Some Thoughts on: Godzilla Minus One
There's a moment in the film where reporters are standing on a high-rise rooftop reporting Godzilla's destruction of the burgeoning postwar Ginza, and for an extended moment it feels like their tower grants them a privileged viewing box from which to translate the horrors experienced by a nation to wider audiences. It's the kind of perspectival move that happens in genre films, relegating threat and harm to the contingency of the frame in which we witness it. As Godzilla tramples the city underfoot, leveling one high-rise after the other with a sweep of his tail, this tower seems to remain, these reporters survive. But only for this moment. Ultimately Godzilla's threat looms large enough to encompass even the seemingly most blessed, even the ostensibly safest observers. The reporters fall to their death after Godzilla's tail breaks their platform.
There's an overt narrative thread to be taken up by audiences, and one in which Japanese audiences seem to be most privy to: survivorship. Koichi comes back from the war, having escaped certain-death by lying about technical difficulties with his warplane. Guilt follows suit, doubled profoundly by his fateful encounter with Godzilla, a local folkloric legend that annihilates the cadre of Japanese soldiers on the island Koichi landed on in the opening of the film. Through this unfortunate encounter and his fear of pulling the trigger, Koichi is one of the only survivors of this atrocious incident.
Koichi seems to build his postwar life with the help of his newly formed relationship with Noriko, another war survivor dispossessed of land and home, along with their adopted war orphan. Almost idyllic, Koichi's postwar life recovers seemingly as fast and fruitfully as some of the most decimated neighborhoods in postwar Tokyo. With his makeshift family, and the fraternity he finds in his coworkers working together in disposing of left-over naval mines – a rather pointed metaphor – Koichi builds toward something better, toward a life further and farther away from the horrors experienced in war, on that island.
However, the horrors experienced, the pains endured still haunt Koichi, still paint every rest in nightmares of the return of his living trauma, a manifestation of his deceit, of his cowardice. He wakes in fright, bringing with him to his new home the images that haunt and reiterate is profound deficiencies, his immense shame as a soldier and as a man. Every effort toward rebuilding is a futility in the pain of his PTSD, a source of darkness that returns continually, and which is about to return in ways unimaginable.
The return of Godzilla then functions as an opportunity to discuss the second narrative thread, one less explicit but far more pertinent to the implications of its story: an erasure of the self in the face of hardship, in the service of a newly formed institution, one equally based on militaristic opportunism and nationalistic self-aggrandizement.
Due to a rather contrived narrative plot point, the occupying forces refuse to aid Japan's government in dealing with this massive threat to their newly adopted military stronghold in the east; and, later, by an even more confusingly contrived plot point the Japanese government itself refuses to help its own citizenry as they attempt to deal with this nuclear threat on their own. This is a narrative modality that reiterates and materializes, in a deeply clunky way, the dichotomy that was adopted in postwar Japanese cinema between the victimized and deceived citizenry and their military government led by a fringe of imperialist fanatics. It’s a narrative conceit that shirks responsibility for crimes committed during the war and denies the wholehearted enthusiasm shared on the home front. Interestingly, however, Ando Sakura's character is introduced by shaming the lead for his cowardly return--a brief but enlightening representation of the ways in which domestic life can reaffirm some of the more toxic wartime ideologies and their lasting presence immediately postwar. This depiction, unfortunately, leads nowhere.
What transpires is a sequence of uniquely preposterous but admittedly entertaining strategizing. A townhall gathers the public, many of them soldiers returned from battle, to explicate the previous narrative conceits and present the methods through which to destroy Godzilla – the increasingly flattened metaphor for war-defeat. The disenfranchised and emasculated war veterans task themselves with trapping Godzilla and blasting him down into the depths of Tokyo Bay, thereby freezing him to death; if that should fail, the backup plan is to then trigger inflation devices to send him flying back to the surface, subjecting him to atmospheric decompression. A plan so mindless, so brutally stupid it certainly feels at home in some of the more cartoonish Kaiju entries.
Following this, a montage composed of romantic imagery of repurposed war machines--surviving naval ships and a refurbished A6M--fill the screen in a panoply of military accoutrements. All this amounts to staple pacing for an action thriller, and one that presents the collective spirit of these men well. Demoralized by the war and their deceit, they adopt a particular stance interpreting this as an opportunity to rewrite their own history and their own failure, thereby redefining the direction they can lead their own lives. This, of course, is filtered through the motivations and trauma of the lead character, but it can be transposed onto the lives of each one of these men and their own hardships. War makes victims of all men.
