Godzilla Minus the United States

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Written By Pinang Driod

Thirty minutes into Godzilla Minus One, the 33rd film in Japan’s most famous movie series and the first to be nominated for an Oscar, the writer-director Takashi Yamazaki throws the equivalent of a historical-revisionist curveball. Whizzing by in less than 60 seconds, a black-and-white montage flashes at us with the urgent impatience of a newsreel cut for TikTok—classified documents and nautical charts, blipping radar screens and faceless military personnel set to a garbled, quasi-unintelligible voice-over in English and Japanese—all to deliver a jarring message that is nonetheless bracingly clear.

A giant, irradiated monster is racing across the seas toward the Japanese archipelago, slicing through American naval destroyers and sending military-grade Geiger counters into overdrive. The United States is not coming to Japan’s defense—quite the contrary: Toward the end of the newsreel barrage, we see General Douglas MacArthur’s official signature on a Dear John letter followed by grainy footage of the man himself, regally saluting his way down the steps of U.S. occupation headquarters in Tokyo, urging Japan “to begin strengthening its security forces” as he scrambles out of Dodge.

Back in the real world, at the time this imaginary event takes place, 1946–47, the Americans were two years into their seven-year occupation of Japan. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the so-called Tokyo Trials) was under way, and U.S. military and civilian personnel, not to mention other non-Japanese nationals from the Allied nations, would have been impossible to miss in the streets of Tokyo. But just as the Japanese were absent from Oppenheimer, the Americans have next to no place in Godzilla. History is rewritten to meet the emotional needs of the present: a 21st-century Japan called upon to defend itself against regional threats but unsure of its modern identity without the example, however distorted, of its formerly reliable American role models.

From the point of the montage on, the American presence, aside from a dangling Tokyo PX sign, is erased from the story of Godzilla Minus One, and Yamazaki focuses his populist lens on a ragtag group of Japanese civilians, engineers, and former soldiers, and his mopey, self-pitying hero, Koichi Shikishima, whose surname is also an ancient poetic term that once literally meant “Japan.” A failed kamikaze fighter pilot and an accidental family man suffering a very contemporary crisis of masculinity, Shikishima is an action hero so paralyzed by his fear of commitment that he can barely take any action at all. The absence of the United States as victor, ally, and protector lays Shikishima’s predicament bare. His parents are dead; his neighbor, calling him a “coward,” reminds him that he should be too. Yet he lacks the ego and agency of the rugged individualist. He is inconsolably alone.

After Japan’s surrender, Shikishima tours the charred remains of his firebombed Tokyo neighborhood, leveled by U.S. air raids. His matronly neighbor chastises him for failing his military duty, and a single young woman named Noriko persuades him to become the guardian of an orphaned baby girl she is raising. Later, he runs through an exquisitely detailed Ginza shopping district, about to be ravaged by Godzilla’s atomic breath, and Noriko risks her own life to save his.

Amid these up-to-date plotlines, the film also calls back, often explicitly, to the 1954 original and the time in which it was set. It revisits the fictional Oda Island of the first Godzilla movie. Close-up shots of burned and dilapidated shacks in Tokyo suggest (inaccurately) that the entire country is homeless. Decommissioned Imperial Army soldiers huddle together in their drab uniforms, shivering and grim. Food is scarce, black markets chaotic, rain constant. Documentary-style time cards enhance the illusion of historical veracity, and the Ginza scenes, in which Godzilla masticates a train car and crushes buildings with his tail, are particularly striking in their sepia hues and architectural specificity, reenacting some scenes from the first movie beat for beat.

One might guess that Japanese audiences wouldn’t want to revisit scenes of postwar impoverishment, and for some older viewers especially, this may be true. But Yamazaki, famous domestically for romanticizing Japan’s economic rebirth in his popular Always: Sunset on Third Street trilogy (in which Godzilla makes a cameo), has found a way to excavate his audience’s nostalgia with a portrait of a makeshift family and community spirit in the face of adversity. These themes are powerfully suggestive in a country that now has among the lowest marriage and birth rates in the world and a rapidly plummeting population, and whose American-built ruling party, dominant for 65 of the past 69 years, lurches from scandal to scandal. As the years turn in the film, brightening skies and wider shots are reminders of what then lay just beyond the horizon: dizzying growth rather than annual shrinkage.

The depiction of America abandoning a Japan in crisis speaks directly to Japanese anxieties today. As both China and North Korea grow more bellicose, Japan is rejiggering its pacifist policies and heeding the movie MacArthur’s call to beef up its defenses. Last month, the cabinet rubber-stamped a record 16 percent increase in the country’s military budget and rescinded a postwar ban on exporting lethal weapons.

