The Godzilla films, named after their large dinosaur-like character that wreaks havoc through its many films and series, have their roots in poverty-stricken post-war Japan. It captured the desperation of the Japanese people, who were trying to rebuild their lives and country after losing World War II. The character of Godzilla presents itself as a manifestation of their fear of atomic bombs that had been dropped on two of their cities. The monster was conceived as a symbol of a great threat that no human would dare to go up against it. 

Over the years, with the introduction of Hollywood remakes, Godzilla films have lost their anti-war message. They have been reduced instead to a spectacle, much like the films that centre Godzilla's counterpart in size, King Kong. The once anti-war films were now a way to show Western military prowess and glorify innovations in Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) that could now take on Godzilla himself. 

Still from Godzilla Minus One, depicting the setting of the film. Image courtesy of Godzilla Minus One’s IMDB.

However, released at the end of 2023, the Japanese-produced Godzilla Minus One has brought the giant lizard home, back to post-war Japan and back to its anti-war message. In a single stride, the film, written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, won an Academy Award and grossed almost USD 105 million worldwide despite its USD 15 million budget. Audience enthusiasm can be attributed to how the film delivers a breath of fresh air, not just as a Godzilla film but also as an anti-war film. 

In this movie, characters stand tall and proclaim that it is time to stop taking human lives lightly, that the solution to war is to not go to war in the first place, and that no one, not even Godzilla, deserves to die. This is why Godzilla Minus One is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.

Still from Godzilla Minus One, lead protagonist Kōichi Shikishima (Ryuunosuke Kamiki) holds a baby he has just found. Image courtesy of Godzilla Minus One’s IMDB.

Unlike previous Godzilla films, Godzilla Minus One focuses on its individual human characters in place of Godzilla. It follows the journey of Kōichi Shikishima (Ryuunosuke Kamiki), a failed Kamikaze pilot, as he attempts to live with his wartime mistakes. The Kamikaze were a squadron of fighter jet pilots in the Japanese Special Attack Units who flew planes with built-in explosive missiles. These pilots were known for their unmatched flying skill and their deliberate suicide attacks on Allied forces. Having survived the war, Shikishima is known as a “failed” Kamikaze pilot since he had not given up his life for the former Empire. In the eyes of many Japanese citizens of the time, pilots like Shikishima played a significant part in reducing their chances of victory.

Still from Godzilla Minus One, Kōichi Shikishima (Ryuunosuke Kamiki) looks longingly at his found family. Image courtesy of Godzilla Minus One’s IMDB.

After facing the anger of his neighbour, who blamed him for Japan’s loss, Shikishima returned to the rubble that was once his family home. Audiences are immediately shown why he had fought hard to stay alive during the war despite military orders and social stigma. Shikishima cries in the rubble, clutching a letter from his dead mother, a fatality of the war herself, who wished for him to come home in one piece. This scene in the first act becomes the film’s central theme. It blatantly shows that everyone alive, even a Kamikaze pilot who has been ordered to die, has a reason and a right to live free from the horrors of war.

Still from Godzilla Minus One, Kōichi Shikishima (Ryuunosuke Kamiki) and the people of Ginza, Tokyo look on helplessly at Godzilla’s destruction. Image courtesy of Godzilla Minus One’s IMDB.

Despite being haunted by memories of the war, Shikishima slowly finds his bearings. He meets Noriko Ōishi (Minami Hamabe), a vagrant with an orphaned baby she had picked up from the rubble. They begin living together as a makeshift family, caring for each other in turbulent times. Eventually, Shikishima lands himself a decent-paying yet risky military job to sweep ocean mines that had been planted during the war. He likes his job and bonds well with his colleagues, which includes former military strategist Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka). Ōishi eventually also lands a job as a shopkeeper in Ginza, Tokyo, a shopping district that will be ground zero for the film’s in-city Godzilla attack.

Tragedy struck Shikishima once more and Ōishi lost her life during the Godzilla attack. Hellbent on revenge and haunted by his status as a “failed Kamikaze pilot,” Shikishima volunteers as a fighter jet pilot for the military’s counterattack. He tells himself repeatedly that this time, he will be a true Kamikaze pilot and that he will die by suicide to ensure victory over Godzilla.

Still from Godzilla Minus One, Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka) delivers his plans to fight Godzilla, calling for zero casualties in the fight. Image courtesy of Godzilla Minus One’s IMDB.

Others involved in this operation can see this and try their best to stir him away from such recklessness. The counterattack is led by Shikishima’s own post-war co-worker and mentor, Noda, who delivers a moving speech to a room filled with soldiers who are palpably tired and traumatized. He asks everyone involved to try their best not to die, as coming out of the war, “We have all taken human lives a bit too lightly.” Here, Shikishima’s comrades represent a deliberate message written by the film's creators: no victory is greater than preserving human life.

As an anti-war film, Godzilla Minus One brazenly proclaims that the solution to war is to avoid it altogether. Godzilla, a representation of humanity's inherent belligerence and disposition for war, is only defeated by a group of people holding each other up with an unyielding will to survive and rebuild. It labels war for what it truly is; a tragedy that claims lives on both sides, compelling people to kill for ideologies that do not serve them and treating life as if it were expendable. It also labels hope for what it truly is, a powerful force that drives people to stand together and strive for a future free from the horrors of conflict.

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