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“Godzilla Minus One” Doesn't Quite Add Up
Takashi Yamazaki delivers an exquisitely rendered postwar Japan. But does his re-envisioning of history go too far?
Broadly speaking, Godzilla features can be divided into two categories: the statements, and the slugfests. One might further subdivide them into Japanese and American categories, as movie-makers in each country have such fundamentally different philosophies. But let’s put that aside for now, and focus on the films of Godzilla’s homeland.
The statement movies deliver trenchant social criticism. The seminal 1954 Godzilla denounced American nuclear testing in the Pacific with its haunting scenes of an irradiated Tokyo; the psychedelic 1971 Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster personified environmental concerns in the form of its titular antagonist. The slugfests deliver the visceral-architectural thrill of watching kaiju punch, kick, and judo-throw each other through landscapes rural and urban, like pop-up collaborations between Tadao Ando and the World Wrestling Federation. Each style has its charms, as evidenced in the fact that the films have continued coming in fits and starts for close to seventy years, making it one of the longest-running franchises in history.
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What sort of film is Godzilla Minus One? The short answer is neither. It opened on November 3, 2023, sixty-nine years to the day after the first Godzilla appeared in Japanese theaters. That movie began in a Tokyo triumphantly recovered from war, which made its climax all the more shocking. Godzilla Minus One is set in the far more miserable milieu of the immediate postwar era, when citizens were still clawing out of the literal rubble of World War II. This was an era of black markets and shantytowns, streetwalkers and foreign soldiers, of sickness and starvation. The title comes from the idea that Godzilla’s appearance plunges Japan, already brought to its knees by war, even further into despair.
The pleasure of a kaiju movie is watching giant monsters destroying things, so it might seem a little odd to set a Godzilla film in a city that has already been laid to waste. But it makes more sense when you consider the director, Takashi Yamazaki, who built his reputation on historical tearjerkers. Yamazaki delights in setting melodramas against the backdrop of poignant historical moments, tugging heartstrings by skillfully punctuating tender story-arcs with effects-heavy action setpieces.
Yamazaki landed on the map in Japan with the success of his 2005 feel-good flashback Always: Sunset on Third Street. In it, he portrayed life, love, and loss in a late-Fifties Tokyo so rose-tinted that one would be forgiven for forgetting how fractured society was at the time; in reality, the massive Anpo street protests were just around the corner. In a cinematic premonition of sorts, the 2007 sequel, also directed by Yamazaki, actually opens with a fantasy sequence in which Godzilla smashes the protagonists’ shitamachi neighborhod.
Yamazaki followed these successes with two highly romanticized films about World War II. The Eternal Zero (2013) is a sentimental look-back at the story of a kamikaze pilot, based on a novel by a notorious war-crimes denialist. It proved predictably polarizing: Hayao Miyazaki denounced the film’s plot as “a phony myth” and “a pack of lies,” while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was “deeply moved.” The Great War of Archimedes (2019) told a similarly dramatized history of the ill-fated battleship Yamato.
Yamazaki applies the same paradigm to Godzilla Minus One, re-centering the monster’s origin story from 1954, when the original movie was filmed and set, to the far more emotionally freighted 1945, when Japan was occupied by the American forces and its cities were bombed-out wastelands. It’s an intriguing idea, imagining how Japanese citizens of the era might have reacted to a new threat, and how its nuclear-armed occupiers might have responded. There’s only one problem. Yamazaki has all but deleted the Americans from the film, save for a few spoken references to how their hands are tied by politics, and a rapid-fire montage (directed, in a welcome twist, by Michael Arias of Tekkon Kinkreet fame.)
Sidelining the Occupation is a jarring stylistic choice for a film set in this time period. Japan was, quite literally, American territory at this time in history. Little infrastructure survived the firebombings of 1945. What remained was requisitioned by the occupiers. U.S. soldiers were everywhere. The roads were filled with American Jeeps and tanks, to which Japanese had to give right of way, regardless of traffic laws. GHQ, as the occpation forces were also known, heavily censored the Japanese press and entertainment industries, and cracked down whenever citizens gathered in too large of a number — such as when they helped crush a strike at Toho in 1948, the very same studio that produced Godzilla Minus One. Ironic, that.
Were Yamazaki trying to make a point about the Americans, this might have made sense. The best historical dramas often hinge on real-world what-ifs, and there are many such potential moments in the occupation of Japan. But he isn’t. He wants to focus on the dramas of average, everyday folks. Unfortunately for him, Godzilla is a city-sized, even nation-sized, threat. And who was responsible for the defense of the nation at this point in history? America. Logically speaking, GHQ would have taken on Godzilla, but that leaves no room for Japanese protagonists, save perhaps for getting stepped on. This paints the director into a storytelling conundrum that can’t be solved by what-ifs. Instead he must contrive a political fantasy where GHQ and Japanese government have abdicated their responsibilities and ceded the fate of Japan to a ragtag band of citizens.
But this is a kaiju movie! What’s wrong with a little fantasy? Nothing — except Yamazaki seems to be spinning his portrayal as the opposite. “I am hoping that people will feel the reality of a government that doesn’t do much in the face of national emergencies and that things do not go very well without civil initiative to resolve them,” he told Deadline. Superficially, this echoes the theme of 2016’s Shin Godzilla, in which directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi used the titular kaiju like a scalpel to highlight governmental ineptitude, gleefully twisting the blade along the way.
But Yamazaki’s storytelling choices actually undermine his argument. Japan of 1945 was a very different nation than Japan of 2016. It wasn’t an independent state, and its citizens were barely holding together in the face of disease, hunger, and the humiliations of living under an occupying power. To quote John Dower:
The immediate meaning of ‘liberation’ for most Japanese was not political but psychological. Surrender – and, by association, the Allied victory, the American army of occupation itself – liberated them from death. Month after month, they had prepared for the worst; then, abruptly, the tension was broken. In an almost literal sense, they were given back their lives. Shock bordering on stupefaction was a normal response.
Writing the occupiers out of the picture totally contradicts the lived experience of the citizens of Japan at this time. But more than that it flirts with the fever-dreams of nationalists, with their selective memories, and who would undoubtedly love a revised history in which Japan magically bounced back from the war without any outside help at all.
Yet I don’t get the sense that Yamazaki is a political polemicist, which makes this particular storytelling choice all the more difficult to parse. And reading back over what I wrote, all of this comes across as a lot grumpier than I intended. Purely as a piece of entertainment, Godzilla Minus One succeeds even in the face of its troubling, well, minuses. Yamazaki’s love for Godzilla is obvious. The film looks great — the postwar black-markets and reconstructed Ginza of the Forties have never felt so detailed, so evocative. I wish we could have spent more time exploring them. And the monster attacks are some of the most harrowing ever seen in a Godzilla film. Audiences seem to agree: the film racked up over a billion yen in ticket sales over its debut weekend, putting it on track to dethrone Shin Godzilla as the top-earning film in the Japanese franchise.
Today Godzilla is, in many ways, Japan’s toothy, scaly face to the world. Every new release makes global headlines, which makes the movies more than just monster-fests: they represent a unique platform for reaching global audiences. The more talented of Yamazaki’s predecessors used it to take sharp aim at topics ranging from American arrogance to their own country’s complacency. Yamazaki chose a different path, using an emotionally charged moment in history to amplify his melodrama. That is his perogative, of course. Rewriting history may have made Godzilla Minus One a hit. But it also feels like a missed opportunity.