Movie Curiosities: Godzilla Minus One

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.”

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

Godzilla has always been an allegory for post-war Japan, but the character’s history has never gone further back than his introduction in 1954. With Godzilla Minus One, we’re going all the way back to the closing days of WWII. This has the effect of putting Godzilla’s symbolic importance into sharper focus than ever before, associating the character with the instability and devastation that Japan was still grappling with in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb and the Japanese imperial collapse (not to mention the Fukui earthquake of 1948).

To a certain extent, you already know what you’re in for with this picture. It’s a giant bipedal lizard, he’s trampling cities underfoot, he’s crushing buildings with his tail, he’s eating people up off the streets, he’s destroying whole military fleets with his radioactive breath… y’know, Godzilla. Got the classic franchise theme blaring and everything. Hell, they even made a plot point out of dead fish floating up in the kaiju’s wake, a macabre touch well in keeping with Godzilla’s status as a symbol of radioactive devastation.

And yeah, the huge epic set pieces of mass destruction are appropriately spectacular, with a sense of apocalyptic dread appropriate to the character. I might add that the title character himself is beautifully, painstakingly animated. With the debatable exceptions of the Legendary films, Godzilla has never looked better. The roar is a bit lower than I’m accustomed to, and it doesn’t quite have the same impact without that high-pitched screech, but oh well.

Anyway, that’s not what sets this film above, apart, and beyond your average big-budget blockbuster. Believe it or not, it’s the human storylines where this movie truly shines.

The protagonist here is Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a Japanese kamikaze pilot. Just before the war ended, Koichi detoured to Oda for repairs, even though his plane was functioning perfectly. Shortly afterward, the Oda base got attacked by Godzilla, and Koichi was one of only two survivors because he disobeyed orders and ran away instead of opening fire on Godzilla.

Lots to unpack here.

On the one hand, discretion is the better part of valor. Could one more suicide bomber really have made a difference after the war was effectively over? Is there seriously any chance that a 20mm gun would be of any use against the King of the Monsters on a rampage? There’s an argument to be made that wasting soldiers’ lives (or planes, or ammo) doesn’t make for good strategy.

On the other hand, Koichi now has to deal with the shame of backing out on his oath to die for his country. Worse still, he has to deal with the survivor’s guilt and PTSD that came from narrowly surviving a massacre from a goddamn kaiju while everyone else died around him.

And that’s before he comes back to Japan. His home and his whole neighborhood are destroyed, his friends and family are pretty much all dead, and he’s only one of multiple survivors fighting each other for too little aid. I might add that the Japanese government is too wrecked to be of any use to anyone, and nobody wants to risk any kind of military movement that might upset the USA/USSR balance. Basically put, shit’s fucked because Japan lost the war, and everyone — most especially Koichi himself — is taking it out on the soldier who chickened out of the war.

Granted, Koichi isn’t dead. But there are certainly worse things.

Luckily, Koichi crosses paths with Noriko and Akiko, respectively played by Minami Hamabe and Sae Nagatani. Akiko is a baby orphaned by air raids, and Noriko is a vagrant who happened to stumble upon her. The both of them find Koichi, and the three of them coalesce into a loose kind of family unit that stays together out of momentum and shared desperation. Because Koichi’s angst prevents him from marrying Noriko, you see.

Even better, Koichi gets a high-paying — and extremely risky — job clearing out ocean mines left over from the war. This gives Koichi and Noriko the necessary money to pick up the pieces and build a new home. And of course it puts Koichi in the right place — equipped with recovered sea mines and a 15mm machine gun, no less — when Godzilla finally surfaces.

More importantly, this means that Koichi — and everyone else in Japan — is given just enough time to start rebuilding before Godzilla arrives to send them back to the Stone Age all over again. Thus they have the choice of whether to fight and defend these hard-won gains against an unstoppable force of nature, or pick up and run with the hope of continuing the rebuild somewhere else.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the government of Japan is still hopelessly broken, none of the other world governments will help, and pretty much all of Japan’s military equipment has been drained by the losing war effort and subsequent international sanctions. Thus it falls to private citizens — war veterans and displaced refugees bound together by mob rule — to try and scrape together whatever odds and ends they can find to try and take down freaking Godzilla.

Thus we’re left with a crucial question: Is there any value in fighting a losing battle? Is there any honor in dying for a doomed yet noble cause? Does it make a difference if it’s an inevitable and unavoidable conflict against an existential threat?

At the beginning of the film, Koichi runs away from the task of giving up his own life for the sake of the war effort. As the film continues, Koichi — and his loved ones, his community, his nation, and so on — keeps on suffering until he’s brought to the breaking point where he’s finally got what it takes to take that suicidally drastic step. But while this answers the question of what it takes, there’s still the question of whether it’s truly honorable or advisable.

The film goes out of its way to point out that wartime-era Japan put a depressingly low value on human life. Remember, this is the military that built planes without ejection seats because their pilots were supposed to crash themselves into enemy craft. Is such a government really worth dying for?

Anyone who’s ever truly loved anything knows that the deepest and most heartfelt expression of love isn’t dying for it or killing for it — it’s living for it. Something a great deal more difficult.

These are all difficult concepts to grapple with, but Koichi’s mistake is in thinking that he has to shoulder these burdens alone. As the plot unfolds, Koichi is reminded time and again that pretty much everyone in Japan has some kind of war-related trauma. If he can’t get closure, he could at least get solidarity if he got over himself and opened up every once in a while.

Speaking of which, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Shiro (Yuki Yamada) a greenhorn upset because he never got the chance to go fight for his country. The character is effectively useless through most of the plot, but he does redeem himself in a big way at the climax. More importantly, the character serves an indispensably crucial purpose as a counterpoint to Koichi and all the other characters who reject the honor in dying for God and country. In their ideological conflict, they come to illustrate the ideal middle ground in which true victory means helping each other to defeat the enemy and come back alive.

The bottom line here is that while Godzilla represents the terror and destruction of war on a nationwide scale, Koichi and the human supporting cast represent the incalculable damage of war on a personal scale. And the two perspectives dovetail together in a way that makes the interpersonal drama more compelling while also making the action set pieces more engaging. Spectacularly done.

So, are there any nitpicks? Well, I’m a little disappointed that Godzilla didn’t have a clear method or motivation for when and how he struck as he did, but it’s not like Godzilla ever needed any of that before. I was also a little bit turned off by a last-minute deus ex machina just after the climax. Then again, the reversal is well in keeping with the overall theme that things can always get better, there’s no telling what problems might get resolved or what good things might come around the corner, so you might as well live.

The highest compliment I can give Godzilla Minus One is that the interpersonal character drama is at least as engaging — arguably even more so! — as the kaiju-driven demolition we all know and love. You might come to see Godzilla bring Tokyo to ruin, but you’ll stay for the deeply-layered and complex characters working through a dynamic and poignant examination of what war costs and when the cost is worth it.

I have no problem giving this one my strongest recommendation. Longtime fans and newcomers alike will find something to cheer for, something to cry over, and something to think about. This is not a film to be missed. See it on the big screen immediately.

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