The New Golden Age of ‘Godzilla’
The not-so-jolly green giant is enjoying a creative renaissance.
Although many of my fellow nerds might find it sacrilegious to say so, I would argue that ignoring canon can be a great benefit for long-running franchises and serialized stories. To allow creators to reinterpret and put their own spin on the central concept is to allow creators to tell a wider variety of stories. What is lost in die-hard fans debating over minutiae is gained in more chances for smart, inventive people to do something truly special.
Case in point: Godzilla. The kaiju’s storied career began nearly 70 years ago with 1954’s Gojira. The decades since have had highs and lows, and they’ve allowed for a lot of reinvention. Currently, purely from a creative standpoint, Godzilla is experiencing a new golden age.
And this is largely thanks to the fact that a bunch of different talented people have been able to get their hands on Godzilla and do with the not-so-jolly green giant what they will.
There are presently two concurrent iterations of the Godzilla franchise.
The first, produced by the American company Legendary Pictures, is the so-called ‘MonsterVerse,’ which has amalgamated the worlds of Godzilla and King Kong into a series of Marvel-esque interconnected movies (Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Godzilla vs. Kong), a streaming show (Monarch: Legacy of Monsters), and some animated content (which I have not watched).
The second, produced by the Japanese company Toho, has been dubbed the “Reiwa era” of Godzilla’s storied career (after the name of Japan’s current imperial era), which thus far consists of two films (Shin Godzilla and Godzilla Minus One) and some anime (which I have also not watched), none of which share any continuity.
The American iteration of the franchise has been hit-or-miss; the two movies featuring Kong are fun, and four episodes into its ten episode run, Monarch has thus far been more good than bad. But the movies that concentrate solely on Godzilla were both boring, bogged down by one-dimensional human drama you really just wanna fast-forward through to get to the parts where monsters are wreaking havoc.
The Japanese iteration of the franchise, however, has now produced two movies so good, scholars agree that they’re among the best Godzilla films ever made. If the idea of actually-good movies about a giant monster destroying entire cities appeals to you, I cannot recommend these two flicks highly enough.
Much as the original Gojira used sci-fi as a way of discussing the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without actually discussing those tragedies, 2016’s Shin Godzilla uses sci-fi as a way of discussing the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami without actually discussing that tragedy.
The difference is that Shin Godzilla, from Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno and tokusatsu filmmaker Shinji Higuchi, is really a political satire about the ridiculousness of governmental bureaucracy - think Dr. Strangelove or In the Loop, only with a fire-breathing lizard. Large portions of the story are spent with Japan’s Prime Minister and his advisors as they struggle to figure out what the hell to do about this massive beast terrorizing their country, and it milks a lot of dark comedy from the idea that these people can’t actually get anything done because of all the red tape and inefficiency. For example, there’s a scene where one adviser declares…
…before we see this “simple profile”:
Shin Godzilla’s portrays its monster as an inexplicable act of nature, and the design for the beast itself is appropriately funny, creepy, and gross. Godzilla first emerges from the sea as a wide-eyed, unblinking blob that wobbles horizontally, like a gargantuan hyrbid of a turkey and a tuna, leaking fluids from its gills; the expression on its face is that of an excited puppy with no awareness of what it’s doing.
Only gradually does this Godzilla evolve into a creature that more closely resembles the one we know and love… although, even then, it has the goofy, innocent energy of a big, dumb animal. It stands stoically, tail wagging, while the military pelts it with missiles it doesn’t even seem to feel. When it first uses its atomic breath, after being hit with two particularly large bombs, the act seems almost involuntary, like a cat coughing up a furball - it bends over and projectile vomits smoke, which turns into fire, which turns into a laser.
It also fires energy beams from its back, which is just, y’know, cool.
As good as Shin Godzilla is, it still lacks truly compelling and memorable human characters.
That’s what makes the just-released Godzilla Minus One even better.
On the whole, Godzilla Minus One is probably more in line with what most people think of when they think of a giant monster movie (it is most definitely not a comedy). But it has great characters about whom the audience actually cares. It’s easy to imagine a version of this movie which is just as good even without Godzilla.
Godzilla Minus One takes the franchise back to its roots, using the titular behemoth as a metaphor for Japan’s collective PTSD following World War II. Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki (who also served as the visual effects supervisor), the movie follows Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a young kamikaze pilot who fakes a mechanical malfunction with his plane to avoid carrying out his suicidal assignment. He lands at a Japanese garrison on a small island for “repairs,” where he encounters a not-yet-fully-grown Godzilla. The engineers beg him to get into his plane and use its weaponry to combat the creature, but once again, Koichi’s sense of self-preservation wins out, and after he fails to take action, most of the men stationed at the garrison are killed.
Upon returning home to Tokyo after it has been firebombed, and already racked with guilt over his cowardice, Koichi is shamed by a neighbor, Sumiko (Sakura Ando), who knows he was a kamikaze pilot and blames the death of her children on his refusal to carry out his order. He learns that his parents, too, were killed in the firebombing, and soon meets Noriko (Minami Hamabe), a young woman caring for a baby orphaned by that same attack. The three of them, with a little help from Sumiko, become a makeshift family; hard-up for work, Koichi takes a job on small boat tasked with locating and destroying sea mines leftover from the war, and he soon becomes friends with the other men on the ship.
And so, for awhile, at least, Godzilla Minus One becomes a domestic drama set against the backdrop of the rehabilitation of Japan. If it continued on like this, it might very well be Japan’s entry for the next Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
…but then, naturally, Godzilla, now at his full size, re-emerges, and Koichi once again finds himself embroiled in a life-threatening conflict.
Yamazaki draws more than a little influence from Hollywood: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, and Dunkirk are among the most obvious touchstones, as is the fact that Noriko and Sumiko are the only two prominent female characters in Godzilla Minus One, and they’re both relatively underdeveloped. The film’s final minutes are also mawkish and cross the line of credulity, which is really saying something for a movie about a building-sized amphibious mutant that shoots a laser from its mouth.
Other than that, though, Godzilla Minus One is all-around excellent. As I said before, the fact that the story’s interpersonal relationships are so well-executed does WONDERS for the movie - there’s a scene where a major character dies, and Koichi falls to his knees in the rain and lets out a primal scream, and it’s as emotional as any similar moment in films that aren’t steeped in fantasy.
The movie also explores the psychological effects World War II had on Japan in a way that even the original Gojira does not; it struggles with the survivor’s guilt and feeling of inadequacy veterans suffered, and it challenges the national ethos that called for soldiers to die rather than surrender. When civilians all band together to try and save Japan from Godzilla, without the help of the government that has already failed them, it represents redemption, healing, and the rebuilding of a community shattered. Few viewers will be prepared for how moving Godzilla Minus One often is.
They may also be unprepared for the fact that this version of Godzilla is legitimately scary. It’s intelligent, it’s retaliatory, it’s extremely hard to kill, and Yamazaki’s vision of the monster’s atomic breath is absolutely devastating, a single, unsustained burst resulting in towering mushroom clouds that, not coincidentally, resemble those left in the wake of nuclear weapons. Some Godzillas have targets; this Godzilla has a blast radius.
The spikes on its back also jut out when it’s getting ready to use its atomic breath, which is just, y’know, cool.
Godzilla Minus One has been a box office hit worldwide - it just had the biggest opening weekend of any foreign language film in the U.S. in 2023 - which leads me to suspect that it will get a sequel. As good as it is, it might be better left as a one-and-done. Shin Godzilla and Godzilla Minus One prove that the monster is malleable enough to lend itself to a wide array of tones and translations. Why limit them now?