Feature Story
Godzilla chases down a boat, minuscule in comparison, in the open ocean.

Minus One Is King

This is a feature story from Unwinnable Monthly #176. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


A black-and-white still from Godzilla Minus One featuring the titular kaiju emerging from the sea.

It’s kind of amazing how filthy we are with Godzilla right now. Since 2014 we’ve had six major theatrical releases. While there have been times where a Godzilla film was released every year for almost a decade, it’s worth remembering that in 2004 Godzilla just went to sleep. He’d lie dormant until 2014 when he emerged, stronger, bolder and with bigger box offices than ever before.

But, even including the three Godzilla anime films, of all the Godzilla media we’ve been blessed with, one rises above the rest. Godzilla Minus One is a cut above. And strangely, the Godzilla movie we need right now.

In brief, Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One is the story of a rag tag group of military veterans, and their friend, who band together to defeat Godzilla in 1947. This was already somewhat transgressive as Godzilla is usually a contemporary threat. A villain to be defeated by whatever novel sci-fi military solutions can be drummed up in the moment. Also, Godzilla is usually defeated by government intervention. Somehow, Minus One manages to be a populist Godzilla movie.

If you’re mostly familiar with the Legendary films, this movie will be jarring. There are no lasers. No aliens. No robots. The only conspiracy theory is that the government will not save you and America will turn its back on its duties to protect a country it is occupying. Basically no one is plucky. Everyone has trauma. Godzilla is definitely still cool but he’s deeply threatening and he probably hates you.

A man in a tattered suit and head bandage kneels wailing on the ground in a still from Godzilla Minus One.

With the exception of Gareth Edward’s 2014 Godzilla, the Legendary movies depict the destruction of cities and the sundering of families with a kind of glee. It’s the kind of thing that makes you say “WOW!” Minus One instead encourages a kind of “oh dear god” as Tokyo is attacked. Legendary is spectacle, Minus One, like it’s unrelated predecessor from 2016, Shin Godzilla, is horror.

However, what makes Minus One the monster movie for our moment is the way it treats its humans. Our protagonist is surviving kamikaze pilot Shikishima. Shikishima returns home from the horror of war via the horror of a Godzilla attack to find the horror of the bombing of Tokyo. When he’s not caring for his stowaway found family, Shikishima makes friends at his new job, destroying sea mines. When he’s not doing that, he’s having panic attacks. He’s trying his hardest, though, honestly.

Contrast this with the Legendary films. These are movies lead by military types, conspiratorial scientists and, largely, Godzilla himself. Here we are made to stick with Shikishima and his friends in tight spaces carved out of the bombed-out husk of a city. His young buddy who wasn’t able to join the war laments this and it drives Shikishima mad. He was in the war and it was bad. He watched people die without reason. And his country had asked him to do so, too, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.

The person who comes the closest to having a genuinely nuanced relationship to war in the Legendary movies is Ken Watanabe’s Ishiro Serizawa. Serizawa grew up in Hiroshima and carried his father’s watch with him, a watch that stopped when an atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Similarly, Shikishima carries with him family photos of the men he could not save during the first Godzilla attack. An attack we, the viewers, understand could never be stopped through his intervention, but one that he bears deep survivor’s guilt over. When the time comes for them each to make their big sacrifice, Serizawa decides he needs to nuke Godzilla to heal him. Which is weird. Shikishima realizes that he cannot sacrifice himself because in a world that thrives on the deaths of the lower class, it is vital for every person to live.

A slight man in spectacles, a real scientist-type, gazes worriedly into the distance in a still from Godzilla Minus One.

Legendary throws humans against its giant monsters with reckless abandon. They are fodder, both for the monsters and for us, the spectacle-hungry viewers. Minus One refuses to do this. They fight Godzilla with some disarmed ships and science cooked up by a guy with funny hair and glasses named Noda. When Noda reveals the master plan using some crude mockups, he’s pointedly asked if it will work. He reveals it has to, it’s the only thing they have, because anyone able to command any kind of real firepower has turned their back on them. They must do this on their own with whatever they can scavenge.

On the night before the big Godzilla fight, Noda tells the teams they should spend as much time with their families as they can. He’s asked if it’s because it’s a suicide mission. He tells them no, it’s the opposite of that. The mission is to keep everyone alive. It goes unsaid that failure means certain death not just for those trying to fight Godzilla, but everyone. When the gang’s young friend tries to join the big mission, they tell him he can’t come. Someone has to stay behind to safeguard the future; this is about doing something desperate to give him a future to safeguard.

And in the end, it works. And it’s bloodless. And everyone gets their happy ending. Probably, but let’s not dwell on this. Instead, let’s dwell on the fact that Godzilla Minus One is a movie about the absolute essentiality of individual human life. It’s a movie that tells us life is precious, we have to protect it, and we have to protect each other. People are valuable, necessary even. And films that operate at the level of generals moving pieces around a board will always forget this. Instead, the monster movie we need now is a movie that should remind us to check in on our friends, be honest with our traumas and fight the big bads together.


David Shimomura is the editor in chief of Unwinnable. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @UnwinnableDavid.


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