Discussing Godzilla Minus One: A New and Old Friend

Godzilla Minus One hit US theaters with a tidal wave of popularity that garnered unprecedented success. Originally slated for a two-week-long premiere starting in early December, some theaters kept it going on an extended run, with some still ongoing. As the second live-action film to Toho’s widely successful series in the current Reiwa era, Minus One solidifies itself as a one-of-a-kind experience both for the kaiju and non-kaiju fans alike.

Spoiler heavy:

As a preface, I think it should be said that most Godzilla films, especially those that solo feature the titular monster, follow a rather baseline formula started by Godzilla (1954). Yet, despite that, the everchanging tides of politics, issues, fans, and the film industry, in general, continue to cultivate new feelings and new experiences–it’s the Shakespearean versatility of a story able to take shape into many, many different themes through various eras. The original Ishirou Honda film itself represents postwar fears regarding the atomic bombs but further expands into elements of nuclear energy and pollution in Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) and the modern-day Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla (2016) inspired by Japan’s 2011 disasters.

Regardless of the nature of each individual film and the metamorphosing parallel between Godzilla as a character and his films throughout the passage of time, one aspect that remains consistently lacking in many of the films are characters that provide the audience with a connection or a pathos–Honda’s original movie services this to a degree, perhaps most notably through Akihiko Hirata’s character, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa; but as far as whether succeeding incarnations of the franchise’s monster cultivated interesting human characters, the answer is rarely “yes.”

The first two films in Legendary’s recent Monsterverse series best illustrate these problems that focus so much on the human characters, but are unable to retain interest in their motivations, characters themselves, or the themes they attempt to present–look no further than Michael Dougherty’s King of the Monsters (2019), ripe with the fruits of incredible kaiju action and lingering themes, but downplayed by its abrasive screenplay and a runtime justifying the idea that it’s too long and underdeveloped for the environmentalist film it attempts to be. This trend can also be seen in Toho’s own films, but not as severely as the circumstance that was King of the Monsters–in the case of Toho films, the “worst” is usually either “badly acted” or “forgettable and mediocre”, but usually service the story enough that it’s not (entirely) to the hindrance of the movies, and sometimes memorable or interesting. Motha vs. Godzilla (1962) and some of the later Heisei era (1984-1995) movies come to mind, as well as the ostentatious absurdity of Ryuhei Kitamura‘s Godzilla Final Wars (2004). In the case of something like Shin Godzilla, there are a lot of characters and not a lot of time spent fleshing them out–they feel like real people, certainly, but it’s one of those circumstances in which the actors and direction are wonderful, but the script is obviously not invested in the characters on a particularly individual basis.

None of that is to say any movie is made worse by having these characters when they effectively tell the stories they’re in–I may not remember the specifics of anyone in Takao Okawara’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), but they’re effectively used to tell an amazing kaiju story. With Shin Godzilla, these characters feel real and they may not be fleshed out, but it’s a story of a nation–Japan–fighting against Godzilla, not a small community or a singular involved person. Some criticisms of the film leveraged its lack of character focus as a negative, but I personally think that’s a positive to the story the movie is telling.

Takeshi Yamazaki’s Minus One focuses heavily on its characterization of a group of people in order to tell its story and supplement its themes in contrast to many of these other great films–even from Yamazaki’s own influences from the Godzilla franchise–namely Shusuke Kaneko’s Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film, and Shin Godzilla. Minus One is, therefore, not at all a departure from the nature of the series up until now, but simply reigniting the vision by adding a layer to the formula in a new incarnation.

“The Human Condition

The aforementioned points lead to the themes of the Minus One as well–something I’ll generally cast as “the human condition” is what I’ll consider the main focus. As previously stated, the movie has elements of the longstanding response to nuclear power; but here the focus is on something else: the cultivation of fear in a weak and frightened post-war Japan; and the often-found unreliability of the government. Parts of this can potentially be attributed to Yamazaki’s influence from Shin Godzilla, but he also noted inspiration from the Japanese government’s slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic in its early stages (in which postponement of filming resulted in several script rewrites).

