One of the sweetest moments at this year’s Oscars was when Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One won the visual effects award. Yamazaki and his jubilant team all trooped to the stage clutching Godzilla toys.

The film has been a source of wonderment since it was released in the United States in December 2023. Made for under $15 million – as much as is spent on a single extended-action scene in Hollywood – Godzilla Minus One won hearts and wallets for its low-budget, high-impact storytelling.

Minus One was never released in Indian cinemas because of complicated licensing deals between Japan, where the Godzilla franchise originated, and the US, where the gigantic prehistoric lizard has spawned several films as well as crossovers with King Kong. Instead, we got its Hollywood cousin, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.

Yamazaki’s labour of love is now out on Netflix. The small screen does disservice to Yamazaki’s vision, but it will have to do.

Godzilla Minus One (2023).

Minus One is a throwback to the first Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda in 1954. Godzilla, or Gojira in Japanese, is a Frankensteinian product of World War II. Godzilla is an ancient, dinosaur-like underwater biped whose surfacing is triggered by hydrogen bomb testing. This radioactive hulk rampages through Tokyo, directing its atomic ray (fans call it “atomic breath”) on anything and everything within sight.

Godzilla is possibly the single-most powerful metaphor for nuclear technology gone amok. Honda intended Godzilla to represent the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings during World War II. Over time, Godzilla has morphed unto an unlikely anti-hero, both in Japan as well as in Hollywood, where the monster first appeared in 1998. In Yamazaki’s film, it’s the humans who are the heroes.

Minus One begins in 1945. World War II is winding down. Japan has been defeated. Ruins stand where there once were homes.

The country’s bitterness, grief and anger is concentrated in kamikaze pilot Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki). The war isn’t over for me yet, Shikishima keeps muttering.

Shikishima finds a distraction from survivor’s guilt when he takes in Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and the orphaned infant Akiko (Sae Nagatani). A bigger mission awaits Shikishima when Godzilla destroys much of the Tokyo skyline. Weapons engineer Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka) comes up with a risky plan to destroy Godzilla, giving Shikishima a second shot at glory but also possible endangering the pilot’s life.

For American viewers, Minus One gives an overview of the Japanese experience of World War II. American sanctions against Japan prevent a proper response to the beast, forcing the Japanese to rely on scientific knowhow and a lingering spirit of national service.

The stunningly realised visual effects, which are accompanied by a beautiful score by Naoki Sato, don’t overshadow the human story playing out on the ground. Shikishima’s tender relationship with Noriko, his love for Akiko, and his own angst give the film emotional heft, just as the encounters with the rampaging Godzilla supply spectacle. A chase on the high seas between Godzilla and a team of minesweepers is terrifying as well as thrilling.

Minus One skilfully weaves together a tribute to Japanese resilience with Hollywood-style pop patriotism. The characters set aside their mixed feeling towards the war to unite against a terrifying, seemingly indestructible creature. The final standoff includes an overt tribute to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), itself a homage to British soldiers during World War II.

At least in this movie, Godzilla symbolises the obstacles that Japan must overcome on its path to reconstruction. In Godzilla’s unfocused destruction and incoherent rage, the Japanese characters find purpose and resolve, while fans of the franchise discover a new way to venerate the beast.

Godzilla Minus One (2023).