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Godzilla Minus One

Godzilla Minus One
Directed by Yamazaki Takashi
Cast: Kamiki Ryunosuke, Hamabe Minami, Yamada Yuki
Official website (2023)
Review by Chris Corker

There is a tendency to think lightly of the Godzilla franchise, to chalk it off as a popcorn entertainment that is principally for those in their mid to late-teens. This view undervalues its cultural significance. While the original movie may have its origins in the less-than-stellar American monster flick The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) – itself an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Fog Horn (1951), in which a dinosaur rises from the depths to answer the low moaning call of a lighthouse – the Godzilla movies have from their beginnings been intertwined with a postwar moral reconciliation and the ongoing threat of nuclear disaster. While some of the films in the franchise embody the more lurid delights of the aforementioned The Beast, others have embraced postwar tragedy for a more elegiac tone similar to that found in the Bradbury short story.   

Minus One is most certainly an elegy. In interviews director Yamazaki Takashi has been keen to stress that this movie is a very different beast (get it?) from 2016’s Shin Godzilla, and it is difficult to overstate how disparate the two films are. Where Shin, a satirical take on the ineptness of the government during the 3/11 Tohoku disaster, is darkly comical in tone, Minus One is a film that takes itself entirely seriously, at times perhaps to the extent of feeling overwrought. Given the directness of its historical setting in the years immediately following 1945, however, and an approach that does not squirm away from the ugliness left behind as the shadow of war recedes, Minus One still packs an emotional punch. Moreover, a switch from what Yamazaki calls the ‘creepy’ design of Shin’s Godzilla to the intensely wrathful version found here results in a genuine malice to the creature that it could be argued has not been seen since the original 1954 design.

The plot follows a former kamikaze pilot, Shikishima who, with the war coming to an end, withdraws without orders from the front lines to a repair base on Odo Island. Already filled with shame, an encounter with an as yet un-irradiated Godzilla on the island once again sees him paralysed with fear and unable to take action. While his life is spared, he carries the further burden of those he believes died because of his inability to act. While he might expect his return to Tokyo to be a form of escape from the horrors of the war, in the ruins of his former community he finds only further death, guilt and misery. When the now gargantuan Godzilla begins to run amok in the ward of Shinagawa a year later, Shikishima must muster the courage to protect his adopted family and the modest life they have managed to make for themselves.        

What Minus One captures best is a sense of helplessness, important given the historical context. The characters in this film have little with which to combat Godzilla, a monster taller than a skyscraper, fuelled by a seemingly endless supply of nuclear energy and with the ability to regenerate its wounds. One of the tensest scenes in the film features a sea bound chase reminiscent of the film Jaws (1975), with our heroes trying to defeat the creature with a small mounted automatic gun and recommissioned mines. When a Japanese battle cruiser arrives to assist, it becomes clear that no matter the size of the gun, no matter the ferocity of the weapons that have taken the lives of so many humans, they are no match to Godzilla, the result of savage prehistorical evolution and a potentially world-ending elemental force. As has been noted by scholars writing on the Godzilla movies, such as William Tsutsui, there is a strange catharsis in viewing this hopelessness. Hubris reduced to futility thrills as much as it disconcerts.    

In the face of such overwhelming power, only a miracle can save the day. In the Showa era (1926-1989) original, this was the development of a new deadly weapon that its creator, Doctor Serizawa, believes is so dangerous that he takes its secrets to his early grave. This gives the film, even as its heroes celebrate at the conclusion, a sombre tone, as well as leaving the audience with the unsettling idea that the advancement of lethal technology will never cease. As much as it echoes the original, one of Minus One’s real strengths is in its deviation from that conclusion. Yamazaki has told interviewers that while Shin was concerned with the government, this new film is about civilians; and here those civilians are not only victims but the basis for a miracle that comes from community rather than government. And, while the technology used is hardly benign in its application, it is starkly different to the destructive force that gives birth to Godzilla. In reality, the weapons here are ones intended for military use but put to new purpose, a reapplication in fitting with the overall credo of the characters here: we must live beside this postwar legacy but move forwards and away from it.  

Minus One delivers a message that is at once hopeful and subversive. It is an assertion that governments cannot be trusted to deal with an evil that they help to spread. In our modern ecological situation, in which nuclear contamination can be replaced by a number of other forms of insidious harm, the film contains a call for communities to come together to combat a legacy of destruction that those same governments are seen as incapable of fixing. In this, Shin and Minus One are similar. But while the ending of Minus One stops only marginally short of saying ‘Godzilla will return’, its tone is not as sombre, even if there is a closing hint at the radiation-based sickness that is left in Godzilla’s wake. There are some mistakes, after all, that do not permit recovery without a caveat.         

Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Bebergal describes the ‘paradox’ of Godzilla as a character of both joy and fear, concluding that the monster has evolved so far beyond his original metaphor for scientific hubris that he can never return. But is this versatility not the strength of such a cultural icon? I would argue that Godzilla has never been entirely cut loose from his ties with nuclear disaster and the 1954 Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident, and those ties are no clearer than in Minus One. Closing in on the 70th anniversary of the franchise, this film is a return; it is a return to a Godzilla with the presence to incite terror, and a return to a landscape ravaged by war, but it is also a return to the true cautionary warning that Godzilla embodies: the pitfalls of unshackled progress. Now that the word has entered common parlance we can add another tag to this versatile character: Godzilla is the product of the Anthropocene.

Despite all of this subtext, Godzilla: Minus One manages somehow to be an entertaining blockbuster that, while sometimes overt in its use of pathos, for the most part earns its emotional highs and lows. It is also a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen, to feel that strange viewing catharsis as the power of Godzilla’s roar hits you like the train he throws so effortlessly through the sky. Minus One is one of those rare films that delivers both in ecstatic thrills and sobering reflections: in sum, it is a film that fulfils the potential the films have always possessed, even if only a handful have realised it.