Godzilla Minus One is Japan's response to its omission from Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer | Hollywood - Hindustan Times
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Godzilla Minus One is Japan's response to its omission from Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer

ByDevansh Sharma
Jun 11, 2024 04:42 PM IST

With the new kaiju film, Japan not only reclaims its Godzilla IP, but also the pop-culture narrative around the US' World War II bombing of Hiroshima-Nagasaki.

In Christopher Nolan's Oscar-winning period film Oppenheimer, the biopic of the “father of the atomic bomb,” Robert J Oppenheimer is struck with guilt when he hears the news of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombing during World War II. Cillian Murphy's stone-cold blue eyes see his audience melting into oblivion while addressing a press conference. That's the only scene when Nolan lets us in on the consequence of Oppenheimer's inventions, leaving Japan's war-torn fate to the viewer's imagination.

Godzilla Minus One tells Japan's side of the story during World War II's bombing
Godzilla Minus One tells Japan's side of the story during World War II's bombing

(Also Read – Exclusive: Oppenheimer book author Kai Bird opens up on hits and misses of Christopher Nolan's movie)

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Oppenheimer was criticised by several quarters, including filmmaker Spike Lee no less, for omitting Japan's side of the story. The biopic stays decidedly with its subject, never letting us cross over to the other side of the Pacific, to get a sense of the havoc his scientific adventures wrecked on an entire country and its populace. There isn't even a single Japanese face in the whole film, thus making it entirely US-centric and conveniently devoid of encompassing the more significant, global picture.

Cillian Murphy as J Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan's movie
Cillian Murphy as J Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan's movie

Another Oscar winner, Takashi Yamazaki's Japanese kaiju film Godzilla Minus One, has emerged as a worthy companion piece, covering what Oppenheimer missed out on. Since its global release on Netflix, Godzilla Minus One has been upheld as arguably the best Godzilla film in recent memory, several notches above Adam Wingard's recent American blockbuster Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. With the new kaiju film, Japan not only reclaims its original IP of Godzilla, but also the pop-culture narrative around America's bombing of Hiroshima-Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Survivor's guilt

Kōichi Shikishima, a kamikaze pilot, flees World War II by landing on Odo Island, feigning technical issues in his fighter jet to save himself from duty on the battlefield. On the same day, Godzilla returns to attack his fellow men. He freezes before he can shoot the creature and is knocked unconscious. He's one of the only two who survive the onslaught and upon returning to Tokyo, discovers that his parents have been killed in the US air raids. He takes a couple of fellow orphans – a woman and a baby – under his wing.

While the bombing isn't shown in the film, its after-effects spill over the screen as soon as Koichi returns home. His homecoming is wrecked with loss and guilt as he gradually discovers the extent of damage caused by the war. His hurt is reflective of his country's destruction – a wound that would take years to heal. But at the centre of his personal reparation is the guilt of betraying his country. It stands in complete contrast to Oppenheimer's guilt – of standing by his country as it obliterated another.

Koichi's is the survivor's guilt, a far cry from the destructor's guilt that consumes Oppenheimer. While the American nuclear physicist may not have pre-empted the toll his invention would cause, the Japanese kamikaze fighter never had a choice. When he chooses to save himself over his country, that choice haunts him till he sets it right. He has no choice but to look Godzilla in the eye, unlike Oppenheimer who could get away with his inadvertent complicity just by repenting in refuge.

Godzilla Minus One is a story of survivor's guilt
Godzilla Minus One is a story of survivor's guilt

Godzilla – an allegory for nuclear war

Takashi Yamazaki's kaiju film is Japanese company Toho Entertainment's first live-action Godzilla movie in 7 years, thanks to a contract with American production house Legendary Entertainment, which has doled out three sequels in the same time frame – Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), Godzilla vs Kong (2021), and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (2024). Clearly, America has been raking in the moolah from a property ironically inspired by its own atomic bombing of Japan in 1945.

Godzilla was conceived merely nine years after the US' bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and represented the horrors of nuclear warfare. In the first-ever Godzilla film, released in 1954, director Ishiro Honda showed the prehistoric monster was awakened by nuclear radiation. In fact, the furrows and scales on Godzilla's skin were imagined to resemble the keloid scars on the US bombing survivors in Japan. But when the US adapted it into Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, it whitewashed the references to nuclear bombs and World War II. In fact, in the subsequent instalments, it even blamed the reawakening of Godzilla on a French atomic experiment and hailed nuclear bomb as the antidote to the monster Godzilla is.

Now, with its design of the MonsterVerse, America has hailed Godzilla as an anti-hero, who often works in tandem with American scientists to save the world from a larger threat. But those films have not transcended the identities of money-spinners or empty spectacles. After all the Godzilla film-bombing, Japan's new kaiju film stands out as the most faithful to Godzilla's origins. It positions the monster as a symbol of all things evil – war, nuclear weapons, and apocalypse. 

Christopher Nolan never admitted to the omission of Japan's side of the story in Oppenheimer. But he also hailed Godzilla Minus One as a “tremendous” film. On the other hand, Takashi Yamazaki wished to make a Japanese film one day, which would serve as a befitting response to the omission in Oppenheimer. With Godzilla Minus One, he seems to have already made one. Oppenheimer may have dominated the Academy Awards, but Godzilla Minus One sneaked a historic feat, too. When it led Japan to its first win in the Best Visual Effects category at the Academy Awards, it also achieved what none of the umpteen Hollywood kaiju films could – fetch Godzilla its maiden Oscar.

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