Takashi Yamazaki’s “Godzilla Minus One”: A Review
Ever since the first Godzilla movie hit theaters in 1954, the King of the Monsters has served as a metaphor for the moment, standing in for everything from the dangers of nuclear weapons, to man’s destruction of the environment, to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Part of the power of the original lay in the fact that it was created for a Japanese audience who had recently seen their cities suffer the sort of devastation portrayed in the film, which was released shortly after the end of the American occupation regime. The most recent installment – and the first to come out of Japan since 2016’s Fukushima parable Shin Godzilla – takes place during the end and immediate aftermath of World War II, when Godzilla would have had to look hard for cities whose destruction hadn’t already been seen to by American bombers. Shame and redemption are the two great themes in Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One, which – to this lifelong Godzilla nerd – is the best iteration in years, and deserves every bit of its 98% audience and critics scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film’s protagonist is Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a failed kamikaze pilot who survived his fateful mission by pretending his plane had engine trouble. His shame is multiplied when Godzilla makes his first appearance, attacking the island airfield to which Koichi had diverted for ‘repairs’. As the only pilot among a host of aircraft mechanics, Koichi is forced by the others to man a heavy machine gun, only to freeze up at the critical moment. The monster is well-designed, terrifying, and violent, and is much more satisfying than the stiff, zombie-like plastic toy created for Shin Godzilla. Yet, in his initial appearance, Godzilla is merely a big lizard (about three stories tall), lacking the superpowers and gargantuan size he would soon acquire from exposure to radiation created by American nuclear weapons tests. The implication is that the 20mm cannon might have brought down, or at least deterred Godzilla, if only Koichi had had the nerve to act. Instead, most of the other men are killed as a result of his cowardice.
Here, the film skips forward about one year. Koichi has returned to Japan to discover that his entire family had been killed, and his neighborhood obliterated, by American bombing raids. A broken young man, forever reliving his moment of ignominy, Koichi moves into a hovel that used to be his parents’ home. All around him are shards of shattered lives – orphans, widows, grandmothers whose descendants were all consumed by the war. One day, he encounters a young girl, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), who invites herself and the orphaned infant she’s carrying to shelter with Koichi. A bereft matron living nearby plays the role of grumpy grandma to the inexperienced new “parents,” and together they create the resemblance of a family. It brings little comfort to Koichi, who is prevented by his self-loathing from accepting Noriko’s affection. He often awakes screaming in the night, and trudges through his days depressed and unstable, as Noriko tries in vain to close the distance between them.
Addressing an American Commission of Enquiry in late 1945, the Imperial General Staff’s commander of kamikaze operations, General Masakazu Kawabe, testified:
“We do not wish the kamikaze tactics to be described by the term ‘suicide attacks’. Right up until the end, we believed we could outweigh your material and scientific superiority by the force of our moral and spiritual convictions.”
It is not easy for an American to comprehend the mentality and motives of the kamikaze, who are often discussed in the same breath as Muslim suicide bombers and Western mass shooters. These comparisons could not be further from the truth. Suicide bombers and mass shooters are, practically without exception, driven by a toxic stew of depression and rage, neither of which were prominent in the mind of the kamikaze. It is notable that kamikaze, like all pilots in service to the Japanese Empire, were drawn from respectable families, and that many senior officers, including at least one Vice Admiral, gave their lives in these missions. The typical kamikaze feared death, but his fear was overcome by his sense of honor, of the infinite debt he owed to his family and his homeland. Ryuji Nagatsuka, a kamikaze pilot spared by the war’s end, recalls in his 1972 memoir I Was a Kamikaze:
“Lying in bed, I passed my hand over the sen-nin bari tied round my waist. Sen-nin bari means literally ‘a thousand stitches worked by a thousand people’. It was a strip of silk on which a thousand women embroidered a little stitch. Only the fair sex had the right to make it, just as only they could ask passersby in the street to add a stitch. During the war, it was a common sight to see women stitching the sen-nin bari at the request of other women… Mothers and wives gave them to their menfolk off to the wars. Japanese soldiers always wore them, knotted around their waists. My mother’s great love for me emanated from this piece of stuff. (Touching it), I saw her again, bowing to passersby in the streets of Nagoya and begging them to add a stitch.”
Thus, cowardice was the lesser sin Koichi incurred when he failed to complete his mission. His far greater sin was betrayal. Only once in the entire film does a character attempt to excuse his decision, when she remarks, almost in passing, that “our country has valued life far too cheaply.” Everyone else who learns Koichi’s secret reacts with almost physical revulsion, pulling away from him as if he carries a disfiguring infectious disease. Nevertheless, Koichi shoulders the responsibility of providing for his new ‘family’, and soon takes a job on a small boat tasked with clearing Japanese waters of sea mines. The rest of the crew, like most of the characters in Godzilla Minus One, are fellow veterans of the late war who, despite having fulfilled their duties to their best ability, carry shame akin to that of a husband who tries, and fails, to defend his wife from rape.
When Godzilla reappears, he is hundreds of feet tall and virtually impervious to damage. His trademark heat ray carries a payload similar to a small nuclear weapon. As the monster makes a beeline toward his favorite stomping grounds, Koichi’s shame becomes even more visceral. His failure to take down Godzilla when he had the chance had already cost the lives of his fellow soldiers, and now he feels directly responsible for the devastation soon to be visited upon his country.
The film really hits its stride when the big guy arrives to smash up the Ginza section of Tokyo. Hollywood’s recent offerings have maintained the franchise’s tradition of pitting Godzilla against other monsters, and portrayed the ensuing urban devastation as a kind of collateral damage. In Gareth Edwards’ excellent 2014 Godzilla film, it is as if Honolulu and San Francisco were being destroyed by a hurricane or another natural disaster, and the human protagonists were just there to provide us with a good view of the action. In Godzilla Minus One, on the other hand, Godzilla stands alone as the enemy of mankind, and the damage he does to Tokyo is anything but collateral. This is an attack. With teeth, claws, and tail, he wreaks havoc on the city, going out of his way to target humans and destroy infrastructure. It is understood throughout that Godzilla will destroy all of Japan unless the protagonists stop him, and in this way, he provides the traumatized and humiliated veterans a chance at redemption.
The Japanese have a complicated relationship with the Second World War, and Japanese popular culture has tended to shy away from the jingoistic war films pumped out by Hollywood, at most daring to portray individual soldiers as sympathetic figures caught in a hopeless situation. Though less masochistic than the Germans, whose repertoire of war movies almost invariably paint their grandparents as abject villains, Japanese studios have been averse to making films that glorify the last stand of their empire. Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One pushes back against this trend, and even dares to portray the kamikaze as a noble calling. Ever since the unconditional surrender and American occupation, Japan has been largely demilitarized and constitutionally pacifist. Godzilla Minus One is a war movie for a society that has forsworn actual war, and it means to portray the redemption not only of the ragtag protagonists, but of an entire nation.