The climactic fight expectedly does not go as planned, and it relies on a completion of Koichi's opening purpose: to fly his warplane into the enemy. After colliding with Godzilla, lodging imperial metal and oil into the throat of this great-nuclear-threat, Godzilla's atomic breath backfires, blasting apart the creature and sending his corpse into the depths of the bay. The narrative twist, however, is that through ingenuity, inventiveness, and begrudged compassion by one of the men left victimized by Godzilla after Koichi's failure to open fire in the opening scene, the A6M Zero is redesigned to allow emergency ejection, subsequently saving Koichi and following through on its proposed thematic: these men are taught how to fight not to die in a futile war for purposes unknown to them, but to live and grow; to survive.
To return to the sequence mentioned in the opening here: Godzilla is witnessed on a pedestal, glimpsed through the eyes of faceless viewers whose fears are functionally artificial and fabricated. The construction of it contextualizes their perspective in a studio, interpolated into the decoupage of disaster fetishism. It's in this perspectival construction –represented similarly in the train sequence with Noriko--where the peculiarity of the film exists, and where its political implications become most precarious. Ostensibly this film is about survivorship, as was previously mentioned, but the historical contingency upon which that survivorship is actualized and justified become increasingly shaky when considering the historical context this film is adopting.
By the end of 1945, over 400,000 American soldiers were stationed throughout Japan. Through the occupation this number increased, amounting to close to one million Allied soldiers. The Military Tribunal for the Far East began in 1946 and lasted until the end of 1948, designating a total of twenty-eight war criminals. The historical footing in which these former soldiers of the film and the Japanese public in general were living in was driven largely by the influence of Allied forces. Its impact was felt ranging from political doctrines – the newly ratified constitution of 1946 – to the vernacular in a return to the international metropolitanism of the 1920s and early 1930s, much of which was compelled by the GHQ and CIE. The Japan that these characters live in has simply never existed.
What might be the issue in depicting this fantasy, erasing certain histories for the purposes of crafting a moral tale about surviving and living on? On the surface, there can be a lot gleaned from its tale of existential struggle and surviving crippling trauma, but the implicated re-militarism by an enthusiastic local militia reeks of the domestic nationalism that plagues online SNS in netto uyoku extremists and on city streets during election season with senkyo-ka vans blasting political slogans, sonically polluting the afternoon with bitter declarations of returning to a better Japan, amending Article 9 of the previously mentioned American-imposed constitution that restricts Japan from remilitarizing. It's a film that depicts 1947 Japan through the eyes of a distinctly conservative contemporary lens.
On the surface this film steers expertly away from these details to portray the might of the Japanese spirit and the imperative to endure hardship into the future, but perhaps the future the film implicitly aspires toward is hinted at through the political and creative ties of the director himself. In 2013, Yamazaki Takashi helmed the Kamikaze melodrama, The Eternal Zero. A film similarly about the enduring spirit and strength of the imperial soldiers. However, the source for that film came from possibly one of the more vociferous creative forces in Japanese literature, Hyakuta Naoki. Hyakuta's overt nationalism is seen by some as spirited enthusiasm for one's own country, but he paints with a broad brush when denying Japanese war crimes like the Nanking Massacre and the forced relocation of ethnic Koreans into Japan amid their colonial efforts.
To be certain, Hyakuta had no direct ties to the creation of this film. It is largely the effort of its director, writer and visual effects director, Yamazaki Takashi. His own depictions of war and postwar Japan have previously shared a deep sentimentality and affection toward the lives of those who suffered through the war, and in its own way embody a form of nationalist fervor. The way that nationalism manifests itself is not through overt and didactic proselytizing, but as Darrell Davis has stated in Picturing Japaneseness about prewar Japanese propaganda film, by creating a "cultural sacrament offered to the Japanese people," providing "a sense of belonging to a living entity much larger than the lone, often alienated self." Godzilla Minus One's Koichi fits this mold of a "lone, often alienated self," magnificently, learning to survive through collective effort and compassion of his fellow imperial soldiers to bring about a new Japan. What that Japan could be is hard to identify due to the ideological fantasy depicted in the film, but it’s a fantasy shared by many, influencing real world politics. Hyakuta's newly founded Conservative Party of Japan had quite a turnout for its rally in Osaka earlier this month.
The theme of guilt and learning how to survive is an admirable approach to war stories such as this. After experiencing so much loss, how does one recover the pieces of themselves to learn how to live on, learn how to survive? Artists like Tatsumi Yoshihiro, Umezu Kazuo, Tsukamoto Shinya and Ichikawa Kon created some of the most indelible imagery of war atrocities and the imperative challenges one must face in surviving. Yamazaki here creates some striking imagery that poses the same challenge to his protagonist, utilizing one of the most monolithically apt metaphors for nuclear threat and reckoning with the war and its gruesome mechanizations. However, Yamazaki's imagery is witnessed as ahistoric spectacle, flattening the socio-political landscape, and writing over it with fantastical moral posturing. Like the reporters viewing Godzilla's destruction from afar, apparently safe from harm, eventually the platform crumbles and the audiences will inevitably confront the reality this Godzilla poses.