Picture credit: JC Olivera/Getty Images for Toho Co.
Artillery Row

Enjoyable destruction

Godzilla Minus One may not be especially profound but it is great fun

After several “event” films that have pretended to have more significance than they’ve delivered, along comes one that pretends to be less. Godzilla Minus One is a monster movie, which means it’s not serious, but it is both more enjoyable and has more to say than most of the year’s rather longer offerings from Our Greatest Living Directors.

The Japanese film industry created Godzilla as the country wrestled with the meaning of defeat in World War II. What exactly the giant monster was a metaphor for was always ambiguous, but the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was definitely part of it — Godzilla feeds off nuclear radiation and delivers sudden, indiscriminate destruction. 

Westerners of my generation encountered him as a children’s cartoon, accompanied by his cuddlier nephew Godzooky, a sort of reptilian Scooby Doo. But there have been a series of attempts to Hollywoodise him. In 1998, Matthew Broderick starred in a sort of Ferris Bueller’s Godzilla. The hunt for unexploited intellectual properties that has defined the movie industry in recent years has seen three more films, with another due next year. There is an Apple TV series too.

I can’t comment on the television show, but the films share a quality of incredible forgettability. I’ve probably seen them all twice — I have children — and I would struggle to tell you anything about the plot or cast. The fight scenes — generally Godzilla is taking on another monster, for some reason — are full of explosions and collapsing buildings, but it has that computer-generated quality that, although it looks completely real, feels utterly uninvolving. 

Godzilla Minus One sees Japan take its monster back, and the result is marvellous. The film is set in the immediate aftermath of the war, as the people of a ravaged Tokyo wrestle with the shame and horror of military defeat. Now they realise they face more devastation as the monstrous Godzilla bears down upon them. Why? They don’t know. He is simply a force of nature. 

The usual rule with monsters in films is that the audience should be kept from seeing them in all their glory for as long as possible. Only brief glimpses, as when the shark emerges for a second from the sea in Jaws, are allowed. In the 2014 American Godzilla, it’s a full hour before he appears on screen. Here, it takes just four minutes. Perhaps that’s because he isn’t the real enemy. 

The film instead shows a Japanese people let down by their leaders, who took them into a war that destroyed their country, and warped by a culture that celebrated death. The central character, Koichi, is a kamikaze pilot who lacked the courage to carry out his mission. His shame at having lived prevents him from enjoying the life that he clung onto. The approach of Godzilla forces the ordinary people to come together. Meanwhile Koichi sees a chance to redeem himself.

There is little that is profound here, but it is all great fun. A few years ago younger audiences might have baulked at a Japanese film with subtitles, but today’s teenagers have all seen Squid Game. The reality is that Godzilla is as distinctively Japanese as Superman is American. Somehow, it just works better when he’s laying waste to Tokyo.

And in many ways, it rises above other more “important” films. Unlike Oppenheimer, it confronts the impact of American bombing on Japan. Unlike Napoleon, its battle sequences don’t feel cramped. Unlike Killers of the Flower Moon, it is a pleasure to watch. And unlike all of them, it’s only two hours long.

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