Over the 62 years of its existence, Godzilla has been anything and everything: metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dangerous animal, force of nature, warrior for the environment, psychic hangover from of WWII, friend to all children, giant hermaphroditic iguana. There's no such thing, really as a "normal" Godzilla or a normal Godzilla picture, and that's just the way it should be. Even so, I was not prepared for whatever the hell Shin Godzilla/Godzilla Resurgence turned out to be (about those titles: Toho officially christened it the latter, North American distributor Funimation has promoted it under the former, which is half of the transliteration of the original Japanese Shin Gojira. With some petulance, I'll use the former, but only in print & never in my heart). Not that I mind what it turned out to be - in fact, I find it rather altogether delightful that after all these years and all these movies, they'd be able to come up with a new take on the franchise that hadn't already been used, let alone one that feels so consequential and thoughtful.

Broadly, this is (as it must be) a post-Fukushima Godzilla film. Less broadly, it's a story about the whole force of Japanese governmental bureaucracy training its attention to the problem of a nuclear disaster that nobody was in any way prepared for, finding in the collective work of administrators, politicians, and scientists the solution to the problem, though one that clearly functions as a "for right now, this will keep us alive" band-aid solution and nothing but. In this case, the role of the melting reactor is played by a glowing bipedal lizard the size of a skyscraper, but it's all the same thing.

A movie in which the hero isn't any one individual, but the all-encompassing force of the government and the people it employs is odd enough. A Godzilla movie to do that comes across like some kind of badly-expressed fever dream; yet Shin Godzilla works, and it works better than any Godzilla movie has in a long time.

The first Japanese-produced movie in the franchise since 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars is also the first of all the many sequels, if I am not horribly mistaken, that performs a complete reset on the series. This is not set in the same chronology as the 1954 masterpiece Godzilla, which explains why the entire Japanese government is completely lost for an explanation when a huge boiling waterspout appears in Tokyo Bay one day, with what appears to be some kind of enormous animal inside of it. The creature, which looks like a cross between Godzilla as we know and love it and a Muppet worm, eventually emerges from the sea to tear across the city, devastating everything in its path and leaving a band of low-level radioactivity where it passes. Shortly thereafter, it mutates into a somewhat tyrannosauroid shape that leaves all the characters in the movie gawking in Lovecraftian horror, but for us? For us, it's like seeing an old friend after years apart. An old friend who kind of looks like hell, but even so. Plus, he brought along his old theme song, and the basic rule is that when you have any motion picture with Ikufube Akira's Godzilla themes in it, it is better than any motion picture without them.

It's not really worth recapping the plot of Shin Godzilla beyond this point, because it turns into such a uniquely pure procedural. What we have here is basically The Thick of It without the comedy or The West Wing without the aspiration: a lot of people from the Prime Minister of Japan (Oshugi Ren) down to nameless and faceless tank commanders try to solve the interrelated problems of what the creature is, where it came from, and how to stop it, all while fending off the Americans' rather awful insistence on leading a UN task force against the beast, which in practice really just means "it's been seven decades since we dropped nukes on Japan, don't you think it's about time to do it again?" There are characters we generally get to know better, primarily Akasaka Hideki (Takenouchi Yutaka), a high-level aide to the PM, and Kayoko Ann Paterson (Ishihara Satomi), a Japanese-descended American politician of dangerously high ambitions who won't let a silly old thing like romantic attachment to her grandmother's homeland get in the way of making sure the U.S. gets to assert its will over Japan, and especially, above all the rest, Yaguchi Rando (Hasegawa Hiroki), who has a pretty hefty level of ambition himself, and who rises through the ranks of the bureaucracy thanks to his sharp handling and leadership, the creativity of his ideas, and the success he has in drawing out the creativity of others (the film marks time via a running gag in which Yaguchi Is often introduced with a new onscreen credit indicating his most recent promotion). But individuals simply aren’t the point here: the process of collaboration is the protagonist, and Shin Godzilla accordingly offers up literally dozens of recurring characters that we're meant to recognise as they cycle in and out of the movie.

The film is positively fascinated with all of this, treating on it with bone-dry satire in the form of wall-to-wall captions identifying every character, piece of military equipment, and location, and a willingness to showcase the flop-sweaty desperation with which some people attempt to position themselves even during a nationally existential crisis. But at the same time, it's kind of not satiric at all; clearly, Shin Godzilla intends for us to see that this is all very admirable and, were such a thing as Godzilla actually to show up in the world, this is exactly the way we had ought to approach the problem, rather than the balls-out swagger of, say, those violent individualists across the Pacific.

Whatever the hell it is, it's unusual and genuinely intellectually stimulating in a way I'd never planned to find the 29th Japanese-language Godzilla film to be. That probably shouldn't actually come as a surprise: the film was written and co-directed by Anno Hideaki (Higuchi Shinji was the other director), who will never in his life make enough Godzilla films to not be first known as the mastermind behind the 1995 animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Perhaps it's shocking, perhaps it's not, but that lineage comes through loud and clear. Not always for the good, admittedly: Shin Godzilla shares with Evangelion the bad habit of assuming that once something has been explained once, nobody will ever need it to be explained again, no matter how convoluted the explanation was. The fascination with process and institutions as a bulwark against the totally inhuman is there, however, and so are the film's best visuals. There is not very much Godzilla in Shin Godzilla - maybe not even more than in the contentious (and horribly underrated, by this point) 2014 American Godzilla - but what there is counts for a lot. If the film has a signature image, it's a vast wide landscape of Tokyo with the buildings and Godzilla as smallish silhouettes down in the frame, suggesting the vastness of the monster in a human sense, but also its simplicity in a cosmic scale. For much of the film, Godzilla is merely standing still, a great edifice of sinewy lines and meaty bulk, and it seems powerful and profound and imposing even there, in no small part because of the sense of the epic and the poetic that Anno and his team bring to bear on the material, the same sense that dominated the battle sequences of Evangelion. For that matter, the battle sequences also have a certain Evangelion touch; the sequence where Godzilla demonstrates its famous atomic breath is an astounding triumph, staged with gravity and grandeur that suggest a roaring apocalypse coming down upon Tokyo, inexplicable and unnecessarily vast in its destruction. It's genuinely haunting and horrifying as no equivalent scene in any Godzilla film has ever been.

For all that it does terrifically well, I remain a little bit chilly towards Shin Godzilla for one insurmountable reason: I don't much care for the new Godzilla. As played by Nomura Mansai in motion capture, the title character is a wonderful bit of CGI designed to look as much as possible like a rubber suit, only with flexibility and mutability that no Godzilla suit ever could possess. But the possibilities of CGI lead to a superfluity of detail, most notably the ribbons of raw red flesh coursing over Godzilla's body, which really simply don't seem to add much. And oh my, how I do greatly hate this Godzilla's face: its little spike teeth are irritating (and the characters even comment on them, but worse by far are its incongruous beady eyes, exactly the shade of white-blue as an Aussie Shepherd's eyes. Which is a terrible thing to be thinking about when you're staring into the unknowable face of a godlike monster out of the depths of human nightmares.

It's never very exciting when you have a very good Godzilla film without a very good Godzilla to match; Shin Godzilla's not the first, and I hope it won't be the last. I assume you understand my meaning there. Whatever the problems it might have, this is an enormously satisfying return for one of cinema's all-time most iconic characters - the 2014 film just doesn't count, it has to be in Japan, and that is that - that instantly takes its place among the best films of the series. It might not climb the mountainous heights of the '54 Godzilla or the 1964 Mothra vs. Godzilla, but it's right up there at the top of the franchise's second tier.