Despite the decimal of Godzilla Minus One‘s Japenese title, written as -0.1, echoing Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion series, Tōhō’s iconic series has taken a firm step away from the auteur focus that Anno himself brought to 2016’s Shin Godzilla and returned to the journeymen who made the series what it is. To call director Takashi Yamazaki as much a special effects guy as a director would undersell the success he’s had helming 3D (hit) animated movies in the Dragon Quest, Lupin III, and Doraemon series (and he directed a Godzilla theme park ride film). But Minus One, set immediately after World War II, lacks the junky fun of Jun Fukuda or later Ishiro Honda films, and in fact, it bears the stink of seriousness; it’s the most white elephant film in the series — the white ‘zilla if you want a pithy pull quote.
Godzilla (him/her/it)self looks as epic and masculine and boring as they ever have. This writer, for one, misses the cat eyes. But, of course, you have to take the film on its own terms, and the visual effects look undeniably incredible, with more direct interaction between the ground-level human characters and the creature itself than we’ve ever seen before. Many have wondered how this was achieved on a slim $15 million budget, which is something there’s no clear answer to (if Japan’s 2D animation industry is anything to go by, it’s tough to imagine wonderful labor practices had much to do with it, though that’s mere speculation). It also helps that Godzilla doesn’t actually appear all that much more here than they do in one of the cheapo movies, but the balance feels more natural because the human narrative is engaging and well-paced — at least insofar as it never slows down enough to get boring (which was always one of the virtues of the spacious and silly journeymen classics). The script darts from one half-contained section to the next: there’s a whole Jaws riff set on a rickety old boat, where abandoned mines instead of barrels help to locate the underwater beast, and it’s a strong enough stretch to sustain a whole movie. It only lasts about 20 minutes.
In another section, Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a Kamikaze pilot who faked his plane’s malfunction to go on living, and Noriko (Minami Hamabe), a woman who scorns that very survival, end up raising a child whose parents were lost in one of the Allied Forces’ countless civilian bombing campaigns. And like in Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman, the bitter pain and resentment of immediate post-war living slowly builds into love and the reconstruction of the traditional family. This is the emotional center that connects these often-thrilling tangents, and even then this only lasts 30 minutes before a montage ties it up in a bow. The once-fiery Noriko is quickly softened, pacified, and sidelined by motherhood, becoming almost angelic when she all but returns from the dead for a perfect, Rockwellian ending.
But even at this speed, some things manage to slip through the cracks of the film’s slick and overly curated surfaces, moments of unwieldy beauty, like the blue-green of the ocean or the film’s genuine, complex emotional spectrum. Koichi’s survivor’s guilt seems to bleed through his dreams and become Godzilla itself, as if the creature is the manifestation of his personal, and Japan’s collective, death drive. And when he sees what that really means, when he witnesses the massive destruction of Ginza and the (temporary) death of a loved one, his scream seems to carry the pain of an entire nation. This personal approach certainly gives the damage on screen weight, if not quite breadth, but it starts to become problematic by the third act: because Godzilla is such an impossibly large threat, it’s hard to make its defeat feel intimate. All things considered, then, a citizen’s army is probably the next best thing. For reasons completely not worth going into (pure contrivance), neither the occupying American or Japanese governments are willing to fight Godzilla, so the people must come together and the politics of the film really start to show.
There’s a certain illusory criticism of Imperial Japan in one of this new army’s rousing and sappy speeches — which is smothered in the goopy and helplessly self-serious music much of the film is burdened with — ”this country has treated life far too cheaply,” a scientist with an absurd plan to kill Godzilla reflects. And while it’s easy to agree that sending soldiers like Koichi to kill themselves for a doomed war effort is objectively bad, the film goes no further than that conclusion: when they say life, they mean Japanese life and Japanese life alone, and it’s not the method itself that’s the problem, since Koichi will send himself to almost-certain death before the Kaiju is bested. Anything beyond this mildly stated criticism of the government’s disregard for its own people goes unmentioned, and there’s certainly no hint toward the massive war crimes they just committed. We’re left only to conclude that the real problem is that the Empire wasn’t effective enough; that it lost.
Godzilla becomes the perfect excuse for remilitarization — a talking point of the Japanese right since American occupation — and less an outlet for a Rambo-like revenge against a re-imagined occupier or a dirge for a pre-bomb world than a way for the Japanese people to rise above the shame of defeat (thereby mostly ignoring horrors of the occupation) and side-step an empire that failed to live up to their nobility and strength (continuing its project mostly uninterrupted). It’s no more jingoistic than the average American military movie, sure, but those deserve all the criticism leveled against them, too.
On paper, the handsomely mounted and emotionally charged Minus One might be the best Godzilla movie in nearly 70 years, but in practice, it’s something much less. That’s not to overstate the revolutionary potential of the rest of the series, nor locate their virtues only within politics, but if Koichi and the citizen-soldier had built the Oxygen Destroyer — which in the 1954 original had to be destroyed once Godzilla was defeated because no man could be trusted with such power — it’s hard to imagine the film would have trouble letting them keep it for another day; for the next mission. In All Monsters Attack, the escapism of Godzilla helped a lonely young boy see something beyond the sad state that surrounded him, but in Godzilla Minus One the escapism becomes a militaristic wet dream of power and destruction; a fantasy world where Japan can reassert their might with perfect justification.
DIRECTOR: Takashi Yamazaki; CAST: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki Yamada, Munetaka Aoki; DISTRIBUTOR: Tôhô International; IN THEATERS: December 1; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 5 min.