Today I went to see the movie Shin Godzilla. It’s actually the first Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen, and was more thought-provoking than I expected. Specifically, I think the movie is a nuanced critique of Japanese and Western decision-making processes.
The first part of the movie is a scathing–and hilarious–commentary on the frustrating ineffectuality of Japanese bureaucracy. Godzilla wreaks destruction on the capital while the government squabbles over which department’s jurisdiction the monster falls under. Entire neighborhoods are flattened while higher-ups bemoan their names being tied to the whole affair. And of course, all decisions have to be approved by the Prime Minister via a maddeningly long chain of subordinates. As someone who’s worked for the Japanese government, I’ll say . . . it was funny because it was familiar.
The hero is a young bureaucrat who’s frustrated with the system. He warns his colleagues that wishful thinking policies are what lost the last war for Japan, and they need to stay rooted in reality. He longs for a more results-oriented approach–something that’s generally seen as more Western.
But the movie doesn’t blindly sympathize with the West, as we see when, inevitably, the rest of the world gets involved in the Godzilla situation. When the UN decides that it must drop an atomic bomb on Tokyo in order to defeat the monster, the characters struggle for the space to come up with a less destructive solution, complaining, “What do they care if a bunch of people in Asia lose their homes?” Contrast this to the scene earlier in the movie when the Prime Minister calls off the first attack on Godzilla when it might endanger the safety of even one or two citizens. One can see both the Japanese stereotype that foreigners tend to overuse the brute-force approach, and the strength of belief in the benevolence of the Japanese government toward its citizens.
What’s very foreign to the Western mind are the glimpses we get of Japan’s nature-worship when characters muse that perhaps Godzilla is a kami (roughly, god) and ought to be left alone, and again when the hero states that “humans and Godzilla will have to learn to coexist.”
But this is, in the end, an American-style action movie, and just when I was bracing myself for some contrived scene in which the (Japanese) hero gets the (American) girl, I was surprised when instead, she says that maybe he will become Prime Minister around the same time she becomes President, and he remarks in disgust that that would make him her puppet.
Well, wow. At least we know how you feel now, Japan.