Godzilla Minus One

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A country basks in the reflected glow of a single man’s redemption in Godzilla Minus One, the 33rd outing for Toho Studios’ big bellowing beast/god and a contender for best of the bunch.

Writer director Takashi Yamazaki wants to tell a story of shame and salvation rather than wang on about a big lumbering beast destroying things, though that happens as well, and narrows his focus onto a Japanese kamikaze pilot in the Second World War who chokes when it comes to his big day and then struggles to come to terms with his actions, or lack of them.

Godzilla is effectively that pilot’s shame incarnate – the creature arrives on the scene at exactly the moment airman Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) fakes an equipment malfunction to duck out of his suicide mission. And it leaves within seconds of Shikishima atoning for his sin in the film’s closing moments.

In between Shikishima’s life is so blighted by shame that he’s incapable of grabbing hold of good things offered to him after the War ends, like Noriko (Minami Hamabe), a pretty young woman he happens upon in the ruins of Tokyo and with whom he should build a life but cannot.

Shreds of solace come for Shikishima when he gets a job clearing mines from Japan’s shipping lanes – it’s dangerous, he might die, maybe he hopes he will. But it’s only when Godzilla returns to menace Japan and another suicide mission is proposed by the military that Shikishima properly gains a renewed sense of purpose and a chance to do this time what he couldn’t do last time.

Yamazaki borrows wholesale from Jaws for the central section – the mine-clearing on a small wooden boat whose size seems always about to be called into question – with a crew that slots so well into the Dreyfus/Scheider/Shaw template that prizes ought to be given, for cheek if nothing else.

His Oscar-winning special effects (he’s also effects supervisor) are designed to be effective rather than convincing, which sounds like a quibble but isn’t – there is just enough Godzilla to persuade us that this is a nasty creature from the deep, and Yamazaki relies as much on sonics as visuals to make his point. Composer Naoki Sotô reworks the soundtrack from vintage Godzilla movies at key points to help wrap us up in canonical ambience.

Koichi wails
Koichi wails in anguish

It’s unusual for a Godzilla movie to reference the Second World War so explicitly (usually it’s the aftermath). But it gives the Japanese the opportunity to enjoy the sort of well-appointed Second World War movie full of backs-to-the-wall heroics, pluck, smarts and stirring speeches that other combatants have long since taken for granted. See His Darkest Hour and any number of others pouring out of the UK.

It also allows some unsavoury facts to be aired – the firestorm bombing of Tokyo, for instance, which did more damage than the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima – as well as meditations on notions of national guilt, national shame and national pride.

Fascinatingly, Godzilla is presented as a threat so powerful, and so potentially destabilising to the Cold War truce between the US and USSR, that Japan has got to go it alone to deal with it, we’re told on about three occasions. This sleight of screenwriting hand restores a degree of sovereignty to a country that was actually being ruled at the time by General Douglas MacArthur. In much the same way the creation of Godzilla in the original 1954 movie asserted a cultural independence from the recently departed American overlord.

Godzilla Minus One – the war took Japan to zero, and now this beast takes it even lower than that – has been less well received in Japan than in the rest of the world. Yamazaki’s nationalism has worried some critics, apparently, but that’s precisely what makes this such an intriguing film. Towards the end Shikishima sets off on the mission to save his country and his own soul by climbing once again into a kamikaze plane. Is this where the Japanese are heading? You can see why some people might get twitchy.

Godzilla Minus One – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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