Much of this is reflected in Minus One itself, which boasts no sense of particular “nationalism” that rises to the occasion to defeat the threat of Godzilla that is seen in Shin Godzilla‘s bureaucratic portrayal; and instead, it’s the citizens with limited government support who band together to defend themselves while the other “great” world nations are too busy staring each other down to help out the Japanese citizens facing destruction (perhaps somewhat humorously, it’s almost in direct contrast to Kouji Hashimoto’s The Return of Godzilla (1984), in which a Soviet submarine is sunk, and both the United States and Soviets combine political powers to try and force Japan into allowing them to nuke Tokyo).

The seemingly inexplicable lack of international or domestic support for the citizens of Tokyo when up against such a foe only further reverberates the abyssal plunge of prideful soldiers returning to a crippled society after fighting a long, relentless, and harsh war; and especially for those who are ostracized for failing to do their duty for their country, as the main character Kouichi Shikishima is at the beginning of Minus One, continuing life is a journey of trying to climb out of an endless pit. But it’s not as though they, or he, wish to die; it’s that they, and he, don’t know how to live.

The ghosts of the past and lost ideas of honor outweigh the potential for reconstructing into better people and rebuilding what was lost. Life moves on, but their minds are trapped in a time they are not living in. “My war isn’t over yet.” It’s a metaphorical statement Shikishima says a couple of times in the movie, and while it can be interpreted more literally in the context of his position, it’s that feeling that presides over many aspects of this film in general. Nobody wishes for the war to have continued on while the myriad of bodies and lives of families piled up; but Shikishima’s ghosts, his self-antagonizing perspective of himself as a coward who couldn’t follow orders in the face of his duty as an “honorable” kamikaze pilot, hammer the nails of despair so harshly. The cruel words of Sumiko Oota (Shikishima’s neighbor) and Sousaku Tachibana (an engineer) berate him as they lash out in their most vulnerable of times.

Perhaps he could have saved lives early on in the film during Godzilla’s first appearance, or perhaps he would have just sacrificed himself in vain. Maybe he should have instead of “letting” everyone die, but he was a boy who was afraid of death–and afraid of a monster before him. It’s a question of “what is right?” And the answer is nothing, to put it bluntly. Just as he could have potentially used his airplane to shoot the non-nuclear Godzilla, the other mechanics could have potentially avoided directly confronting him by simply not firing weapons at him in fear. There are a lot of ways to analyze the circumstances of a situation as having a correct logical choice, but keeping in mind the fear of a young boy and a group of engineers is necessary.

But Shikishima is lost. Tachibana’s actions, like showing him the families waiting for the now-deceased engineers, weigh down on Shikishima. Tachibana feels anger and resentment in his most vulnerable state, just like Shikishima; just like Oota; and just like so many other people.

“Shinpuu Tokubetsu Kougekitai

When all is lost, the people can rise. That’s ultimately what the film feels as though it’s about: emerging from a thick mud that swallows one’s self whole. As the incarnation of fear itself, Godzilla, makes its way to Tokyo and the people are defenseless bar those who take up arms in an attempt to defend themselves and their people, the people themselves evolve. Criticisms of, as naval engineer Kenji Noda says, Imperial Japan’s view of people as “cheap” and expendable bring rise to the prominence of perhaps his most ensnaring line and that thematic evolution: that there is value in having not experienced war at all. Faced against Godzilla, the people find their footing, their pride, and themselves.

Dogfighting and naval attacks weren’t new to the idea of simply crashing a plane into an enemy in the case of heavy damage on the vehicle so as to escape enemy capture or simply “sacrifice” oneself, but the Imperial Japanese military specifically began to think about and use intentional suicide attackers. By then, Imperial Japan had lost many battles and even more of their best fighter pilots; and with low-resources and training opportunities, among other factors, kamikaze attacks were introduced. These “special attacks”, as they were called, were often done by pilots who were very young and without much training; after all, the goal was to inflict damage with a bomb and plunge oneself into the enemy. If you were to look at the Wikipedia page for kamikaze, the two pilots pictured in the lead of the article are Kiyoshi Ogawa and Seizou Yasunori, who struck the USS Bunker Hill during the Battle of Okinawa. They were aged 22 and 21, respectively.

Noda’s words become clearer: it was not just that Imperial Japan fought with desperation, but that the military had actively condemned those who were practically children, sometimes even including actual children no older than 17, to kill themselves in action. In the context of any war, there is tragedy, loss, and suffering; and Noda’s critique of the Japanese military is not just in regard to throwing lives away, but specifically children’s lives away. His own desire to keep a character nicknamed “Kid”, who did not see the war, from participating in the Godzilla hunt exemplifies this.

