Shin Godzilla Ending Explained: Man Is More Frightening Than Godzilla

Hideaki Anno has a reputation for weird endings. His magnum opus, "Neon Genesis Evangelion," frustrated its audience by retreating into the main character's psyche for the last two episodes. "End of Evangelion" channeled the rage of that audience into 87 minutes of apocalyptic spectacle that was even meaner (if more literal) than the original. The "Rebuild of Evangelion" films promised a final ending to the franchise, but took 14 years to wrap up. In the seven years between the third movie and fourth (and final) entry, Anno starred in a Ghibli movie and made the first great modern Godzilla film. The experience of slowly growing older, waiting patiently for the last of the "Evangelion" films to be made, is in itself a part of the final "Evangelion" ending.

The ending of Anno's "Shin Godzilla" is simple compared to the tangled mess that is "Evangelion." Of course, simple is relative. Countless critics have already compared the events of "Shin Godzilla" with the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster of 2011. Anno and his fellow director, Japanese special effects legend Shinji Higuchi, have drawn comparisons themselves in interviews. The real difficulty is in the details. Is "Shin Godzilla" optimistic or cynical about the function of government? If the film criticizes contemporary politics, why has it been praised by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? What the heck is up with Godzilla at the end? To answer these questions, we must put on our hazmat suits and dig deep into the irradiated dirt.

What happens at the end of Shin Godzilla?

"Shin Godzilla" ends on a note of uncertainty. Godzilla itself has been frozen by the brave efforts of the Japanese people but might thaw at any time. A new generation of politicians rises to take control of the Japanese government after the deaths of their predecessors. The United States has canceled its prospective nuclear strike, but will return should Godzilla revive. It's a state of affairs that could break bad in so many different ways: strife between Japan and surrounding countries, the rebirth of Godzilla, or even a worldwide nuclear war. The only certain thing is that Japan must learn to live with the corpse of the thing that so nearly destroyed them. For the foreseeable future, it cannot be removed or defeated. There is no other way.

In other ways, though, the film is undeniably optimistic. Godzilla's radioactive half-life is revealed to be far shorter than expected, allowing for a fast post-nuclear recovery. The government officials who were killed by the monster were weak and ineffective, and the young officials taking their place are better organized and competent. The fact that the country was able to stop Godzilla in its tracks (if only for a moment) raises the question of what else they might be able to accomplish together. There's a real sense of possibility to the end of "Shin Godzilla," a vision of history in motion with Japan at the center of things.

What does Shin Godzilla have to say about politics?

I last saw "Shin Godzilla" with friends last year in July. I won't deny that after having been through the Trump presidency and the rise of Covid, I found the film's insistence on personal responsibility as the key function of government to be even more pointed. The older politicians we meet in the film's early stages are concerned most of all with saving their own hides, which leaves them rapidly outmatched by Godzilla's destructive powers. It is young politicians like Rando Yaguchi who insist that their purpose is to look out for the people of Japan, not their personal careers. Yaguchi puts his trust in super-smart freaks and heretics, and is rewarded for breaking the taboos that stymy his competition; the film gives him the last word.

But while incompetent politicians are a worldwide problem, "Shin Godzilla" is specifically a movie about Japanese politics. Throughout the film, the government frets over whether or not to deploy the JSDF and chafes under the influence of the United States. The shock and horror following Godzilla's destruction of Tokyo parallel the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster when many living across Japan feared the imminent irradiation of Tokyo and destruction of the country. According to Ryan Holmberg in his essay "So Let the Nightmare For Japan Begin," included in Imai Arata's alt-manga "F," "no one knew how bad things were going to get." Fukushima led 150,000 people to abandon their homes, permanently transformed the local community into ghost towns, and filled agricultural land near the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant with bags of radioactive dirt.

What about Shinzo Abe?

The idea that the government of Japan might ever be thought of as trustworthy again following Fukushima is the most seductive fantasy of "Shin Godzilla." For years, Japanese citizens knew not to believe their leaders when they spoke about "recovery." Discussing the incident was taboo, and making movies about it was absurd. The popularity of "Shin Godzilla" stems from its willingness to address the failings of Japan's bureaucracy in the face of crisis. Others appreciated the film's embrace of nationalism. According to online magazine In These Times, former prime minister Shinzo Abe claimed that the success of "Shin Godzilla" "is rooted in the unwavering support that the public has for the Self-Defense Forces." Abe fought throughout his political career to grant Japan's military greater funding and flexibility, while simultaneously denying or ignoring the war crimes committed by the country against China and Korea during World War II.

