Friday 22 December 2023

Splashback: "Godzilla Minus One"

The stealth blockbuster success of 2023 - completely off-radar, at least out West, at the start of the year - is an exceptionally shrewd Japanese example of IP recycling, made to mark 70 years since Ishirō
 Honda's deathless creation Godzilla stomped his first metropolis. Godzilla Minus One is, as that title indicates, a prequel that unfolds amid the rubble of post-War Japan - in some respects, this is an Oppenheimer sequel - and tells a story about consequence and moral responsibility; I reckon it would work as drama even without a large mutant sea lizard galumphing into shot every half-hour. Its human focal point, Kamiki Ryunosuke's Shikishima, is an erstwhile kamikaze pilot carrying round a grave sense of personal shame, having failed either to die in the service of his country or to save the latter from defeat; returning to what's left of Tokyo, he's deemed a disgrace by his neighbours. The first hour, which resembles Ozu redirected by one of the neo-realists, finds our hero trying to scrape together a living among his fellow down-and-outs and shruggingly entering into a relationship to raise an infant who might as well have been plucked from a skip. But then Shikishima lands a Government-sponsored job dredging the ocean for the unexploded mines left behind at the war's end, effectively monetising his burden of responsibility. From this moment on, Godzilla Minus One enters into lively and rewarding conversation with both those apocryphal stories of Japanese soldiers who continued to patrol a lonely trench long after the Armistice was signed, and latter-day reports of Japanese football supporters who habitually pick the litter from the terraces before leaving the stadium. It's an event movie that gestures towards collective trauma and national character alike.

That's just one of the ways by which the film differentiates itself from the recent blockbuster pack. Where the Marvel and DC universes have gone heavy on unmourned collateral damage that spilled over into the careless plotting of recent offshoots, G-1 is a colossal spectacle premised on simple acts of tidying up; its presiding spirit isn't Michael Bay but Marie Kondo. Writer-director Takashi Yamazaki is just so - actually, meticulous - in his plotting, right down to a final fightback that hinges on the presence and participation of a character introduced in passing in reel one. (Waste not, want not.) This Godzilla, then, presents as a further, notable obstacle: a messy bitch, whether turning up mangled tugboats and irradiated sealife in its wake, or stirring up renewed unrest between rival geopolitical factions. Overviews of Shikishima's isolated trawler, and the ominous heaves on the soundtrack, would also suggest Yamazaki sees the creature as a Japanese Jaws - not a bad model for a film that wants to take us back to blockbuster basics. Digital effects skilfully reproduce the look and texture of 1950s model and 1970s composite shots; the plan to defeat the monster wouldn't seem out of place in a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. (One takehome: in times of crisis, follow the science and hope for the best.) Yet as striking as this Godzilla is, with its Kobe Fried Chicken scales and light-up spinal column, you come away remembering the film's agonised, tormented humans, who have it hard enough without the regular re-emergence of creatures from the deep. More so than any comparable American entertainment of this type - all of which have been guilty of degrees of cultural appropriation and dilution - Godzilla Minus One properly understands civic duty and sacrifice, and how powerful these can be when deployed as dramatic tools. In our post-pandemic moment, it's moving indeed to witness ordinary folks stepping up to shoulder a weight of responsibility their Government has defaulted on, and stirring to see a major motion-picture event that finally chooses and affirms life over destruction. Key line #1: "Somebody's got to do it." Key line #2: "Persistent bugger."

Godzilla Minus One is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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