Early on in the movie, as well, the aforementioned characters Sumiko and Tachibana act as foils to Shikishima as they bring out and build the chains he’s locked to the floor with; but as he resolves himself to do something for the people, for his adoptive daughter, it begins to coincide and contrast with Noda’s own statements. For them, and for himself, he’s willing to play the self-sacrificing “hero” that he didn’t.

But it’s eventually Sumiko and Tachibana who urge him not to, despite the fact that they had told him he was a failure for not doing so before. As they healed, as they saw a light to hold on to, the blame towards Shikishima faded. Tachibana even puts a wrench in Shikishima’s self-sacrificing plan by giving him a way out while still achieving his goal (which is, to say, a kamikaze attack). Forgiveness can be bitter, and it may be fruitless, but there’s no joy in condemning someone so dedicated to helping everyone in their cause to death, and someone who is not responsible for their circumstances at all.

What I like most about the way Minus One director-writer Yamazaki handled this aspect of Shikishima’s character is the simple unknowingness in the presentation of what he was going to do. Up until now, he had been berated for his lack of dedication to the empire (or rather, its people from those not necessarily coming from a nationalist perspective) which led to his inability to cope with what he had experienced. The only time he feels like he can try again is when he’s hardened himself to be there for Noriko Ooishi (a woman who moves in with him) and their adoptive daughter’s sake. He says that he wants to try and live for them, but then Godzilla comes crashing down on Ginza, and he loses Noriko. ‘You can’t forgive me?’ he asks the souls of those who he thinks damn him.

It’s an unstable state. Not only the post-war sentiments he already held but the fact that his only attempt to truly drag himself out of the mud ended as soon as it began with the envelopment of an even thicker black tar. At that point, the audience believes that when he tells Tachibana his plan to kamikaze Godzilla, he’s truly going to go through with it. When Tachibana shows Shikishima the bomb in the plane and explains how it works and what he needs to do, the audience continues to believe “he’s doing this for real.” In that same scene, Tachibana first explains how to use the ejector seat–but that isn’t shown to the audience aside from a far shot where anyone who looks into the cockpit can make out what Tachibana is doing.

Now any audience member can say, “Oh, that’ll come into play later” and deduce that there’s probably an ejection seat or something. But you’re not really sure. In that case, why is he leaving money for Sumiko to take care of his daughter? In that case, why does he not respond to the statement of returning home for her when starting the so-called Operation Tsumi Wada (the operation to kill Godzilla)?

There are two interpretations, I think, and I think they’re both correct and maybe it’s just one interpretation with two parts. On the one hand, it’s possible that he just may not survive. Rather, this isn’t a matter of whether or not he goes through with the kamikaze, but that no one knows if the plan will work. Engineer Noda, who concocted the plan, lacks a guarantee for the plan. Noda tells everyone to spend the night before with their family–and this isn’t because he feels as though they should be ready to heroically sacrifice themselves, or that they’ll lose, as he says. With regard to treating lives too cheaply, he would rather not sacrifice anyone at all, and he has no plans to; but the dual meaning of this is that it’s also preparedness for such an event. Even if he doesn’t “mean” it as a final farewell either, the connotation and risk given the circumstances is always there, no matter what perspective of the scenario someone takes: there is no expectation of death, but there is always the risk. For Shikishima, preparedness in the event of his death is realistic.

At the same time, it’s almost like his mind isn’t made up. Why didn’t he directly give the money to Sumiko, then? Why was it left without a word, as if he knew if he told her what he was really thinking, she would urge him not to? And why did he ignore the call to return to his daughter for her sake over the radio at the start of the operation? Words can be meaningless, even if he says he will, he might not mean it; and realistically speaking, it may not be possible to. But he neither says that he will return, nor that he will not return. By remaining silent, with all of the information we have until now, Shikishima instead feels like a character who is debating with himself and trying to find the answer to the problem in front of him. If he had answered, even if he was a bit wishy-washy, Shikishima would have vocalized an intent.

The problem is whether he should live, according to himself. The mountain of guilt he feels and has developed thus far is certainly great; and yet, he has things to live for. He still does not want to die, but now with the ejector seat, the question is if he “should.” It’s not until that last moment he strikes Godzilla that it feels like his decision is made–and ultimately, it’s the best decision. But up until that point, I thought the movie could go either way. And the other characters did as well, who knew nothing of the ejector seat.

