Godzilla Minus One: the monster movie that became a streaming smash hit

Television: Two movies testament to the enduring allure of Godzilla and the giant monster genre

Giant monsters are doing a roaring trade this year. In April, Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire punched its way to a $500 million global box office. Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Toho Studios’s Oscar-winning Godzilla Minus One has stomped to the top of the Netflix most-watched list. Godzilla in 2024 is a lizard, a true star.

While the two films have a lot in common – both feature Godzilla laying waste to CGI cityscapes – they are also a study in contrasts. Godzilla x Kong is popcorn chucking monster-mayhem that invites, nay insists, the viewer leave their brain at the door: in one memorable sequence Godzilla’s frenemy Kong fights two hostile mega-apes by grabbing a third (baby) mega-ape and using it as a giant, hairy truncheon. Get in the bin, Barbenheimer – to some of us, Kong’s monkey-cudgel scene is the single greatest moment of cinema of the past five years.

Godzilla Minus One – winner of the Academy Award for best special effects – is different in that it harks back to the franchise’s origins in post-Hiroshima 1950s Japan, when Godzilla was a stand-in for the incomprehensible devastation of nuclear war.

In the new film, the monster embodies the guilt of a Kamikaze pilot who refuses to sacrifice his life in the pointless final months of the conflict in the Pacific. Later, the metaphor is broadened by having Godzilla represent the shadow of the country’s totalitarian recent past – when hero Kōichi and his friends fight back against the creature, they are, in a way, fighting against the lies of the military dictatorship that led them to a war they were never going to win.

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Together, the two movies are a lesson in having your cake and also cheering as the cake destroys tall buildings. Above all, they are testament to the enduring allure of Godzilla and the giant monster genre, more widely.

The appeal goes back decades to Ishirō Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla – a dark and brooding film made as Japan was still recovering from the war (owing to rubber shortages, the first Godzilla suit was made using ready-mixed concrete, which explained why it weighed nearly 100kg). There was some camp fun to be had in the movie, of course. But it also invoked a sense of awe and were a reminder of the destructive and essentially unknowable force of nature.

“To the unconverted, the sight of Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo and battling other mutoid creatures is pure cheap camp, a symbol of low-tech inferior moviemaking”, author and Godzilla fan Steve Ryfle writes in the introduction to his 1998 book, Japan’s Favourite Mon-Star: The Unauthorised Biography of The Big G.

“They don’t know what they’re missing. Godzilla may not be the most true-to-life of monsters but in his greatest film moments he is an awesome force, so terrifying and stunning that his very essence approaches something mythical. He personifies the power of nature and the doomed destiny of mankind., fused within his uniquely Japanese, badass, prehistoric personality.”

As fans know, Godzilla’s real name is “Gojira” – a portmanteau of “gorira” (gorilla) and “kujira” (whale). Moreover, in his time on the screen, he has been hero and villain. In the first Godzilla, he was an agent of destruction rising from the seas. However, in later films, he became an ally to humanity – defending us from other “kaiju” such as three-headed dragon King Ghidorah and the giant pterodactyl Rodan.

Those two contrasting sides of the character are on display in the new movies. In New Empire, Godzilla teams up with Kong to defeat evil ape lord, the Skar King. But in Godzilla Minus One, he’s unambiguously nasty – a sadistic brute who delights in levelling Tokyo’s new suburbs with his atomic blast.

In both instances, however, the real magic flows from Godzilla’s terrifying otherness. He represents the implacable wildness of nature – symbolising how it can rise and destroy humanity, whether as a consequence of nuclear conflict or of climate change. He’s a cheap thrill – but also a warning not to take the natural world for granted.

“As long as nuclear weapons or nuclear power exists, Godzilla will never not be relevant,” Kazu Watanabe, of New York’s Japan Society, said in a 2020 interview. “Godzilla reminds us that we have the terrible power to create our own monsters and contribute to our own destruction.”