I can't help but think of how the conclusion of "Shin Godzilla" differs from the original "Godzilla." That earlier film ended with Godzilla being defeated by an even more powerful weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer. Its creator, Daisuke Serizawa, takes his own life to keep the secrets of its construction away from government and military officials. The film's protagonist Yamane warns that further nuclear testing might wake another Godzila. No solution is given to the world's ongoing arms race or Japan's post-Godzilla recovery, only a reminder that the world could become even worse if people are not vigilant. Director Ishiro Honda was not a political radical. But his experiences in World War II taught him to abhor violence and fear its return. Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi are certainly aware of this history, but generational distance and their personal experiences can't help but affect their politics.

What's up with that final scene?

None of this even touches on the incredible final shot of "Shin Godzilla." As the camera focuses on the monster's tail, we see an army of humanoid creatures frozen in the act of clawing their way out. What could possibly be happening here? If the Japanese government had not successfully frozen Godzilla in place, it is very possible that the country would be swarming with a new species of mini-Godzillas. Alternatively, the humanoid creatures could be a response to its freezing, as well as an attempt at the next stage in its evolution. Having been disabled as a single entity, its next best hope may be to multiply endlessly.

Of course, we should also be careful not to take the film too literally. The most important question here may not be what Godzilla is trying to do next, but what the bodies inside its frozen husk represent. The bodies could be a reference to the victims of Fukushima alive and dead, who were ignored by the Japanese government only to appear in a form where they could not be pushed aside. They could also be an acknowledgment that Godzilla has never just been a giant monster. Even in his most ridiculous incarnations, whether a friend or a foe, Godzilla has always been a stand-in for something else. By lifting the veil and showing the audience what lies beneath the monster's scales, Anno and his crew are making a clear statement about what the character has always been.

The power of evolution

My personal belief in what "Shin Godzilla" is doing in this shot goes back to evolution. At the end of the film, Japan and Godzilla are in a stalemate. Godzilla has destroyed Tokyo, but Tokyo has proven itself able to incapacitate Godzilla. As Godzilla will only continue to evolve into even more frightening forms, Japan must also evolve in order to defeat it. The real enemy is not Godzilla, then, but stagnation. A healthy government and citizenry learn to improvise in the face of new problems. A sick government and citizenry continue to act as normal while ignoring that these old ways are no longer sufficient. It is still possible at the end of "Shin Godzilla" that Japan will fall back into its old habits. But Rando Yaguchi is confident that his country will be able to change.

Over the past several years, Japan has been criticized for its low birth rate and aging population. Abe would famously insist on the importance of increasing the birth rate throughout his political career, to the point that "keeping it real with Shinzo Abe" about the impossibility of doing so became a meme. The theme of evolution versus stagnation in "Shin Godzilla" touches directly on these fears. The last of the "Rebuild of Evangelion" films, "Evangelion 3.0+1.0," also made birth and families a cornerstone of the movie. Anno clearly identifies more with Gendo Ikari, the sad dad villain of "Evangelion," than he does with protagonist Shinji Ikari these days. But "Evangelion 3.0+1.0" is clear that there is no room for people like Gendo in the world. The "new genesis" promised by "Evangelion" is impossible without Shinji and his generation taking the reins.

Japan's future

Today, people across the world face challenges brought about by global warming, economic inequality, and fascism, not to mention the ongoing world health crisis. Each one of these transformations leaves behind its own Godzilla. Learning to live with these creatures takes time and patience. But we cannot give them full command of the future, either. While Hideaki Anno has grappled with depression for much of his life, his directorial works have often stressed the importance of not giving into despair. Just because change is inevitable in the world of "Shin Godzilla" does not mean that people lack agency. If anything, we have a greater responsibility to build systems of support, especially if and when government becomes incapable of responding to people's needs.

In the meantime, Japan continues to change in the years following the release of "Shin Gojira." Shinzo Abe was assassinated just this year. The revelation of his family's involvement in the Unification Church, going back to his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (a suspected war criminal) has badly shaken contemporary Japanese politics. The yen is as weak as it has ever been. It is tough to know exactly what the future of the country will look like. But just as Anno and Higuchi predicted, one thing is certain: Japan must continue to evolve.