Why Shin Godzilla Did Not Connect with Western Audiences

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Godzilla has been a cultural icon in Japan and beyond for over 70 years, with a history spanning 38 films along with several TV shows, video games, comic books, and other merchandise. Twelve years after Godzilla’s Millennium era ended, fans were ecstatic to see Toho’s newest take on the nuclear reptile. To no one’s surprise, Shin Godzilla was a massive hit in Japan, grossing $75 million at the domestic box office alone, making it the most profitable film to date in the land of the rising sun. The movie also collected seven out of 11 nominations in the 40th Japan Academy Prizes.


Western reception to Shin Godzilla (Godzilla: Resurgence in some territories), however, was much more mixed, with reviewers particularly criticizing the pacing and the monster’s new design. The world lauded the film’s fresh take on the classic monster and its reflection on contemporary political and environmental issues, but it didn’t quite catch on with American audiences who were at the time still getting acquainted with the burgeoning Monsterverse of Legendary kaiju films. While one would chalk it up to American audiences not being as into Japanese films, the recent Godzilla entry, Godzilla: Minus One, has proven to be a surprise box office hit. Now that the sheen of newness has faded from this cinematic universe and audiences question the direction the films are taking, it’s worth giving Shin Godzilla another look.

Update December 15, 2023: This article has been updated following the release of Godzilla: Minus One and how Shin Godzilla might have done if released now, as 2023 is a different cinematic landscape than 2016.


Shin Godzilla Was Made by the Creator of Evangelion

godzilla resurgence
Shin Godzilla

Release Date
July 29, 2016

Director
Hideaki Anno , Shinji Higuchi

Cast
Satomi Ishihara , Jun Kunimura , Shinya Tsukamoto , Hiroki Hasegawa , Nozomi de Lencquesaing , Mark Chinnery

Runtime
118

Main Genre
Sci-Fi

Writers
Hideaki Anno

Studio
Toho Studios

Released in 2016, Shin Godzilla was written by acclaimed filmmaker Hideaki Anno and co-directed by Anno and Shinji Higuchi. It is the first entry in Toho’s Shin Anthology, a series of films based on beloved Japanese properties that are brought up to date with modern sensibilities. Shin Godzilla is the third reboot of the kaiju franchise and the first of the series Reiwa era: it’s a new interpretation that ignores any previous canon. The story follows Godzilla’s emergence and the failure of the Japanese bureaucracy to properly deal with the monster.

Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi were the driving creative forces behind Shin Godzilla, which makes sense considering their other groundbreaking work. Anno is the mastermind behind the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, for which Higuchi was a writer and art director. Evangelion and its newest iteration, Rebuild of Evangelion, are beloved deconstructions of the mecha genre, and it’s clear that Anno and Higuchi brought the same sentiment to Shin Godzilla. The film was a massive hit in Japan, but it didn’t capture the Western imagination in quite the same way.

Anno is a masterful storyteller, but that can be difficult to appreciate on a larger scale when compared to more bombastic fare. Unlike Gareth Edward’s 2014 Godzilla (and most other Hollywood blockbusters), Shin Godzilla doesn’t place the weight of saving Tokyo solely on one person’s shoulders. Instead, Anno’s film shows the concerted effort of hundreds to take down this world-ending threat, and just how hard that truly is. There is no “one great man,” and salvation isn’t inevitable.

Is There a Hero in Shin Godzilla?

shin godzilla final form tail
Toho Co., Ltd.

In Shin Godzilla, we get selected surrogates to follow the story, but their vision is not what drives it. Rather, it’s Godzilla’s rampage that is the primary focus as the creature cuts a straight path through Tokyo, leaving devastation in his wake. Godzilla only attacks humans directly after he’s been hit for the first time: in one sublimely destructive move, Godzilla blasts his attackers with atomic rays, incinerating several high-ranking government officials and millions more civilians in an instant. Taking down the monster requires collaboration among the surviving members of the government, but the film doesn’t let you forget that Godzilla, too, is a product of human collaboration. As he’s frozen in his terrifying final form, the camera lingers on Godzilla’s tail mid-mutation, the humanoid creatures therein a grotesque reflection of his creators.

Related: Why We Can’t Get Enough Godzilla

Contrast this with Godzilla 2014 and the ensuing Monsterverse. These films focus on a select few humans and their interactions with the larger-than-life beasts, positioning the main characters as the thing standing between the Earth and its total annihilation. Unlike the unfeeling force of nature in Shin Godzilla, Godzilla in Warner’s Monsterverse seemingly goes out of his way to protect humanity; he’s a force for good rather than a consequence of our mistakes.

