I wasn’t expecting to cry as much as I did at “Godzilla Minus One.” The strong word-of-mouth made it sound like an awesome spectacle with cool action courtesy of the scaly title creature. And while there were awe-inducing showdowns with the monster, the Toho International production, written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, is largely a meditation on sorrow and survival in the wake of World War II.
The specter of trauma has long hung over Godzilla, a creature unearthed from slumber by H-bomb testing in the 1954 original. But “Godzilla Minus One” (a black-and-white version is reaching theaters on Friday) further literalizes that as it tells the story of Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot who shirks his duties, surviving both the war and an initial encounter with the beast, only to return to the ruins of Tokyo haunted by what he witnessed. Godzilla poses a threat, but one that lives mostly in the background. Instead, this is a story about finding community in the wake of destruction and learning to value yourself in a society that deems you worthless.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but think about how “Godzilla Minus One” exists in conversation with two other recent releases: Hayao Miyazaki’s otherworldly exploration of grief, “The Boy and the Heron,” and Christopher Nolan’s biographical drama, “Oppenheimer.” Both “Godzilla Minus One” and “The Boy and the Heron” at least partly answer the question that some audiences had after the release of “Oppenheimer,” which documents the invention of the atomic bomb. Namely, where was the Japanese perspective in this story about the man whose invention caused so much pain for them?
Neither “Godzilla Minus One” nor “The Boy and the Heron” is explicitly about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They both deal with life in Japan during and after World War II, using the fantastical to portray a people grappling with the lasting effects of a devastating conflict and their anger at those in power who were responsible. Together, the films also prove that literalism isn’t always required in stories that impart messy truths about humanity.
Nolan’s drama, which picked up 13 Oscar nominations on Tuesday, offers an intimate character study of the father of the atomic bomb, penetrating both his genius and his guilt after his weapon was used. However, the film deliberately avoids depicting the nuclear terror that unfolded in Japan. That was intentional, Nolan has said, as he wanted to document Oppenheimer’s “experience subjectively.” He told Variety: “Oppenheimer heard about the bombing at the same time that the rest of the world did. I wanted to show somebody who is starting to gain a clearer picture of the unintended consequences of his actions.”
In what is arguably the most distressing sequence in the film, we see the celebration at Los Alamos after the bombing of Hiroshima through the eyes of Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy. He begins to envision the blast ripping through the crowd. He comes face to face with a young woman whose skin is peeling off. The cheers start to sound frantic and terrified. He imagines stepping into a charred corpse.
Both “The Boy and the Heron” and “Godzilla Minus One” (which each picked up an Oscar nomination as well) also feature characters with fiery visions of innocents in peril. “The Boy and the Heron” opens with a child, Mahito, running through the streets of Tokyo in a futile effort to save his mother from a fire sparked by an air raid. The image of her engulfed in flames, pleading to be rescued, is one Mahito will return to after his father, who manufactures warplanes, moves him to a mysterious country estate.
The new home is supposed to be a haven, but for Mahito it is a persistent reminder of what he lost: His father has married his aunt, a dead ringer for his mother; and a nagging gray heron is taunting him, promising a meeting with his lost parent. Mahito is soon sucked into an alternate universe where the ills of the human world are on full display but perverted into greater absurdity. (Think giant parakeets with a taste for human flesh.) The boy must ultimately make a choice about whether he should stay there, where he has the chance to reshape that universe as he pleases, or return to the broken place from which he came. He chooses the latter.
Like Mahito, Koichi, the hero of “Godzilla Minus One,” is plagued by nightmares. In the opening sequence, he lands his plane on Odo Island in the final days of World War II. He says he is there for repairs, but his craft is fine. Rather, he has lied to avoid the certain death that awaits him as a kamikaze pilot. And then Godzilla appears, killing nearly everyone stationed at the base. Koichi returns to a demolished Tokyo blaming himself for not completing his suicide mission and not effectively battling the monster.
In Tokyo, he ends up finding a makeshift family with other orphans of the war, including Noriko (Minami Hamabe), a young woman who saved a baby after its parents died. But Koichi is reluctant to commit to them because of his own shame. In one sequence he wakes up from a nightmare in which he is faced with the fiery wreckage that Godzilla has wrought. He asks Noriko in terror, “This is Japan, right? I returned alive for sure, right?”
“Godzilla Minus One” is set even before the first “Godzilla” was released — hence the title — and Yamazaki said in an interview with The Verge that he wanted “audiences to gain an understanding of how Japanese survivors felt after WWII.” There’s some of that in Ishiro Honda’s landmark original in which a woman says she “barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki and now this.” But by setting the new film in the immediate aftermath of the war, Yamazaki aims to tap into a feeling of suffering that’s even fresher.
The characters in “Godzilla Minus One” are betrayed twice — by the Americans certainly, whose bomb tests on Bikini Atoll give Godzilla renewed power — but also by Japan itself. As a kamikaze pilot, Koichi was told that his life was worth nothing and has carried that with him. In the rousing speech before the effort to defeat Godzilla begins, a former naval weapons developer leading the charge (Hidetaka Yoshioka) explains that their goal is to avoid death rather than seek it for glory.
“This country has treated life far too cheaply,” he says, then enumerates the ways Japan has let its citizens die, via poorly armored tanks and fighter plans without ejection seats, for instance, and of course suicide missions. Then he continues, “That’s why this time I take pride in a citizen-led effort that sacrifices no lives at all. This next battle is not one waged to the death but a battle to live for the future.” It’s an optimistic rallying cry that reverberates through the final act.
The other two films are far less hopeful. “Oppenheimer” ends with the title character’s affirmation that he has started a chain reaction that could “destroy the entire world.” Mahito of “The Boy and the Heron” leaves the dangerous but enchanting parallel universe with the knowledge that he might forget all that occurred inside it and ultimately make the same mistakes as his ancestors, warmongers who try to bend people to their will.
It’s only in “Godzilla Minus One” that we get a true happy ending. Well, until a reminder that Godzilla isn’t really vanquished. That tag, while technically a hint at sequels to come, is also a sign that just as the monster never truly goes away, neither does Koichi’s torment. And just as “Oppenheimer” is an example of the West still wrestling with its responsibility for destruction during World War II, Japan is doing the same, but in its versions, the monsters are not all of the human variety.