Recently released outside their countries of origin, Shin Godzilla (2016) and Train to Busan (2016) make for excellent back-to-back screenings for anyone looking to take a break from the usual Hollywood fare. The cinematic return of signature monster Godzilla to present-day Japan needs no introduction, though by itself the film by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi was definitely more talk than action. Yeon Sang-ho’s Busan gained traction during the Out of Competition category of the 69th Festival de Cannes: it follows the story of a father and his daughter as they try to reach Busan City via KTX in the midst of a spreading zombie infestation.
Obviously neither Godzilla nor Busan is the first of the kaijū (monster) and zombie genres, respectively, which is why it would be worth trying to understand their appeal now. Since the pioneering armageddon/apocalypse film in the 1970s, amateurs and critics alike have tried to dissect time and again why these kinds of movies would sell despite their marginally diminishing originality. Shin Godzilla is already the 31st addition to a Godzilla franchise which began in 1954. Both television and the big screen are awash with variations of the zombie outbreak experience. In both cases, then, many would agree that their strongest point is not in the ensuing chaos or in the action sequences that betray corresponding levels of CGI budget, but in the way viewers are forced to confront their deepest fears.
Like their more realistic but equally imaginative uncle, the disaster genre, kaijū and zombie genres are growing ever more appealing nowadays because they are ample outlets for social commentary — whether the critique is on government, on mass media, or on capitalism. Moreover, they reflect the currently most pressing issue in the planet: the end of the world, which may or may not be brought about by climate change.
Prophecies heralding the end of the world are not new to this millennium: they have been bandied around since the early Mayan civilization. It was only in the last few decades that tangible evidences were felt, forming a scientific basis for said end and worsening the scare: more extreme temperatures, more atmospheric and meteorological anomalies, etc.
More than the end of the world for whatever reason, though, the category of film that includes Godzilla and Busan also hints at a greater worry (and worry is already an understatement). Judging from how their standard cinematic plots are laid out, it would seem that apart from the end of pizza, the Internet, and all good things in this life, people are even more terrified of losing their humanity in the process of trying to survive.
In Train to Busan, some viewers may empathize with the characters who are given up to the zombies by their fellow passengers, and they rage at the selfish characters who put their own safety first — but a subconscious fear may well be at the back of these viewers’ heads: What if this actually happens to me, and I end up acting like the COO of Stallion Express?
In Shin Godzilla, for all its dialogues, it would seem that the emotional peak of the movie is when the USA steps in to give aid, although the American government does not come off as the impeccably timed savior or deus ex machina as it most likely would have been in a Hollywood flick. By ‘aid,’ the Americans meant the use of a nuclear bomb that would not only take out the kaijū adversary, but also level the whole city of Tokyo.
After all the rapid-fire talking, this is the first time the movie actually breathes, but for unsavory reasons: The 1945 bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are obviously still fresh on the minds of the Japanese, which leads to frustration when they are unable to think of a non-nuclear alternative right away. The effect is not quite so clinical (as this review claims), because while the Japanese would have been able to rebuild physically, the prospect of another nuclear intrusion is more a blow to their memory than anything else.
Like all fears, our unspoken fear of losing our humanity is only as harmful as the actions we make in light of said fear. Phobias in the mind have a bad tendency to manifest themselves through words and relationships, but these prove worse when they manifest as concrete actions and decisions. The Americans in Godzilla are willing to launch a nuclear bomb that would have more than just one Japanese monster-sized casualty. The soldiers stationed by the final tunnel in Busan are given orders to shoot without even verifying if their targets are uninfected.
Fear can bring out the collective worst in people — and yet it can also bring out the best in individuals. While our basic instincts lean towards self-preservation, sometimes bonds of love and friendship are much stronger. In an early scene in Busan when the outbreak is not yet evident, the two leading men played by Gong Yoo and Ma Dong-Seok have a conversation on fatherhood that foreshadows the end of the movie. They talk about sacrifices fathers make that are easily misunderstood by their families, but this does not stop them from making the sacrifice anyway. When the film comes to a close, we gripe that more people could have made it through; nevertheless, it is two fathers’ fearless sacrifices that get the survivors to where they are.
Fear, ultimately, is only crippling to the extent that we let it cripple us. When the end does come and it is anything like the movies, we can at least hold on to the thought that no matter how dark the times, we humans will not want to lose sight of who we are. Otherwise we will have already lost half the fight to stay alive.