Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

“Godzilla Minus One,” plus I think it’s pretty good

What would you do if an unstoppable disaster was threatening your hometown? Would you flee, or would you stay and fight? Would you focus on those nearest and dearest to you, or sacrifice them for the greater good? These questions are posed by 2023’s “Godzilla Minus One,” the newest Japanese-language entry in the international franchise that ponders why this monster resonated with postwar Japan. 


It’s a shame that “Godzilla Minus One” came out too late in the year to be on most US critics’ best-of-the-year list, because this was the little-engine-that-could of 2023’s film landscape. It boasts a budget of merely $15 million — miniscule in comparison to the most recent American Godzilla movie, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which cost $170 million. Nevertheless, it atomic-ray blasted American action flicks out of the water in terms of storytelling and cinematography, persuading U.S. audiences to spend a total of $40 million to read subtitles for two hours. The movie spends its modest budget wisely — most of the movie is focused on human drama, making every amphibious entrance and ray blast feel like a true turning point. The sets, faithful recreations of the rubble of postwar Tokyo, feel lived-in and detailed. When Godzilla stomps through the Ginza district, a radio reporter name-checks neighborhood landmarks, making the scene feel less like a kid playing with a plastic dinosaur on a model railroad, and more like the destruction of someone’s hometown. The crowds that flee from ‘Zilla’s massive claws aren’t uniform; they’re made up of individuals: businessmen, moms with kids, people that stumble and need to be helped up. It’s not just the city in danger, director Takashi Yamazaki seems to be saying, it’s thousands of souls, held inside these all-too-fragile shells like a terrarium in a jar. 


Indeed, this thesis — that life is something too precious to gamble with — is the prime mover of the film. From its opening scene, it asks not only how its characters survive, but why. It opens in 1945, with a plane landing on a small island in the Pacific. Kōichi Shikishima (Ryūnosuke Kamiki) has returned from his mission…but he wasn’t supposed to. He’s a kamikaze pilot, and his claims that his plane was faulty are quickly proven false. There’s no time for a court-martial, however, since Godzilla soon emerges from the ocean, heralded like a horseman of the apocalypse by dead deep-sea fish washing up on shore, and wreaks havoc on the small crew of mechanics stationed there. Shikishima returns to Tokyo to find that his ruse was for naught — his parents are dead. He quickly falls in with a plucky orphan, Noriko Ōishi (Minami Hamabe), raising a baby whose parents were killed in an air raid. While working as a minesweeper to support his newfound family, Shikishima and his winnable crew of misfit vets encounter Godzilla again. The creature soon terrorizes the city of Tokyo, killing Noriko in the process. The brains of Shikishima’s minesweeping operation, Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka), comes up with a seemingly improbable plan to kill Godzilla – and not lose a single man in the process – and enlists hundreds of other Navy men to help him. Secretly, Shikishima plans to finish what he couldn’t in the war, flying a bomb-laden plane into Godzilla’s mouth, killing him and the beast. I dare not go on, for fear of spoiling the ending, but rest assured that Godzilla meets an appropriately dramatic fate. 

“Godzilla Minus One” is clearly inspired by “Jaws,” as has been acknowledged in previous write-ups of the film. To be sure, the spine-tingling boat battles and unlikely team of the minesweepers’ rough-hewn skipper with Noda, a bespectacled engineer, certainly reminds one of Great White’s past. That said, the “Jaws” DNA here is mutated, metastasized into something much more epic, on the scale of the titular kaiju. One cannot imagine Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws” screaming in wordless anguish at the faceless force of nature who has taken away his lover, or insisting, in a PTSD-fueled vision, that he died years ago, as Shikishima does multiple times in this movie. The stakes in the film come not just from set dressing — ever-larger cosmic battles, ever-glowier sky beams — but from the relationships built between characters scene after scene. Shikishima and Noriko begin as companions of necessity and develop into life partners. We see their adopted daughter, Akiko, (a downright cherubic Sae Nagatani) grow from an infant to a lively, but troubled toddler. We can imagine the consequences if she were orphaned a second time. While “Godzilla Minus One” is related to action movies like “Jaws” and the other 36 entries in the Godzilla franchise, it also has an air of the theater about it. Scenes end not with dramatic cuts, but fade to black, and the cast holds nothing back in their performances, playing to the back row. 

“Godzilla Minus One” says the quiet part of the “Godzilla” franchise out loud: the oft-repeated aphorism that in America, radiation creates superheroes, while in Japan, it creates monsters. One can certainly draw a parallel with this past summer’s “Oppenheimer,” the release of which was delayed in Japan due to controversy about its supposed flippancy towards the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is nothing cute or sympathetic about this Godzilla. Its scales look like radiation burns, and its hulking mass may as well be war itself. Godzilla, like all monsters, is a black box. Although we are its creators, we don’t know the inner life of a creature like that. We project ourselves onto it, our anxieties and sense of history. It is not for nothing that Shikishima is a former kamikaze pilot, and his allies in fighting the monster fellow veterans. When they slay the dragon, it isn’t just violence, but catharsis, a way to prevent the terror they’ve experienced from touching anyone else. But, we would do well to be reminded that, in our world, there are no real monsters. War is perpetrated by humanity, not by irradiated dinosaurs, and the stakes go far beyond the boundaries of a screen.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *