In 1954, the original Godzilla premiered in a newly autonomous Japan, only recently emerging from seven years of U.S. military occupation. In 2016, Shin Godzilla premiered in a Japan still reeling from the 2011 Fukushima Daichi disaster.
And, now, in our current year of 2023, Godzilla Minus One has premiered, reverting the setting to a decade before the original even existed. There are quite a few differences between these films – not least of which being that Godzilla and Shin Godzilla are highly contemporaneous masterpieces, and Godzilla Minus One… isn’t.
The first theatrical live-action Godzilla film from Japan in seven years, Godzilla Minus One does have a very interesting concept going for it. The movie, timed for release alongside Godzilla’s 70th anniversary, is set in the very early aftermath of World War II. The long-running Godzilla series, eternal king amongst the kaiju monster franchises, has always featured Japan being subjected to various forms of destruction.
Minus One asks, what if Japan was already at its lowest point… and then was forced even lower? Hence the early postwar setting amidst bombed-out rubble, with a society barely emerged from apocalyptic defeat faced with even more ruin.
The problem is that despite the interesting risks it takes, Minus One still collides head-on into the two most hoary of Godzilla stumbling blocks: poor characterization of human leads, and, tragically, just not enough of the King of Monsters himself. Sadly, the movie adds a new failing into the Godzilla wheelhouse: being a poor period piece. Compared to its immediate Japanese predecessor, the timely and highly memorable Shin Godzilla, Minus One just can’t help but feel like a lesser entry.
Godzilla Minus One, Plus the Zero Fighter
The film’s plot centers around failed kamikaze pilot Shikishima (Kamiki Ryūnosuke). We meet him in the final days of Japan’s doomed attempt to stave off defeat in World War II. He’s landed his fighter plane on a small island near Tokyo Bay, having feigned engine problems to get out of the final flight that tended to be an unavoidable occupational hazard for those in the kamikaze. Shikishima has clear signs of PTSD, which isn’t helped by the traumatic experience of encountering a small (as in only three-story-tall), pre-irradiation Godzilla, who goes about massacring the imperial military garrison on the island.
Shikishima survives the incident, but Godzilla continues to haunt his dreams upon our protagonist’s return to the burnt-out shell of Tokyo. He attempts to make a life in the rubble of the nation he was meant to give his life for. Then, a newly embiggened Godzilla returns to attack the already-battered Japanese mainland. Will Shikishima have a chance at redemption when faced with his greatest nightmare?
This setting, in the bombed-out desolation of early post-war Tokyo, is Minus One‘s best aspect. The sheer desolation of the early post-war is well portrayed; soldiers who survived the war find they have no one to come home to. Shikishima is left living in a space that could charitably be described as a hovel. He feels completely hopeless; this reflects the reality of Japan immediately after its unconditional capitulation. Many Japanese citizens, bereft of purpose after decades of being subject to intense propaganda, were left in a state called kyodatsu (虚脱) – utter despondency.
Our cast of characters lives in an environment that reflects that desperation, existing amongst shattered concrete, subsisting from bustling black markets that have replaced formalized infrastructure. As time goes by, we see the environment evolve, taking on slight signs of recovery – but still far from a complete return to normalcy.
Acting the Part
A few issues serve to poke holes in the immersive period setting, however.
The first is that none of the cast really feel like they belong in 1945. Despite some big-name actors, (mega-popular Hamabe Minami in a thankless role, the great Ando Sakura doing her best as a bereaved neighbor) our leads all deliver performances that I can only describe as highly cheesy; not in a throwback 1940s sense, mind you, but rather in a more modern, nuance-less form of overacting.
There is no lack of sudden bouts of screaming and overwrought shaking, nor of guileless, gee-wiz smiles and false-ringing comradery. I’m sad to report that lead Kamiki Ryūnosuke comes out among the worst in this aspect. There are moments here where the acting makes the movie unintentionally funny. (A bit of an issue in a film almost completely lacking in purposeful levity.)
Anno Hideaki’s Shin Godzilla (2016) had some stilted acting itself. But that was a more stylized movie. There is very little in terms of style here, beyond a drab “post-war” grey-and-orange filter. The acting continually breaks immersion. Because this movie consists of so, so many scenes of human drama, this is an especially egregious issue. This is unfortunate since Kamiki is given a character arc which, on paper, should be interesting, but the execution is plodding and obvious – yet still overlong.
(Length is another issue for this film. At 125 minutes, it’s among the longest Godzilla films ever. It could easily have been half an hour shorter.)
An Occupation without Occupiers
The other issue is more of a direct failing of the period setting. The movie takes place in 1945-1947; in other words, directly in the midst of the US-administered Occupation of Japan. And yet, I did not spot a single US GI uniform. The only time an occupation official appears on screen is when Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur is referred to via awkward newsreel footage.
