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Back to the roots of Godzilla

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By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

Movie ReviewGodzilla Minus OneDirected by Takashi YamazakiNow showing on Netflix

THE GODZILLA franchise often goes off on ideas like “what if the big guy meets this monster?” or “what if he ends up wrecking this city?” — all fun and awesome to behold — but Godzilla Minus One shows it doesn’t always have to be the case. It thrills on an entirely different level, with a return to the context from which the character was born: the visceral trauma of postwar Japan.

While Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla and Hideaki Anno’s 2016 Shin Godzilla have each done heavy lifting to bring the iconic monster to a new generation, Godzilla Minus One introduces the monstrous terror in a manner most similar to that of the original 1954 Ishiro Honda classic.

The crux of the movie is the devastated, traumatized characters who survive a harrowing war only to face a threat they’re not sure they can even fight.

The story kicks off on Odo Island, on a fateful night in 1945, towards the end of World War II. While repairs are being done to the airplane of kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (played with a striking vulnerability by Ryunosuke Kamiki), the camp of mechanics is suddenly terrorized by a gargantuan creature the locals have named Godzilla.

Shikishima, the only pilot there qualified to shoot at the monster, fails to do so out of fear. Most of the mechanics subsequently die as Godzilla goes on a rampage, the other survivor being engineer Tachibana (played by Munetaka Aoki). Shikishima’s guilt and trauma plague him for the rest of the film, even as he returns to Tokyo and rebuilds his life.

His found family, all having lost loved ones in air raids, band together to form a sense of normalcy amid the country’s war-torn aftermath. The supporting cast is decent: the young woman Noriko (Minami Hamabe), the orphan she took under her wing, Akiko (Sae Nagatani), and the neighbor Sumiko (Sakura Ando) who helps the budding couple care for the child. The crew Shikishima joins to clear magnetic mines at sea become close friends — naval weaponry expert Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka), boat captain Akitsu (Kuranosuke Sasaki), and young crewman Mizushima (Yuki Yamada).

However, it would be a disservice not to acknowledge the character that looms the largest. Godzilla, brought to life by an Oscar-winning visual effects team (including director Yamazaki himself) is crafted with modern technology yet resembles the 1950s look which was made with miniatures. He shows no emotion nor judgment and anchors the personal and national traumas and sociopolitical tensions all throughout. To suddenly be faced with a purely malevolent force, all jagged teeth and (sometimes glowing) ridges and animalistic eyes, a representation of the terrors man hath wrought, is horrific. It is simply one of the coolest Godzilla character designs rendered onscreen.

Japan is at a precarious spot, too — it must lie low and most of the weapons it once had have been decommissioned, so its people, haunted by war, are now terrorized by its consequences. The rampage in Ginza in particular is insane to watch, most breathtaking when Godzilla uses his atomic breath to decimate the district.

Many have pointed out that Godzilla Minus One would be an excellent double feature with the Christopher Nolan-directed Oppenheimer which also came out last year. Not only does it show the opposite end of the war to end all wars, but it also reckons with the guilt, hopelessness, and destruction brought about by the folly of man. Both films do this brilliantly, in different ways, nuclear paranoia reaching out from one society to the next (though only one of them is an epic monster movie!).

In Shikishima, we see a self-professed “internal war” keeping him from completely moving on with his newfound family. The gigantic task of confronting his cowardice and failures comes in the form of Godzilla, though of course this is something that can’t be done alone. The penchant of Japanese movies and TV to emotively highlight the power of working together comes in at full force in this film, but the ingenuity of the plan they hatch to take down Godzilla is so fascinating to watch (plus the ensuing terrific visual effects that follow) that the schmaltz doesn’t distract too much. Naoki Sato’s tremendous score highlights the serious emotional impact of the collective efforts to fight.

It’s been 80 years since the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan, and the distance from that event has allowed for this affecting take on how it changed the Japanese mindset. Without spoiling the movie, it posits that the long-held belief that one must sacrifice one’s life for others has given way to the more modern belief that one must instead live for others. It also has a cool scene where the Japanese remorsefully salute the tragic consequences that mutated from humanity’s mistakes.

Perhaps a major frustration I have is the fact that Godzilla Minus One never got a theatrical release in Southeast Asia. It’s a massive picture that has much to offer visually and narratively, and it’s a shame Southeast Asians didn’t get to experience that on the big screen. While the reasons for Toho Studios’ limited release are unknown, many speculate it’s because the film sympathizes with the Japanese military and includes no mention of its invasion across Asia, something that might not sit right with that country’s former victims. That said, the fact that Oppenheimer was ultimately screened in Japan makes this reason silly (and sad if true, since we all know history is something to learn from, not shy away from).

A more practical reason is that it might have been blocked from being released too close to yet another Godzilla movie — Adam Wingard’s Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. Butagain, this reason is very silly. People have space for both a fun giant lizard-giant monkey romp and a serious postwar tragedy in their lives.

Finally, a lame reason could be that Toho, an old-fashioned Japanese industry juggernaut that has long prioritized local over international success, may have just reveled in the Western acclaim, thought that was enough, and called it a day (a crime, if we’re being honest). Whichever the real reason is, it’s their loss for choosing not to make more money.

Many milestones were marked by this movie. It is a return to form, akin to how old kaiju (monster) flicks over the decades showed how people suffer due to decisions made by the greedy and powerful, as much as they showed giant monsters battling it out. It celebrated the 70th anniversary of the film franchise and its first Oscar win in any category, reaffirming the relevance of the Godzilla character even today, a lifetime after World War II ended and the mushroom clouds dissipated in the wind. The cultural impact is undeniable.

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