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Godzilla, Oscar newbie, stomps into the Academy Awards

AP Film Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Godzilla has been to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, San Francisco, Boston, Moscow, London and Hawaii. But before now, he’s never been to the Oscars.

When the Academy Awards roll around on March 10, Godzilla will stretch its scaly, reptilian legs down the Oscars red carpet for the first time in the franchise’s 70-year history. “Godzilla Minus One,” the 37th film in the film series, is nominated for best visual effects.

Though one of the most potent and long-running (or at least long-stomping) forces in movies, Godzilla has never before rubbed elbows at the Academy Awards. Its domain has been, well, the Pacific Ocean, but also the more popcorn-chomping realm of moviedom. Laying waste to metropolises has not, typically, been a gateway to Hollywood’s biggest night.

“We knew of the existence of the Oscars, of course, but there was never any kind of link between what was happening on the other side of the world and what we were doing,” says Takashi Yamazaki, the writer-director of “Godzilla Minus One.” “It’s entirely unexpected that these two worlds collide.”

But “Godzilla Minus One” has proven to be an especially border-breaking phenomenon. And its success at both the Oscars and the box office reflects a deeper shift in moviegoer — and Oscar voter — tastes toward international productions.

“Godzilla Minus One,” the first Toho Godzilla film since 2016’s “Shin Godzilla,” was an unexpected hit when it landed in North American theaters in December. Though it was largely intended for Japanese audiences, “Godzilla Minus One” became the highest-grossing Japanese live-action film ever in the U.S. and Canada. Only two international live-action movies — “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life Is Beautiful” — collected more than the $56.4 million grossed by “Godzilla Minus One.”

It’s all the more impressive because the film was made, somewhat miraculously, with a budget of less than $15 million. Some 610 effects shots were created by Yamazaki, who also served as effects supervisor, and his small team of artists. Lacking the budget for hydraulics, the crew shook would shake a boat set to mimic ocean bobbing or rotate a cockpit to simulate flying. Godzilla, nominated alongside films like “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” and “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” — is this time a plucky underdog.

Set in the waning days of World War II and just before the events of the 1954 original by Ishirō Honda, “Godzilla Minus One” was also roundly acclaimed by critics who praised it for returning to the essence of Godzilla and grounding it in a Japanese perspective. Godzilla fans marveled at what Yamazaki accomplished. At the Oscar luncheon, Steven Spielberg warmly greeted Yamazaki and told him he had seen “Godzilla Minus One” three times.

“Quite frankly, I wasn’t looking at the world when we set out to make this movie,” Yamazaki said in a recent interview. “A lot of our team members said, ‘Oh, it’s Godzilla, The whole world is going to see this. You have to treat it differently.’ I told them all: ‘This is a small budget film made for a certain audience.’ They’ve proved me wrong and I’m very happy that they did.”

Much has been made of the pairing of “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” but the better double feature for Christopher Nolan’s film might be “Godzilla Minus One.” Across seven decades of movies, Godzilla has been deployed in a variety of ways. But “Godzilla Minus One” returns to the essential nature of Godzilla as a sober symbol of nuclear holocaust and atomic trauma.

In the 1954 original, Godzilla is woken by hydrogen-bomb testing. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka once said: “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind has created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

Ironically, that “Godzilla” didn’t reach American audiences at the time. The version released in the U.S. was heavily edited and stripped of much of political themes. Raymond Burr, a Canadian actor, was inserted in new footage.

For some Western moviegoers, “Godzilla Minus One” is a truer introduction of Godzilla, one of the movies’ greatest and grandest metaphors, than ever before.

“One of the many interpretations of Godzilla, through the evolution of the series of films over the years, has been forgotten — which is the original interpretation,” says Yamazaki. “Given the current state of affairs, what the world is going through right now, I thought it was very important that message not be forgotten. My intent was to put a spotlight on what Godzilla represented.”

In “Godzilla Minus One,” just as WWII is ending, Godzilla is growing. He begins appearing off the coast of Tokyo. For a kamikaze pilot Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), who didn’t kill himself in battle, confronting Godzilla offers a chance for redemption. When Koichi returns to Japan, he finds his parents dead and the city in ruins. Meanwhile, American bomb tests on Bikini Atoll are fueling Godzilla’s power.

Recent Hollywood versions of Godzilla have put the kaiju into less Japan-centric contexts. The last was 2021’s “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Legendary Pictures, which licenses the character from Toho, will on March 29 release with Warner Bros. “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.” If not for its coming debut, “Godzilla Minus One” might still be playing in theaters. It bowed out of cinemas in late January after the one-week run of a black-and-white version.

But unlike more broadly blockbuster-styled Godzilla films, “Godzilla Minus One” is rigorously rooted in a Japanese perspective. Some have lamented that “Oppenheimer,” in staying close to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story, leaves out any Japanese experience of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But what’s absent of “Oppenheimer” is everywhere in “Godzilla Minus One.”

Yamazaki has only seen an English version of “Oppenheimer”; the film hasn’t yet been released in Japan. But he believes it’s telling that both he and Nolan were separately drawn back to the dawn of the nuclear era.

“The world, in some sense, has forgotten the implications, the impact, the ramifications of what a nuclear war could entail,” Yamazaki says. “How bad that can be, our collective awareness has been either desensitized or we’ve simply forgotten about because so much time has passed. This increased level of threat and the possible usage of it, perhaps humanity on a very subconscious level is feeling that and we’re somehow compelled to address it or come up with our interpretations to this issue.”

Another Oscar-nominee, Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron,” is likewise set around World War II. The best animated feature nominee opens with the firebombing of Tokyo and the death of a boy’s mother. The boy, taken to the countryside, is forced to process his grief (his father marries his dead wife’s sister) while navigating a secret dream world.

“The Boy and the Heron,” too, was a box-office hit for the venerated anime master Miyazaki — another recent example of international cinema attracting big U.S. audiences.

“This whole experience has made me realize and appreciate the literacy of the international moviegoing audience and the North American moviegoing audience,” says Yamazaki. “That relates not just to ‘Godzilla Minus One’ but ‘Oppenheimer.’ There’s so much political and historical nuance and baggage that those films carry, but audiences can find it entertaining and also critically acclaimed.”

Godzilla will, hopefully, land at the Academy Awards a little more peacefully than he has in previous international trips. But he may walk away victorious. Some oddsmakers favor “Godzilla Minus One” to win. Either way, Yamazaki has been carrying a small Godzilla figurine in his hands wherever he goes.

“It was Godzilla who brought us here,” Yamazaki says.


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