Despite hosting the largest number of American troops in the world outside the United States by a wide margin and paying 75 percent of the bills for their presence (notwithstanding one former U.S. president’s complaints), many Japanese are losing trust in America’s willingness to defend them from attack. In a 2022 survey, just 51 percent of Japanese respondents said they thought the U.S. would defend Japan in the event of Chinese belligerence, and only slightly more (64 percent) if the heat came from North Korea, numbers that are likely lower now, after prolonged U.S. inaction in Ukraine and Gaza. (Trust in the U.S. has eroded even further in Taiwan.)

The unreliability of America in the film’s revisionist Japanese history dovetails with the portrait of the indecisive Shikishima—an early name not only for Japan itself but also for one of the nation’s first two battleships, built by the British in the 19th century and scrapped in 1948. He is the very model of a modern major manboy, emblematic of what the Japanese media have labeled soshoku danshi—grass-eating or herbivore men, young males uninterested in sex, marriage, ambition, or competition, content instead to graze.

Knowing the ruthless and often violent hierarchical rigidity ascribed to Japan’s Imperial military, I had to suppress a chuckle when Shikishima has his first meltdown, stomping off like an emo teenager after a mechanic named Tachibana calls out the first of his lies—a ruse about his plane malfunctioning so that he can ditch his suicide mission. I expected Shikishima to strike Tachibana or prepare to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, in protest and rage, but instead he marches away indignantly, sits on a rock, and stares out to sea. In fact, a series of outbursts punctuate Shikishima’s character arc from hopeless to heroic. He’s upset when one of his colleagues urges him to marry Noriko and embrace family life, pounding the table and petulantly shouting, “I don’t want that!” He furrows his brow a lot, haunted by a sheaf of photos bearing images of the dead mechanics’ families. Nightmares about Godzilla cause him to shoot up from his futon and roll around on the tatami floor. Poor Noriko, a working woman who, like more than 80 percent of women her age in today’s Japan, is helping pay the household’s bills, rushes to his side, enjoining him to “live” and basically get over it.

Shikishima’s self-absorption wore down my sympathies, and I think it was meant to. In the postwar era of the film’s setting, most Japanese, including my now 85-year-old Japanese mother, were struggling to survive, willing themselves to be pragmatic, to forget the miseries of the recent past and rely upon native values rooted in gaman, or the ability to endure, whatever one’s circumstances. By contrast, Shikishima seems like a creature of a later era who puts his own welfare before the needs of others.

In order to get his way, Shikishima lies twice, both times to Tachibana, who actually knows how to fix things and, in the end, saves the pilot’s life. The closing scene of Minus One shows Shikishima sobbing at the sight of the hospitalized Noriko, who managed to survive Godzilla’s radioactive beam but whose skin shows ominous signs of contamination. “Is your war finally over?” she asks him before he kneels at her bedside, releasing the hand of the adopted daughter he grudgingly agreed to co-parent while refusing to commit to marriage or the semblance of family life. As Shikishima weeps, burying his face in Noriko’s belly, she gazes down dry-eyed at the top of his head with a look of unmitigated pity.

In short: Top Gun this ain’t. Nor is it the Godzilla of 1954, in which the protagonist, a scientist with plenty to lose, dies by suicide in order to both silence the monster and save the world from the destructive technologies he unleashed to do it. Instead, in Minus One, a citizen-scientist tries to rouse his fellow civilians to fight a new war “that sacrifices no lives at all”; the national government has gone AWOL (dismissed several times as having failed the people, not a single public official appears in this film); and Japan’s big-brother American ally is indifferent or preoccupied. The remorseful hero, whose main goal all along was self-preservation, has no time to bask in the glory of having, maybe, saved the day. There are no wingman high fives. Pointedly, Noriko doesn’t even bother to thank him.

Japan’s Godzilla has evolved many times over, from a symbol of nuclear weaponry gone awry, to a protector of Japan, to a cuddly kid’s toy, to what it has become today: a monstrous conduit channeling the fears and yearnings of its audience. The latest movie’s final frames take the viewer deep beneath the surface of the ocean, where a fragment of Godzilla’s disintegrated body is blister-bubbling back to life—toxicity regenerating in the murk. Japan’s next war? China? North Korea? Whatever the threat may be, Minus One is a sly portrait of a people currently unprepared materially or emotionally to face it down.

Roland Kelts is a Japanese-American writer and visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. and The Art of Blade Runner: Black Lotus.

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