And it’s that level of on-screen filmmaking that the previous installments in the Godzilla franchise haven’t had. Minus One is my favorite Godzilla movie after that, and that’s because it combines what I already loved about the best parts of the franchise with a layer of storytelling that I could become deeply invested in. But this isn’t to say that it’s necessarily on another level in comparison to Godzilla’s greatest hits, just that it’s a different kind of level. As a preference, stories like this tickle my brain; but perhaps it’s not to the preference of fans of the wackiness of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), the all-out monster brawls like Destroy All Monsters (1968), or whatever else. It’s a fascinating movie either way.

Interpretations

Before I stop talking about the movie, I would like to discuss certain interpretations of the film’s themes that I not only disagree with but frankly find to be bizarre. And some of these I’ve seen in actual criticisms, and others I’ve seen as criticisms from people who didn’t watch the movie but bothered to compare its politics to Shin Godzilla anyway which is, you know, kind of absurd if you haven’t watched it.

In the first place, some have said that it doesn’t talk about the Japanese Empire as antagonists, but rather as victims. And to that, I say: why should it? It’s not a war film, it’s not a film that attempts to discuss the good or bad of war and what happens in war: it’s, very simply, a pacifist, anti-war film. Every significant character in the movie, whether they were an engineer for the navy or a young boy kamikaze pilot, is heavily critical of the war and the government. And it’s nothing to do with whether they won or lost, but what they were told to sacrifice. Sacrifice. And for what? What’s gained from what Japan intended to do? What is gained through suicide attacks? Perhaps if the war itself was more deeply entrenched into the film’s themes (that is, not about post-war reconstructionism in a largely destroyed Tokyo, but rather actions of the war), I would maybe agree with such a criticism; but I can’t help but find that such a thing is ultimately the same as critics of Oppenheimer (2023) who dismissed the focus on “the guy who led the atomic bomb’s development, he wasn’t a victim.”

Another interpretation I’ve seen is the movie being described as nationalistic similar to Shin Godzilla. It’s true that Yamazaki does take influence from Shin Godzilla, but the comparisons between either’s politics are largely non-existent. Shin Godzilla observes a (quite literally) national response to the Godzilla problem, in which the country’s government is ultimately criticized, but otherwise means to showcase the capabilities of those with “ambition.” In Shin Godzilla, people have something to gain and lose from their actions: there are politics constantly at play. One character wants to be Prime Minister, and he might be able to get there (if the country is still alive by that point). Another guy will support him, but he wants a secretarial position. The prominence of a woman who acts as a sort of ambassador to Japan from the United States wishes to become president in the future–and there’s a discussion of how the guy who wants to be Prime Minister won’t be her Japanese counterpart, but her “Japanese puppet.” Criticisms of American hegemony exist within the same realm of a wholly nationalistic film that is about bureaucrats who bow to America or the UN, bureaucrats who can “do better”, and what have you.

Minus One is wholly void of any of those kinds of politics. There’s no discussion about what happens after the defeat of Godzilla besides living and continuing on. This is not a military or a nation that is fighting against the monster, but a people. That could be described as “nationalistic” in a sense, but I think a more accurate term would be to describe it as, perhaps, “communal.” It is not the politicians who seek to defend Tokyo, nor the military itself. The ex-military leaders and soldiers may be the ones who step up, but not everyone is up to that task, and those who were not a part of the war at all also step in to help. There are no rewards in this fight besides living and keeping the people that they care about away from the danger of Godzilla. They are people, they could be from anywhere, and they will fight to defend themselves from Godzilla, a creation of horrors brought from man’s design.

There’s also one weird comment I saw that felt that these aforementioned topics were made more relevant by the fact that the protagonist is ex-kamikaze, but I think I’ve already made clear just how ridiculous I would personally find that to be all things considered.

With all that said, that’s how I feel about the movie and some interpretations of it, feel free to agree, disagree, and form your own opinion regarding its characters and themes! I’d also like to add that a black-and-white version titled Godzilla Minus One/Minus Color is being released not only in Japan, but also in the US as well from what I can tell, and I’m honestly really interested in what that experience could be like. Anyway, thanks for your time.

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