Godzilla Minus One (dir. Takashi Yamazaki)
By: Adam Freed
In the wake of the war-ceasing nuclear bombings of Japan in 1945, America left behind a nation in absolute ruin. Beyond the surface of twisted steel and broken concrete was a decimated Japanese national psyche. Far more difficult to rebuild was a shattered faith in what remained of The Empire of the Sun. Nine years following the globally defining tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tokyo based production studio Toho released Gojira (1954) as a metaphorically precise reminder of the lasting damage of nuclear war. Much to Toho’s delight, the film struck a chord with domestic and international audiences alike. In the seven decades since, Toho has returned to god-lizard lore time and again as both a reminder of the doom lurking one button push away, but also as a method for promoting one of Japan’s most identifiable national exports, Godzilla.
In the wake of a handful of lifeless attempts at monster lore by America’s Legendary Entertainment, 21st century audiences may have forgotten the root of Godzilla’s importance. Toho certainly has not, which is why Godzilla Minus One, director Takashi Yamazaki’s Richter scale tilting rendition of the king of monsters feels like such a monumental chapter in the legend’s grand narrative. The Japanese language Minus One begins mere moments after VJ Day ended WWII in the Pacific. By removing the corrosive trappings of the 21st century and returning Godzilla to its original purpose, Yamazaki unclutters the message for a modern audience that may too find itself on the brink of disaster.
Equally relevant to the profound success of Godzilla Minus One is the blueprint that Toho has mapped for achieving impressive CG visual action set pieces without the demands of a quarter billion dollar budget. Toho somehow produced Yamazaki’s brilliant spectacle for roughly fifteen million US dollars, or the equivalent of ten minutes of a modern Marvel Studios release. The difference that Minus One illuminates is that while audiences will be drawn to the grandiose spectacle of Godzilla, they will be equally enthralled with a story that is rich in humanity and presents identifiable moments of connectivity. It has never been the green screen that draws an audience, but rather the heartbeat of those who stand before it that make a film memorable. Director Yamazaki’s genius is in framing the brilliance of his ensemble cast against the backdrop of a monster metaphor with which audiences of any generation will identify. Godzilla Minus One is a story about atonement for loss. Losses of innocence, of national pride, of honor and self respect are all open for exploration. These themes have become vital tendrils of Japan’s eighty year growth back to global prominence post nuclear dismay.
On its surface, Minus One can be unfairly critiqued as lacking some of the spectacle of recent genre competitors. This narrow minded assertion comes though at the risk of missing the compelling human story presented within the confines of a period specific monster film. To what extent does man battle the inner demons of war or of cowardice in the name of self preservation? How can the level of unconditional love and sacrifice displayed by an adoptive family be measured? These are meaningful reflections of the soul that Godzilla Minus One dares to pose to audiences who may have come in search of monothematic mayhem. Toho and Takashi Yamazaki have once again proven that connective films, regardless of genre, are rooted in the human condition, not the gargantuan beast lurking in the seas outside Tokyo Bay.
Target Score: 8/10 Godzilla Minus One may set a record for the greatest massive scale spectacle achievement with the smallest budget in history. The Japanese language nuclear disaster metaphor anchors itself in humanity rather than pure spectacle in its pursuit of an honorable atonement for mistakes of the past.