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Have a Heart (and an Atom Bomb): Four Lessons From ‘Godzilla Minus One’

The Toho production is the sleeper hit of the season—and a critical sensation, too. What separates it from the giant-lizard stories we’ve telling stateside? And what can other popcorn flicks learn from it?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Years before the director Ishiro Honda started work on a low-budget Japanese horror film starring a giant, isotope-spewing lizard, he hiked with the Western allied powers through the wreckage of imperial Japan’s brutal atomic collision, in the charred city of Hiroshima. He had heard of the Bomb but he had not seen it. A veteran of three tours of duty in the Japanese Imperial Army, Honda spent the last six months of World War II in a prisoner of war camp in northern China. He’d witnessed first-hand the toll of the conflict in human lives—millions dead, hundreds of thousands missing and wounded—but information was as scarce in captivity as comfort.

When the war ended he was repatriated to occupied Japan, by route of nuclear ground zero. What Honda found—upon the land, in the rivers, among the city’s depleted citizenry and the nation’s collective psyche––was a world’s worth of scars not unlike the imprint of clothing which had been seared onto victims of the bomb. He saw, and never stopped seeing, the battle after the war. The fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were stanched. The embers were not.

Godzilla, the film that Honda would go on to direct less than a decade later, was a movie built as a reminder of the cost attached to nuclear power. It was also very DIY, and I mean that in the best ways possible. (The lizard was a man in a ready-mixed concrete suit.) While immensely rough, the creature’s appearance was a collective endeavor between director and crew with a common aim: “I wanted,” Honda admitted years later, “to make radiation visible.” Thirty-six sequels later, the most recent and most nostalgic entry in the franchise, Godzilla Minus One, has managed to strike U.S. box-office gold and earn word-of-mouth praise, while holding on to its political roots.

Directed by the filmmaker and VFX maestro Takashi Yamazaki, Minus One takes place in the immediate aftermath of the second World War, following Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a one-time kamikaze pilot haunted both by his decision to not sacrifice himself in combat and his inability to confront the titular green reptile. After failing to stave off Godzilla’s attack of a military installation on the fictional island of Ono, Shikishima finds himself caught between his remorse over the wartime death of his loved ones, his desire to protect his newfound family, and his shame over fleeing his martial duties.

Debuting in Japan in October, the film arrived in the U.S. on December 1 for what was supposed to be a limited theatrical run. As of December 11, Minus One has pulled in $26 million in American theaters and continues to have its run extended and expanded. That all of this has occurred on a relatively shoestring budget and without an extensive U.S. marketing campaign puts the film in perhaps the rarest of positions in a post-streaming theatrical marketplace: a genuine, diamond-in-the-rough hit. (And a hit with critics, too: As of publishing time, Minus One sits at 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, better than Oscar favorites like Killers of the Flower Moon and Oppenheimer, and good enough to be the highest-rated entry in the long Godzilla canon.)

The film, which is as much a story of survivor’s guilt and identity as it is about a prehistoric, raging lizard, is the best in a wave of kaiju-related international releases—most of which have been produced by the U.S. studio Legendary Pictures. (Toho Studios, the original home for the franchise, has a licensing agreement with Legendary, limiting the Tokyo production house from releasing any Godzilla projects in the same year as the big-budget American company.) As an unabashed fan of movies with CGI budgets in the hundreds of millions, and dialogue like, “is that a monkey,” even I would admit that the output has been not-so-stellar lately. American producers could stand to learn more than a few things from Minus One’s strengths and its willingness to look back—especially since they insist on force-feeding us more interspecies, buddy-cop sequels. Here’s a few do’s and don’ts:

1. No More Pocket Watching

Minus One works not only because of its intent, but also because of its lack of world-box-office-dominating intention. At its core, it’s a film that’s fluent in the language of American spectacle with ambitions to go beyond it. Leading up to the movie’s release, Yamazaki spoke openly about the ways in which a blockbuster flick like Jaws (which Minus One does a pretty decent impersonation of at times)—or even a crossover darling like Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke—was a guiding light in building a narrative with the right amount of propulsion without over-relying on bloated set pieces. These are films that made a shitload of money partly in spite of their artistic compasses.

