Tokyo Correspondence One


by Kaisa Saarinen

Before attending the Japan/World premiere of Godzilla Minus One at the fancy Marunouchi Piccadilly cinema on November 1, I killed some time at a nearby café. I was reading a book I’d bought earlier that day, a cheap paperback collection of essays by Shuuji Terayama. One of them, titled Moonlight Mask, investigated the historical trajectory of superheroes.

When I was a boy, allies of justice were bare-faced, while the bad guys wore disguises. This changed completely after the Second World War.

Terayama extrapolates:

During the war, this notion of bare-faced justice was inverted into bare-faced evil. Having lost its place in the world, justice could only appear in disguise. We came to understand that there is no such thing as righteousness cleanly severed from evil. And even if there was, our post-war democratic education drilled into our heads that no human being could possibly determine it as such. Still, we eagerly await the appearance of allies of justice, disguised by necessity, such as Moonlight Mask. To paraphrase Brecht, ‘Unhappy is the age that breeds no justice, but unhappier still is the age that needs justice.’

As it got close to eight o’clock, I shut the book, got up and joined the long queue for Godzilla. Most of the audience members had been through a fierce ticket lottery, while I waltzed in with my press pass. In a crowd largely composed of devoted Godzilla heads wearing branded backpacks or dangling theropodic good-luck charms from their keyrings, the excitement was palpable, and infectious – I ended up purchasing some merch (a fridge magnet depicting Godzilla standing tall against the Great Wave off Kanagawa).

Before the screening, Minus One director-writer Takashi Yamazaki appeared on stage with his lead actors, Ryunosuke Kamiki and Minami Hamabe. Cradling a miniature Godzilla model, they enthused about the visual effects. ‘No spoilers, but please look forward to the scene where Ginza gets destroyed’, Minami Hamabe said. ‘That’s the only thing [Hideaki] Anno talked about after watching the film - his comments were all Ginza, Ginza’, Yamazaki concurred. After seeing Minus One for myself, I couldn’t help wondering if Anno focused so single-mindedly on the VFX because the film excels in little else.

Godzilla Minus One invites comparisons to the very first Godzilla film of 1954 – intentionally, as indicated by the choice to open the film on Odo Island. The most overt similarity is that both films are set in the immediate post-war period. However, this surface-level likeness only serves to underline the most fundamental difference between the two; where the ‘post-war’ of the 1954 Godzilla reflected a contemporary reality, Minus One is a period film steeped in the artifice of history. The first Godzilla film shocked and offended early audiences, because its depictions of a destroyed Tokyo resembled footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the A-bombs. Its fictional horrors felt too close for comfort, amplified by reality. In contrast, the horror of Minus One is its very detachment from reality.

Thematically, Godzilla Minus One mirrors its immediate predecessor Shin Godzilla (2016) almost perfectly. Where Shin Godzilla – written and co-directed by Hideaki Anno – was a political horror inspired by the Fukushima clusterfuck, Minus One is an earnest tale of heroic sacrifice, asking the burning question: ‘what if being a kamikaze pilot was good, actually?’. I’ll refrain from detailing the answer, but it’s.. convoluted.

The figure of the kamikaze pilot is a long-standing fixation for Takashi Yamazaki, who made his name with the schmaltzy post-war drama series Always: Sunset on Third Street (also featuring a cameo of Godzilla). Yamazaki’s 2013 film The Eternal Zero tells the story of a WWII soldier who, after refusing to undertake a kamikaze attack, ultimately volunteers for one. The Eternal Zero gained notoriety for two reasons: firstly, it depicts the pilot with a distinct tinge of heroism, and secondly, it is adapted from a novel by a prominent war crime denialist. While Yamazaki denied glorifying his subject matter in any way, the film’s sentimentalism speaks for itself.

Given Yamazaki’s track record, it is not entirely surprising that Godzilla Minus One is a military fetish film. Its hero, a failed kamikaze pilot tortured by survivor’s guilt, is essentially indistinguishable from the protagonist of The Eternal Zero, and much of its imagery is interchangeable with that of a regular war film. In an impressively insane gambit to de-politicise the figure of the kamikaze pilot, the film tries to establish a dichotomy of the war and the battle against Godzilla as an expression of political power vs. people power. To this end, the plotline focuses on former soldiers launching an attack on Godzilla in a civilian capacity, emphasising that this (unlike the war) is a just and humane struggle. Yet the construction is unconvincing, because the difference between the State and private forces here is not an ideological but a pragmatic one, itself firmly rooted in political history. The soldiers must mobilise in a private capacity, because the government and the army organisations have been debilitated by mandatory post-war demilitarisation; it’s not that their objectives are in any way misaligned.

By inserting an ’apolitical’ monster into his war movie, Yamazaki can indulge in a fantasy of pure-hearted soldiers, of bare-faced allies of justice against an undisguised, essential evil. However, this requires a total transference of war responsibility to the government, which comes across as infantile at best and insulting – not least to audiences in countries terrorised by Japan during WWII – at worst. If Minus One does make any coherent political point, it seems to be that demilitarisation was a mistake. Aside from desecrating the original Godzilla film, this sanitised alt-history is also a staggering step down from Shin Godzilla’s shrewd dissection of power and politics.

While both Minus One and Shin Godzilla depict the Japanese government as powerless, they project wildly divergent sources and implications for this. In Minus One, the citizenry can heroically rise up in place of a castrated government. Conversely, everyone is equally impotent in Shin Godzilla. Neither the government, the JSF nor any private organisation holds the power to defeat the monster. In a plotline that strikes home just how easily the language of justice can mask tangible violence, the international community responds by threatening Japan with another nuclear bombing.

These framings also shape the respective characterisations of Godzilla. To emphasise the heroism of the counter-attack, Minus One must depict its titular monster as simply that: a vicious, unfeeling creature. Anno’s portrayal of Godzilla as a victim of circumstances, endlessly tortured by the mutations caused by radiation exposure, is distinctly tragic. This illustrates the brutal lesson at the heart of the kaiju genre: acting as though we were above nature is a grave transgression, and we will be punished for it. The horror of Shin Godzilla is not the monster, but our collective powerlessness to prevent suffering (including that of the monster). Thus Shin brings the message of the 1954 Godzilla to Japan’s second atomic age, where Minus One butchers it.

On the bright side, the visual effects in Minus One are great - and that’s probably what most people care about in a monster film. It’s certainly what all the buzz was about, at the theatre, on the night of the premiere. How beautiful Ginza looks when it’s burning!

I only wish Yamazaki would have had the decency to use a different monster as the vehicle for his kamikaze fetish.

On the train back to Shibuya, I returned to Moonlight Mask.

While cheering for heroes, we are less eager to acknowledge that the mask of ‘justice’ can disguise evil as well as good, and the machinations of politics can quickly turn one into the other.

Indeed, it has taken us a long time and great sacrifices to learn that ‘justice’ is nothing but political jargon.

(Japanese extracts from Shuuji Terayama are translated & paraphrased into English by Kaisa.)


Kaisa Saarinen grew up in the Finnish countryside and ended up in London via Glasgow, Tokyo and Oxford. Her debut collection of poetry and fiction, Voideuse, was published by Feral Dove in 2022. Her first novel, Weather Underwater, is out from Bellows Press.

Click here for more info on Voideuse, Kaisa's hybrid book of poems, short prose, & photos published by Feral Dove in 2022.

Go back to the film notebook.

Published on November 30th, 2023 ©Kaisa Saarinen