This time last year, you probably had a good idea what you were doing. You’re likely a smart person, if you’re reading this newsletter, and you’ve learned some things. A trade, a profession, a hobby, a video game—whatever it is, you’re good at something. A year ago, you were doing that thing as best you could, whether for money or not. Things made at least a little bit of sense.
And then, well. I just hope you’re still holding up OK.
We tell ourselves a lot of lies about how we were before the pandemic. Everything was better, of course. There was no climate change, no injustice, no parking fees. We were all good at things.
Disasters let us get nostalgic for certain delusions while mercilessly dispelling others. During a catastrophe, no delusion will come in for worse treatment than our belief that we’re ready for anything that might happen to us.
At least I have Shin Godzilla to reassure me that I’d be able to help defeat a gigantic monster.
Shin Godzilla is only a little bit about Godzilla. It’s there, eventually growing (it evolves, rather alarmingly) to over 100 meters tall, wreaking havoc on Tokyo. Immune to conventional weapons, firing energy beams, defying all attempts at containment. Godzilla is what you’d call a problem.
But the deeper and even more intractable problem is power. Not “bureaucracy,” though that word comes up a lot in discussion of the movie. To its immense credit, Shin Godzilla is more interested in the people who tell the bureaucrats what to do. (There’s a particularly American way of demonizing bureaucracy, wherein the DMV is the worst place on earth, because a low-level government worker might treat you the same as people you believe to be your inferiors.) It’s not so much bureaucrats as the government ministers themselves, up to and including the ill-fated prime minister, who come in for the initial rough treatment.
And then, as the crisis presented by Godzilla progresses, we find ourselves running up against even greater foils than the Japanese government: The most powerful states with their most powerful militaries, including (and most prominently and most mercilessly lampooned) the United States. Early on in Shin Godzilla, a minister suggests that Tokyo ask the Americans to destroy the monster. After all, the reasoning goes, Japan is, in the words of a top government advisor, a “tributary state,” and the Americans have been parking all these weapons here for a very long time.
The nominal issue is that there’s a monster, but the real issue is that the countries with the bombs are going to drop those bombs if they decide to do so. Eventually Shin Godzilla becomes [spoiler alert] a movie about whether an international coalition led by the United States will unilaterally drop nuclear weapons on Japan. Unthinkable, surely.
I feel like I’m short-changing the movie to do a dry analysis of American Postwar hegemony, so let me say this: It’s cool as hell how Shin Godzilla opens with boiling crimson water in Tokyo Bay. It’s cool as hell how the first shots we get indicating a monstrous presence are of a Coast Guard crew being blasted out of the water as they board an ominously empty vessel, and then of an underwater traffic tunnel caving in. It’s cool how Godzilla mutates and grows and has googly eyes. It’s cool how the movie strikes a yearningly sublime tone with the operatic music it plays over Godzilla’s climactic orgy of destruction of central Tokyo. It's cool and funny how the main female love interest is a half-Japanese American special envoy who is reputed, via a perfect quip, to be both exceptionally talented and “the daughter of a senator.” The whole soundtrack is cool. The cinematography is cool. The outfits are cool. It’s a cool-ass movie and you should watch it.
It’s cool and it’s surprisingly complicated. In Shin Godzilla, the gigantic monster is more a puzzle to be solved than it is a true antagonist. The final solution the characters reach is so elaborate as to be Rube Goldbergian. It’s also, as people reminded me on Twitter, very cool. So how do you get from a dissection of American imperial looming to nerd-inflected coolness?
You get there by positing a situation so extreme that people have no choice but to be competent. Power never goes away in Shin Godzilla, but it can be tamed by doggedly applied talent. Rando Yaguchi, an advisor to the prime minister, is at first ridiculed for suggesting that the “disturbances” in Tokyo Bay might be the result of a gigantic sea creature. When that creature manifests himself, he is allowed—after an In the Loop-esque wrangle within the heart of the government—to assemble a team of “misfits” and “pains in the ass” from within the ranks of the Japanese state. I wish they’d spent more time introducing his ragtag band, but they look cool in their assorted outfits, sleeplessly poring over every scrap of info about the emergent monster. At one point, they fold up an inscrutably complicated molecular map as if it’s origami, a ploy which actually works.
It’s all a little hard to follow but also immensely satisfying. Shin Godzilla is a fast-paced, at times choppy movie that floats among a wide and sometimes bewildering array of tones. I’ve been told much of this is familiar if you watch anime. To revive an old Twitter joke: I’m sorry, I don’t watch anime. I do, however, understand the joys of solving a problem. This movie has euphoric problem solving in spades, and will be especially enjoyable if you’ve ever dreamed of being given the institutional latitude to make the absolute most of your talents.
And that’s really the point. In Shin Godzilla, everything needs to go completely to hell before talented people get to truly go to work and save the day. They don’t initially know what they’re doing, but they get to figure it out. Everything depends on their ability to do so, which only makes the work itself more satisfying. Catastrophe initially casts them into a space in which their competency feels like it may not matter, but in the end, it’s the only thing that matters.
So if you’re holding out hope that everything going to hell might give you your chance to be your best self, watch this movie. You might pick up a pointer or two. Or you might just get to delude yourself for two hours, which isn’t the worst thing.
Calvin and Hobbes Corner
For weeks now, we’ve been hanging with Calvin as he pointedly does nothing. He has defiantly stared down Hobbes and Susie. He has declared that he simply will not gather leaves for his leaf collection. And now, finally, he wants the damn leaves.
There are a few basic lessons that are very, very hard to avoid as you grow up. Unless you’re so rich that you can forcibly resist learning such things, you’ll eventually come to realize that not everything runs on your schedule. Part of Calvin’s whole deal is that he’s not only grandiose and a huge pain in the ass; he’s also only six. We’re watching him learn things we’ve already learned. (Unless we, ourselves, are kids, which is how a lot of us first encountered him.)
That said, we’re never too old to do the most classically irritating thing of all: Bothering someone while they’re cooking dinner. It’s the perfect time to bug someone. They’re standing there with nowhere to go. And yet they’re not interested in our bullshit. We’re still gonna do it, though. In that way we’re just like Calvin.
Paul Muldoon is smelling the floodplain of the canal after a hurricane
I just closed out reading this excellent post to see Shin Godzilla trending on twitter. Presumably because of this post. No, I'm not going to check.
I'd be interested to see if there's a recent throughline of America's role in Asia being reflected in film in this way. As you've described it, it calls to mind the role of American culture in Parasite - a genuine hegemony and source of cache that is also the butt of a joke. Anyway, another addition to the list of things to watch when I can stream again.
After seeing the sheer insanity (or inanity, depending on your view) of the trailer for the new 'Godzilla vs. Kong' film, this might just be the cerebral monster film I need.