Minus One is not a movie about kaiju formulated to pad seat totals; it is a kaiju movie about people, and—much the same as the ’54 film—those people are not Americans. The history of Godzilla films being rearranged, diluted, and generally proffered in an attempt to attract U.S. audiences is practically as old as the character. When the original picture finally made it over to the States it was renamed King of the Monsters in a ploy to link it to the already-established IP of King Kong (who I now realize coasts on counting stats and opposable thumbs). It was reorganized around the flashbacks of a white American journalist played by the first Perry Mason and practically stripped of its explicit critiques of nuclear proliferation. It worked, but at what costs? Minus One—in part because of the expansion in popularity of anime, and in part because internment is decades and not years away—isn’t just avoiding that fate, it’s showing the fallacy in it to begin with.

2. Stop Trying to Make Fetch a Thing

Minus One isn’t the first Godzilla film with a bunch of callbacks to the original movie, but it’s one of the few that manages to incorporate them without losing its own identity. From the start of the picture, where we see footage of the real-life Bikini Atoll nuclear-testing site in the Marshall Islands, it’s clear that Minus One isn’t afraid to be viewed as an atomic allegory. (The culmination of Godzilla’s blue ray in the film is a literal mushroom cloud.) While promoting the movie, Yamazaki has said, “Out of all the Godzillas there have been throughout the years … my favorite is still the original from the very first movie.” He’s running toward the comparisons.

What helps Minus One stick the landing is that it engages with the roots of the franchise without merely retreading old ground. Where Honda’s Godzilla used genre to shroud a commentary on nuclear proliferation, Yamazaki’s movie (like 2016’s Shin Godzilla) updates and retrofits the message. A nod to the documentary-style journalism of the first film coexists with a knotty, multi-act wrestling match with Japanese post-war masculinity, or a sly, nuanced depiction of communal PTSD. The defining feature of Minus One, the thing that links the old with the new, is its general inclination toward probing the interpersonal relationships of its characters in ways that both the originals and the American remakes don’t even consider doing.

3. More Lizard Badassery

There is the scene in which the lizard literally swallows a grown man in a half bite; the one in which the lizard chucks an aircraft carrier like a K-9 on Adderall; the part in which the lizard flicks a single train car onto a high rail platform like a toothpick; the moment when the lizard takes at least seven shots from various tanks and then keeps on trucking like he’s a college-aged uncle/cousin/sibling taking Nerf gun fire like a champ.

We have not mentioned that he gets a literal mine thrown under his tongue, has half of his cerebellum Jackson Pollock’ed like Scratchy, then regrows it and gives them the “and I took that personally…” glare. Or the fact that folks try to pop him like a balloon at the bottom of the ocean but can’t because he’s not fucking leaving. Descriptors for Godzilla in Minus One include but are not limited to: snarling, jagged, bloody, angry, scary, inflamed, snarling again, crystalline, elemental, and a force of nature. That brother’s starving.

4. Take a Swing (and Knock Down a Few Buildings While You’re At It)

Probably my favorite part of Minus One is how it manages, at once, to take itself both incredibly seriously and not too seriously to be entertaining throughout. Is it a period piece about personal regret and communal grief? What about a claymation semi-aquatic thriller? How can you affirm the innate value of human life and show a naval officer being disemboweled?

To really sink into the movie is to hold yourself in a state suspended between reality and surreality. Task-oriented plot mechanics exist next to veiled references to Shintoism, and it all blends perfectly (let the liquor tell it). What we’ve got is a movie that’s a little extra, more than a bit heady, and inescapably soapy at times—which I tend to think a story about a reptile with atomic breath shouldn’t be above. It works because it doesn’t—except of course when it does.