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The Hill
The Hill
5 Jan 2024
Donald Kirk, opinion contributor

NextImg:‘Godzilla Minus One’: A monster of America’s making 

The Japanese film “Godzilla Minus One” is more than just another Godzilla film. Sure, it’s got all the familiar action — the scenes of crushing terror, the drama of a monster from the sea destroying everything within reach of its powerful jaw and claws — but it also contains a message that might be missed amid the realistic portrayals of urban destruction after the American fire-bombing of Tokyo and the Japanese surrender. 

Not a single American appeared in the film other than one historic image of World War II conquering general Douglas MacArthur.  

Aside from Japan saying America is wary of upsetting the Soviet Union by sending its ships and planes after the monster, the Yanks are hardly mentioned. The Japanese people, however, are shown aboard old warships, wearing familiar war-time uniforms, and heroically challenging the monster in dangerous high seas. 

It becomes clear that the people of Japan are battling the monster on its own. There’s no sign of either their own government or of the American occupation force that ruled the proud nation from the time of Japan’s defeat in August 1945 to the signing of the treaty at San Francisco nearly seven years later.  

These brave men have resolved to conquer the monster not only free of the strictures of their rigid bureaucracy, beholden as it was to the Americans, but also unfettered by MacArthur’s Supreme Command of Allied Powers. No Americans are shown saying a word about Godzilla, much less confronting the monster. No U.S. military policemen are giving orders in the wreckage of Tokyo, and no Americans are visible elsewhere as the monster strides ponderously ashore, picking up railroad cars, trampling over buildings, hurling people hither and yon. 

There’s a point here. Having sprung to life in the American atom-bomb testing on Bikini Atoll in 1946, the monster is imbued with the means to smite all in its path by the nuclear heat waves Godzilla endures, as a symbol of the same nuclear power that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.  

The film does not openly mention this humiliation. There is no need to remind viewers of Emperor Hirohito’s intensely moving, patriotic surrender message, calling for “a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”   

Director and writer Takashi Yamazaki studiously avoids overt traces of propaganda. Viewers might miss the nationalist, almost ethnocentric portrayal of post-war Japan. Unbowed, never in the throes of American rule, the Japanese people overcome all hardships. Logically, the story switches from the modest home in which a woman nurtures a little girl orphaned by American bombing to the dilapidated warships with their daredevil crews. 

The message of Japan’s revival from destruction is implicit in the ordeal of its central character, a one-time kamikaze pilot.  

Not willing to crash to his death on an American warship, he betrayed his country by landing on a small Japanese island base and claiming mechanical difficulties. Mechanics soon discover his plane to be undamaged. One of them sympathizes with him for his refusal to die in a war that’s already lost. Ordered to fire on Godzilla as it surfaces offshore, the pilot survives after the monster picks up the plane and shatters it. All the others at the base are killed, except for one mechanic. 

The saga of the kamikaze pilot lies at the essence of Japan’s recovery from defeat, survival and national heroism. Afraid to commit suicide in combat against the Americans, he makes up for his seeming cowardice as he faces the enemy with massive bombs stowed onto a new plane designed not to survive its mission. Supported by fire from those old warships, our hero thrashes the enemy and survives, dangling from a parachute designed by the same mechanic with whom he had escaped in the opening. The Japanese have triumphed, though the monster — like the nuclear threat — will surely rise again. 

This “Godzilla,” entirely in Japanese, with English subtitles, conveys remarkable images of Tokyo blasted by bombing. The monster, towering over a terrified citizenry, ruthlessly tears apart the Ginza district, so proudly reconstructed after the war. Decrepit warships, vintage uniforms and the dress styles of the period recapture an era, but the conquering Americans, reluctant to offend their new Cold War foe, the Russians, are missing in action.  

Constrained from sending troops overseas by Japan’s post-war constitution, written and authorized by the Americans, the defeated Japanese establishment isn’t any help. There’s no hint of the renaissance of Japan’s euphemistically named Self-Defense Force, much less a U.S. role. It’s up to the people to slay the dragon. One-time warriors wage their own war for survival against a dreaded, seemingly unconquerable foe. 

Director Yamazaki articulates the message in explaining the strange title. “The film depicts an existence that gives unprecedented despair,” he has said. “The title GODZILLA MINUS ONE was created with this in mind. In order to depict this, the staff and I have worked together to create a setting where Godzilla looks as if ‘fear’ itself is walking toward us, and where despair is piled on top of despair.”  

One might add an implicit, carefully unstated message: The Americans, having inflicted death and destruction, have left it to the Japanese to fight enemies capable of wreaking much worse havoc. Was Yamazaki thinking of China or Russia, both nuclear powers, or even a nuclear-armed North Korea? No matter, the enemy is the creation of the American nuclear monster. 

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He is currently a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea, and is the author of several books about Asian affairs.