Shin Godzilla is Distinctly About Japanese Politics

Shin Godzilla boardroom
Toho Co., Ltd

Shin Godzilla is a biting satire of the Japanese government’s response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the resulting Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The film is a response to Japan’s particular brand of bureaucracy; as Japanologist and author William Tsutsui puts it in his review for the Arkansas Gazette, “Shin Godzilla also has a very pointed political message, but one attuned to today’s vastly different geopolitical landscape and particularly to Japan’s acute economic and social challenges of the past quarter century.” Much of the movie’s “action” is in meetings, with characters navigating difficult, legalese-ridden conversations to reach a desired outcome. This is a game of wit and intelligence, not just pure muscle, a concept often foreign to American action flicks.

Shin Godzilla relies heavily on characters explaining what’s happening, but not in the way many modern films dump exposition unnaturally. When characters discuss what’s happening and what to do next, it’s in the context of the government’s response. Conversely, consider Godzilla 2014, in which (significantly less interesting) characters explain made-up science that adds nothing to the narrative. In placing the action in boardrooms and committee after committee, Shin Godzilla explores the human reaction to natural disasters and critiques the failure of the government to properly address the dire needs of its people.

Marketing Godzilla in the Looming Shadow of the Monsterverse

shin godzilla atomic blast 2
Toho Co., Ltd

As is often the case with foreign films, Shin Godzilla wasn’t marketed very heavily in the West and only had a limited theatrical window. Originally scheduled for just one week in mid-October, the American distributor Funimation extended Shin Godzilla‘s theatrical run to the end of the month. The film played in U.S. theaters from October 11 to October 25. Despite limited distribution, the film still grossed $1.9 million. There was clearly an American audience for the film, but its popularity was grossly undercut by the MonsterVerse (cinematic universes were still a new thing in 2016, after all).

Godzilla 2014 was a massive success, having revived the franchise in America after the disastrous Roland Emmerich Godzilla in 1998. The new film launched one of the most successful cinematic universes outside the MCU, and audiences were thrilled at the idea of seeing new versions of their favorite kaiju realized through stunning computer-generated effects. Godzilla 2014 and the resulting Monsterverse are fun popcorn movies, and it’s important to note that without Edwards’s film, Shin Godzilla wouldn’t exist. Still, comparison between these two very different approaches to the legendary monster hindered Western audiences’ appreciation of Anno’s darker, more political take.

Shin Godzilla was released in 2016, two years after 2014’s Godzilla and a year before the next MonsterVerse entry, Kong: Skull Island. American audiences clearly wanted more giant monsters, but Shin Godzilla was not given a proper marketing push in the United States as likely there was a point not to confuse audiences over the two different Godzilla projects.

Was America Ready for a Political Godzilla Movie?

Shin Godzilla terrorizing a park in Japan
Toho Co., Ltd.

Godzilla has always been allegorical: with the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki especially fresh on the mind, the original 1954 film takes a pacifist, anti-nuclear stance. Shin Godzilla similarly reflects on the recent past, with commentary on corporate interests and the Japanese government’s failure to act prior to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. With this in mind, it’s clear why the people most affected by the disaster would shower the film with praise.

Related: Godzilla Minus One Fixed the Biggest Problem With the MonsterVerse Movies

For the US, though, Fukushima was in the distant past, a catastrophe forgotten in favor of domestic affairs—one has to wonder if the outstanding success of Godzilla Minus One in America isn’t at least partially inspired by the renewed threat of nuclear war. To put it bluntly, Shin Godzilla isn’t a distracting summer blockbuster: it’s overtly political, dark, and depressing. When held up to the glitzy, star-studded Legendary Godzilla flicks, it’s no wonder Shin Godzilla didn’t have massive appeal in the West in 2016. Now, though, that the sheen has worn off and audiences are getting tired of the CGI fests put out by the Monsterverse, Shin Godzilla might be just the film to scratch that kaiju itch.

Would Shin Godzilla Do Better Now?

Godzilla as seen in Godzilla Minus One

Following how well Godzilla: Minus One has done at the domestic box office, it stands to reason Shin Godzilla might have done better if released in theaters now. Since 2016, American audiences have become more embracing of films and television series from international markets, particularly following the pandemic. As Millenials and Gen-Z grow up, they are a generation more used to watching and appreciating Japanese media, as seen by the boom in the popularity of anime in recent years.

There is also not likely to be confusion over two different versions of the same IP. While in 2016, that seemed confusing, now, thanks to a boom in multiverse storytelling, audiences are more accepting of different versions of a character. Two years after Shin Godzilla, audiences learned to accept an animated Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, as its own separate story from the MCU Spider-Man in Avengers: Infinity War and the separate solo villain film, Venom. Now audiences know that the Godzilla in Godzilla: Minus One is separate from the upcoming Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire and both can be enjoyed on their own terms.

With the positive word of mouth and American audiences embracing foreign cinema and more open to accepting different takes on the same character, Shin Godzilla likely could have been a crossover hit the same way Godzilla: Minus One has become.

Shin Godzilla is now streaming on Crunchyroll.

Are you looking to learn more about Godzilla? Check out this video for some fun facts you might not have known about the iconic movie Kaiju.

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