In the almost 70 years since Toho’s original Godzilla feature astounded filmgoers with its practically created depiction of monstrous, atomic devastation, Toho’s larger franchise of kaiju-focused projects has expanded and evolved to include battles with robots, three-headed monsters, and even King Kong. But all that growth has never really erased the king of monster’s textual origins as a metaphor for the pain Japan experienced during World War II and the global fear of nuclear weapons that swept across the world in the war’s wake.
After years of watching one of his favorite characters transform on the big screen, Godzilla Minus One director Takashi Yamazaki felt it was high time for the radioactive icon to get back to its allegorical roots. When I sat down with Yamazaki to talk about his new film, he told me that — more than anything else — he wanted to tell a story about humanity’s resilience and commitment to survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Those are hallmarks of some of Toho’s most memorable stories centering on Godzilla, but in order to really do them justice for his new movie, Yamazaki knew that he was going to have to go back to the very beginning.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In being set so soon after the second World War, there’s a way in which Minus One’s story is far more explicit in its use of Godzilla as a metaphor for all of the complicated, difficult feelings Japanese survivors felt about being pulled into the war by their government in the first place. What ideas about national identity did you want to unpack with this film?
Whenever Godzilla appears in film, he brings a kind of reflection on nuclear war and any manmade crisis. In postwar Japan, citizens were decimated, survivors everywhere were in desperate need of help, and I wanted audiences to gain an understanding of how Japanese survivors felt after WWII.
I wanted to tell a story about perseverance and bravery from the perspective of people who were at the bottom of the bottom in a society that was dealing with the devastation of feeling like it had lost everything during the war. Everyone’s already living with post-traumatic stress disorder and not knowing how to carry on. But then Godzilla shows up, and while the situation becomes even more dire, the threat he poses is also what gives people like [Kōichi] Shikishima a reason to step up to the occasion.
We see so many different facets of Kōichi’s survivor’s guilt as he tries to build these new relationships after the war, but I was curious to hear what in your mind — beyond hope for redemption — is it that keeps him pushing forward.
Having Noriko and Akiko in Shikishima’s life softens him, I think, because they’re able to reach a certain type of almost comfortable lifestyle as a faux family. The three of them are finally able to attain some sort of normality together, but then, of course, Godzilla shows up again, and he represents the possibility of that new bond being destroyed.
I think that’s when Shikishima is reminded what’s important to him now in this new phase of his life. But then, the question is, “Okay, if this is important to me, then how do I fight Godzilla?” and for Shikishima, that fighting always comes from a place of wanting to protect but also fighting out of a deep regret.
There are two moments that really stuck with me watching the film: early on when Kōichi is first meeting everyone and a crewman tells him that he wishes the war lasted a bit longer; and later, when Kōichi says that, for him, the war never ended. To what extent did you want this to be a story about different generations of people having different relationships with war?
I really wanted to look at how the war affected people at that time — not just adults but children and younger people who were too young to go to war or the war ended before they could be deployed. That generation grew up alongside people telling them that “no, the war is over, and you have to be thankful for what you have.” Looking at the war from those differing perspectives and reflecting on those personal experiences that informed people’s feelings was really important to me.
What aspects of the Japanese government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic did you want to reflect on with your story?
It was right in the middle of the pandemic when I was first writing that script. In those early first few weeks, we had the sense of, “Hey, the government’s not doing anything. This is going to be up to us.” Of course, the Japanese government eventually stepped up later, but I wanted this script to reflect the feeling of people realizing that, presented with a problem like Godzilla, they would have to rise to the occasion themselves to survive.
Aside from its being physically intimidating, what did you want to define this specific take on Godzilla? What kinds of ideas did you want to highlight in order to make it distinct within the larger Godzilla canon?
Are you familiar with Princess Mononoke and the way that film begins?
Of course, yeah.
This is actually something I realized after I finished Minus One and started reflecting on the entire process. This is very specific to Japanese culture and has roots in both Shintoism and animism, but at the very beginning of Mononoke, the people have to calm the raging spirit down, and I wanted to create a Godzilla in a very similar vein.
I wanted Godzilla to feel like the physical embodiment of a kind of negative energy tied to people’s fears, worries, and disillusionment. We — humans — we’re not necessarily there to kill Godzilla. We’re there to calm him. Minus One is about putting a name and face to something scary and inviting the audience to calm that negative presence through the shared experience of watching the film.
We always come to Godzilla films expecting to see scenes of large-scale destruction, but I was really taken aback by the way Godzilla’s atomic breath terminates in mushroom clouds that you keep the camera fixed on. Talk to me about your thinking behind using that specific kind of imagery to hammer home just what kind of force Godzilla represents.
That was a very intentional decision on my part. Out of all the Godzillas there have been throughout the years — scary Godzilla, cute Godzilla, the more heroic Godzilla, etc. — my favorite is still the original from the very first movie. That Godzilla specifically represented war and our collective anxieties about nuclear arms. That idea’s still present in a lot of depictions of Godzilla, but I’ve also felt like a lot of his original essence has faded over time. So I wanted to bring some of that original intention behind Godzilla back, and more to the forefront, and the shots of nuclear clouds are a big part of that.