Godzilla Minus One (2023) by Takashi Yamazaki

In the dying days of World War Two, kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) abandons his mission, returning to a nearby base on Odo island. When the island is attacked, by a sea monster the locals call Godzilla, only Koichi and the chief engineer Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) survive. Koichi returns to Tokyo in shame where he meets a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and child Akiko, who have been orphaned by the bombing raids on the city. The three of them begin living together, but their peace is threatened when Godzilla, now supersized by post-war nuclear tests in the ocean, re-emerges to devastate large areas of the city. Koichi, along with a minesweeper crew he is working with, joins a group of ex-navy civilians, who hatch a plan to take down Godzilla when it appears again.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, “Godzilla Minus One” takes place in the years following the Second World War, capturing the thematic resonance of Ishiro Honda’s 1953 “Godzilla”. Godzilla can be seen as a representation of the horror of nuclear war, and the incredible sequences when the creature attacks depict this perfectly. Humans are insignificant and their weapons woefully ineffective in stopping the rampaging creature. It is a war film that replaces battlefield scenes with a symbolic representation of the sheer terror and incomprehensible violence of war. A Godzilla film is only as strong as its human protagonists, and Koichi’s journey, from his shame at running from his suicidal duty to realising his true calling in taking care of Akiko and Noriko, provides a great focus for the drama. We also have great supporting characters, such as Tachibana, an engineer whose entire crew is wiped out by the creature; the young Mizushima, who feels he has missed out by not being conscripted to the war; Shikishima’s neighbour Sumiko (Sakura Ando), who berates Koichi for shirking his kamikaze mission when so many others have died for the country; and many of the ex-naval officers, who fear that they are to be plunged into another unwinnable conflict after barely surviving the last one. The film’s special effects are a marvel, showing the incredible size of Godzilla as it devastates the city, knocking buildings aside and blasting areas with its nuclear beam. The sequences at sea are also amazingly well done, with the human characters feeling very exposed in the face of this leviathon. The film also does a superb job with the period setting, feeling completley believable, with the bombed out remnants of Tokyo suburbs, and the historic train networks and Ginza district, as well as the military ships and planes. The film owes a debt to the 1954 original, and could be seen as a retelling or an homage, albeit with new characters and story. This is brought home by the use of Akira Ifukube’s origiginal Godzilla theme which adds a dramatic and nostalgic touch. The score by Naoki Sato provides an epic, sentimental and awe-inspiring accompaniment to the action.

Godzilla has always had a strongly anti-war and anti-nuclear message, with the creature being the perfect stand-in for the harrowing attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that closed out the Pacific conflict. “Godzilla Minus One” questions the Japanese involvement in the war, with Koichi’s role as a kamikaze pilot being the prime example. He feels ashamed that he saved his own life rather than dying for his country. However, it becomes apparent that perhaps having young men throw their lives away for the Emperor was not only cruel and unecessary, but actually counter-productive. As they prepare to tackle Godzilla, Noda is at pains to point out that they intend to save lives and that suicide missions are at odds with their newfound respect for life and protecting civilians. It is a change in mindset that marks a shift from enforced self-sacrifice imposed at the will of a dictatorial militaristic system to a belief in preserving life at all costs. That saving yourself and your family is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing noble or honourable about war or dying, instead it is a necessary evil in a world in which terrors and external threats exist. An incredibly powerful film, not only in the stunning visual effects and awesome monster attacks, but in the emotional heart of the film, Koichi, Noriko and Akiko’s surrogate family finding a path through the horrors they have witnessed.

Summer Wars (2009) by Mamoru Hosoda

OZ is a virtual online world where friends can gather and companies do business; connecting the global population in a vast virtual playground. As well as this it is also used for businesses, governments and other officials, forming a vital part of every aspect of human life. Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a high-school maths whizz (almost national champion at the maths Olympics) working as a low level system engineer on the site, when he is offered an unusual summer job by an attractive older girl, Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba): to come home with her for the holidays. When he arrives at her home, he finds that he is to pretend to be her boyfriend for the duration of the trip, to please Natsuki’s ailing grandmother (Sumiko Fuji). Soon Natsuki’s whole family has arrived at the house, including the suspicious Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito) who left years before for America. While Kenji struggles to maintain his cover and befriend the numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, OZ is attacked. This act of cyber-terrorism has far-reaching consequences as industry computers go haywire and satellites are set on a collision course for earth. Kenji and the family around him must work together to prevent a global catastrophe.

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda from a screenplay by Satoko Okudera (the two also worked together on “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, “Summer Wars” is an exciting blend of family drama and technological thriller, moving from scenes of the family at dinner to the virtual world of OZ, where avatars such as the semi-legendary King Kazuma, do battle. There is a lot of heart and comedy in the film, derived from situation and character rather than cheap gags, that makes you feel a strong connection with Natsuki’s family. Kenji is also a fun protagonist, completely out of his depth in social situations, but extremely competent with maths and computers. It is impressive to see such a large family portrayed and while we are not given much information about the members, the group scenes give a sense of the chaos of such gatherings, with them speaking over each other and numerous things going on around the table. The story throws in a lot of elements, and with this cast of characters it’s hard to get bored. OZ is an interesting portrayal of an online space, a sparse clean look populated by a variety of different avatars, although the actual workings of it are somewhat fantastical. The animation overall is excellent, with expressive character design and a detailed world. Akihiko Matsumoto’s score is entertaining, with a traditional countryside feel to the rural family home shifting to distinct digitalised tune for the online world.

“Summer Wars” offers an interesting take on the idea of a metaverse, a secondary online world which mimics and has become an integral part of human society. It points out the danger of putting everything in one space like this, with even the police and fire service working through the OZ system. The film’s central message concerns communication both online and offline, drawing a comparison between the online characters who can communicate in every language on the planet, and the more traditional family gathering. The primary importance of communication to human relations is a theme that the film drives home. The grandmother is able to rally numerous people to their cause through family and acquaintances, using the phone; while Natsuki is later supported by a large online community. The technology is simply a conduit for human connection, and should not be seen as a replacement for it. The central village being an AI also speaks to this idea that humanity must always remember themselves and what is important, rather than allowing technology to change our attitudes towards one another. If there is one complaint about the film it is that Kenji and Natsuki’s relationship is not really touched on much throughout, but there is so much going on that it is hardly surprising. An entertaining film that brings up a lot of ideas about how humans will relate to each other in online spaces and a warning not to forget that it is communication that builds strong societies.