In real life, Tokyo was swarming with US GIs. They were an unmistakable part of life in occupied Japan, an ever-present symbol of Japan’s defeat and submission to a foreign power. English signage was everywhere, although none is to be seen in this movie. The presence of US military personnel impacted everything from the nightlife districts to the military surplus illegally available in the numerous black markets near major train stations.
Godzilla Minus One barely gives more than lip service to one of the most important aspects of Occupation life; Godzilla destroys some American ships off-screen. The defense of Japan is left to the Japanese civilian government and a cadre of ex-navy officers – something that’s historically ridiculous, given how completely disempowered Japan was at the time. Isn’t that the entire point of a setting like this?
Of course, there are two reasons for this treatment. One is practical, the other narrative. Hiring foreign-appearing actors requires effort and capital. Despite a large roster of foreign-born actors in Japan, most Japanese films skip the process of bringing on foreigners for most roles, even when their presence would make sense.
(Just look at the fully Japanese cast portraying time-traveling ancient Romans in 2012’s Thermae Romae. For an alternative, see Shin Godzilla, where the phonetically memorized English of an American main character is often cited as one of the film’s low points. Regarding the experience, actor Ishihara Satomi said “Sometimes it’s so frustrating, I just wanted to cry.”)
Yamato-damashii in Action
Narratively, however, this is a film about Japanese characters overcoming material and spiritual defeat as a stand-in for the nation as a whole.
Most of the primaries are former imperial military personnel. They find themselves cheerfully defending Japan, using relics from the shuttered military and a can-do spirit to achieve what they failed to do in wartime. The focus is entirely on Japan’s perception of inward devastation and recovery.
The American military, architects of that defeat and overlords during the film’s historical setting, are an unseen presence. It’s barely commented on that it’s the US’s nuclear testing that brings about the film’s motivating threat. Shin Godzilla remains a much more pointedly critical film when it comes to the US-Japan relationship. (And a more meaningful portrayal, I’ll add.)
In a way, the ambiguous presence of the Occupation harkens back to the actual films of Japan’s 1940s. In contemporary Occupation-era movies, you’d hardly ever see a GI or a foreign-appearing face. Movies went through SCAP censors before hitting cinemas and had to reflect the policies of Occupation HQ. The presence of GIs on screen was thought to bring up negative feelings, so they were omitted.
Films that commented on the sorry state of post-war Japan would have to reference the US military by way of omission. Kurosawa Akira’s 1948 yakuza flick Drunken Angel (醉いどれ天使) is a good example of this.
In Godzilla Minus One, the omission just makes the setting feel incomplete. This is a movie that some will view as nationalistic; while characters criticize the unfeeling former military government, which sacrificed so many soldiers for naught, it also features a kamikaze plane as the ultimate expression of the Japanese spirit. The film seems to say that the spirit was in the right place, but should be tempered by a greater appreciation for life. The former military government and the Occupation hover in the background, remarked on but essentially non-entities. And Godzilla himself? He’s not that different.
Not All It Could Be
I haven’t written too much about Godzilla himself, because he doesn’t seem to be in all that much of the film. The few scenes we get are memorable; Godzilla is overwhelmingly powerful, menacing our characters in a fairly satisfying way. He looks pretty good on screen, at least in most of his scenes. Depictions of Godzilla smashing WWII-era naval ships and destroying post-war Ginza make for an enjoyable spectacle.
Sadly, I have a hard time avoiding comparisons to Shin Godzilla. The Godzilla in that film was truly terrifying; his swath of destruction much greater and more impactful. The monster also received much more attention and drove almost all the on-screen drama. Godzilla is at the center of Shin Godzilla, but really takes a backseat in this film. Here, we don’t even get to see Godzilla come on shore during his first incursion – he’s just suddenly in Ginza. The character’s actions around him are also improbable and a bit silly.
But the comparison is most damning when it comes to the actual meaning of the film. As a standalone Godzilla movie, Minus One misses out on the thematic relevancy that makes Godzilla (1954) and Shin Godzilla (2016) enduring classics. Both use the kaiju as a visually arresting metaphor for the great worries of their respective periods. In 1954, the anxiety of nuclear testing and of slipping back into the oh-so-recent devastation of war. In 2016, of bureaucratic inaction and outright failure in the face of a new nuclear disaster.
Minus One seems to say, “Get over your trauma, Japan! Embrace what makes our country great and rise above!” But by steeping the film in the post-war period, all sense of timeliness is lost. We’re left with an overlong monster movie with poorly executed drama, some nice visuals, and a decent central monster.
But meaty central themes? There’s not much to sink your teeth into in Godzilla Minus One.
What to Read Next:
 Ragone, August. (September 22, 2015). “Next Godzilla Now Entitled “Shin Godzilla” Toho Announces Three Principal Cast Members!”. The Good, The Bad, and Godzilla.
Occupied Japan 1945 – 1952: Gender, Class, Race. Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
Dower, John. (1999). Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II. Penguin Books.