the representation is taken even further when the oxygen destroyer is introduced, and the moral dilemma common in science fiction is also introduced. It is a weapon that, much like nuclear bombs, can kill any living thing nearby at an amazing speed, and also like the nuclear bomb, it was not originally invented with the intention of being a weapon, it was being studied for purely scientific purposes. As explained earlier, Serizawa refuses to use the weapon at first, as he is confident that people would use it on their fellow humans.

Now we will look at the modern case. On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake occurred, and was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan. The nuclear reactor in Fukushima was shut down, and the cooling systems activated, but due to the flood caused by the tsunami, the cooling systems were damaged. This resulted in a nuclear meltdown, and much of Fukushima Prefecture was uninhabitable for a period of time. At the beginning of the film, Godzilla is representing the earthquake, and shortly after it is representing the tsunami and flooding, as it pulls water up onto the shore in scenes similar to the tsunami that occurred after the 2011 earthquake. Once it goes onto land, it leaves radioactive waste in its path, just like the nuclear leakage before the meltdown. Finally when it starts using the heat ray from its mouth, it renders much of Tokyo uninhabitable, in the same way the nuclear meltdown had done in Fukushima. Unlike the original film, the method used to stop Godzilla is not a weapon akin to the hydrogen bomb, but something that we already have access to and is not used as a weapon. The moral dilemma of using a weapon to save humanity only to introduce a new monster is not there in the 2016 film, and Godzilla and the film are much less open to interpretation when compared to the 1954 film.

As stated before, I believe that Shin Godzilla functions as a satire of the Japanese government’s response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The first scene in which this becomes clear is the press conference, where the Prime Minister and cabinet members put on blue uniforms, used in states of emergency. The Prime Minister informs the public that Godzilla will not come on to land, as it is biologically impossible, and right as he says this, he is informed that Godzilla has made landfall. This is done in a way that looks exactly like a press conference held during the 2011 disaster, where the Prime Minister at the time, Naoto Kan, surrounded by his cabinet clad in their blue uniforms, tells the public that there is no nuclear leakage, and that nuclear leakage would be impossible due to the construction of the power plant. However, it was later confirmed that the leakage had already begun at this time. Another point which is similar to the movie is when many of the plant workers, including plant manager at the time Masao Yoshida, famously stayed behind to make sure that the damage did not become any worse than it needed to be, even going as far as disobeying orders of the Japanese government to do so. This is paralleled in the Shin Godzilla, in the scene where Godzilla finally reaches the city of Tokyo. The Prime Minister and other important cabinet members take a helicopter to safety, and Yaguchi, along with a couple other cabinet members, say that they will take a car to get to safety. Following this, Godzilla begins firing heat rays from its mouth and plates on its back, and one beam hits the helicopter carrying the Prime Minister and important cabinet members. At the end of the film, it is explained that there is a power vacuum due to the deaths of the main cabinet members, and that from here we can build the government anew. This is different than reality, as Masao Yoshida was not a politician, and also died of cancer less than a year after the 2011 disaster. I will discuss later what message I believe the film gives overall, but first there is more historical context required to explain why this is dramatically different from what happened after the 2011 disaster.

Since the end of World War II, there have been two main political parties in Japan, namely the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party of Japan (from here onwards these will be referred to as the LDP and the DPJ, respectively). From the end of the war until 2009, aside from a 3 year period where the LDP was in a coalition with several other parties, the LDP had full control of the upper and lower house. The LDP is very hierarchical, and also contains politicians whose families have been involved in politics for a few generations. When the DPJ took control of the lower house, and thus the Prime Minister position in 2009, they struggled to maintain the trust of the people. From 2009 to 2012 there were three separate Prime Ministers from the DPJ, and the final Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, was the Prime Minister during the 2011 disaster. Many people believed that the disaster displayed the incompetence of the DPJ, and power returned to the LDP in 2012 immediately following the disaster. This is a rather different story than the 2016 film. It is implied that the government following the disaster caused by Godzilla can be reconstructed in a way that is much less corrupt and less incompetent, but after the 2011 disaster, power returned to a party that was arguably more corrupt than the party in charge during the disaster. In fact, the way that the party is portrayed in the 2016 film is closer to how the LDP is portrayed in reality, in my opinion.

The messages that these two films are trying to convey are also rather different. Godzilla warns us of the dangers of nuclear bomb testing, but also of the dangers of science in general, as done in some earlier science fiction works. The oxygen destroyer, although researched for purely scientific reasons, could easily be used in the same way that the atomic bomb was used, and this is how the atomic bomb was discovered in reality. One of the later quotes in the film, by Kyouhei Yamane, can be interpreted in two ways. “I can't believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species... But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” (Honda, 1954) This could mean that we should not continue with nuclear bomb testing, as it will endanger humans further, but given that the character saying the quote wanted Godzilla to survive, it could mean that we should continue testing, even to the detriment of humans. In this way, it shows Kyouhei as the mad scientist, completely reversing the roles of the two scientists that we assume at first glance.

The message of the 2016 film seems to be that Japanese politicians are too worried about their own image, and things take too long to get done due to the number of bureaucratic loops you have to jump through to get confirmation for anything. The first way we see this is how politicians react to being corrected when compared to how researchers react. When one of the cabinet members is corrected by Hiromi in the first major meeting, and is later shown to be wrong, he is angry, clearly putting his reputation over the fact that has been proven. When a researched is later put in the same exact situation, he apologizes, and they move on. When the Prime Minister announces something that is incorrect, he is angry that his reputation will suffer, and not worried about the giant monster terrorizing a city that has not yet been evacuated. Many cabinet members give opinions on things and give suggestions, but it is always accompanied by a “as long as the Prime Minister allows it” (in Japanese culture, this would be seen as a request for something, in this case confirmation, and not respecting the authority of someone with higher rank by asking). In fact, whenever anything major needs to be done, whether it be holding a press conference or putting together a research team or mobilizing the Self Defense Force, the Prime Minister’s confirmation is needed. However, this is the only time the Prime Minister does anything. He does not give opinions on the situation, and is not actively doing anything unless he is asked to do something. This, along with his attitude after the press conference shows that he is not only not portrayed as a leader, but he is also not acting within the best interests of the people. This is contrasted by the researchers and workers who risked their lives to put the blood coagulant into Godzilla, who are shown constantly working nights and skipping meals so that they can figure out a solution in time. Through this, we may look at the research team, the team that applies the blood coagulant to stop Godzilla, and Yaguchi and Hiromi all as heroic scientists. This is similar to classic science fiction that portrays science and scientists as good, but it is the opposite and more modern, showing us that politics and politicians are incompetent.

I believe that Shin Godzilla was a rather important film. Compared to many of the films in the Godzilla franchise that followed the 1954 film, this film is much more faithful to the original idea and structure, while putting it in a modern context, and still offering a unique critique of some sort. However, to a foreign audience who was not aware of the intricacies of Japanese politics during and before the 2011 disaster, the film may come across as any other kaiju film, and they may not be able to notice the things that the film is satirizing or suggesting.


  • Godzilla. Dir. Honda Ishiro. Toho, 1954. Film.
  • Shin Godzilla. Dir. Hideaki Anno. Toho, 2016. Film.
16 December 2021
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