‘Godzilla Minus One’ Director ‘Flattered and Honored’ by Historic Oscar Nomination: ‘It Means So Much’

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True to his compulsive nature, Godzilla could not be ignored forever by the Oscars.

The King of the Monsters, first uncorked by Toho Studios 70 years ago, left a historical footprint on this year’s nominations. The acclaimed “Godzilla Minus One” is the first Japanese production ever nominated for Best Visual Effects and the first Godzilla movie nominated in any Oscar category. And director Takashi Yamazaki is the first filmmaker nominated for visual effects since Stanley Kubrick won his only Oscar for the effects in “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1969.

“To have my name next to Stanley Kubrick, no matter how niche or specific the list is, it means so much,” Yamazaki said. “I came into the film industry because of movies like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ But I started on the visual effects side and transitioned into writing and directing. So if there is any category to be nominated in, this is the one it was meant to be. I’m very flattered and honored by it.” (Our Zoom interview with Yamazaki was translated by interpreter Mikey McNamara.)

'Godzilla Minus One' director director Takashi Yamazaki (Toho Studios)
“Godzilla Minus One” director Takashi Yamazaki (Toho Studios)

Yamazaki, who exudes boyish enthusiasm at age 59, headed up the comparatively small 35-artist team that rendered about 600 VFX shots at the Japanese effects house Shirogumi. His and his team’s “hardest egg to crack” was to create the most photorealistic Godzilla ever that nonetheless still honored the man-in-a-rubber-suit aesthetic and odd charm of the original 1954 classic.

“Instead of doing all these complex muscle simulations, we opted for a much simpler animation tactic,” Yamazaki said. “In the rendering process, we only moved his bones, and that tactic gave us a much closer visual expression to the rubber-suit version of Godzilla. We closely studied exactly how he moved in the early films, the way he walked, while also infusing some of our own interpretation.”

Yamazaki also was inspired by his movie heroes. Just as Steven Spielberg took cues from the original “Godzilla” while preparing “Jaws,” Yamazaki rewatched the iconic killer shark movie while sketching the arc of his script.

“In terms of the team on the boat (in ‘Godzilla Minus One’), there is some resemblance,” he said. “There’s the skipper and the academic character. I didn’t intend to copy ‘Jaws,’ but in the end result, there are some similarities.”

He added with a smile, “Hopefully Steven doesn’t get too mad.”

An avid reader of books about movie productions, Yamazaki was aware of the tremendous challenge that Spielberg faced in shooting on water. “As I was filming, I was thinking, ‘Well, Spielberg went through all this a few decades ago.’ For us, we were also having to match real waves with computer-generated waves in the same shots. Had the whole thing been rendered in CG, it would have been easier. That was the toughest part – matching the level of detail and resolution of the water and trying to make it feel consistent.”

In the tradition of the original “Godzilla” (and Spielberg’s work), Yamazaki conveys profound drama through reaction shots of the cast, especially his lead actor, Ryunosuke Kamiki, who plays a surviving kamikaze pilot wracked with guilt in post-war Japan. “The Eternal Zero,” a provocative 2013 film by Yamazaki, was also about the plight of kamikaze pilots. And while praised for its humanistic angle, the film was also criticized in Japan because of its perceived nationalism.

But now, Yamazaki’s monster movie offers a more sophisticated critique of Japan’s sacrifices, resilience and catharsis in the aftermath of the atomic bombs. “Godzilla Minus One,” as more than one clever observer has pointed out, can also be viewed as a sequel to “Oppenheimer.” In archival footage, there’s even an appearance by American general Douglas MacArthur.

Speaking on the ability of science fiction to comment on the real world, the director explained, “I’ve always been struck by the story of how Ridley Scott pushed really hard for ‘Alien’ not to be just thrown in the horror bucket. That is inspiring to me. ‘Godzilla’ has a tendency to be looked at as, ‘It’s just big creatures smashing buildings.’ But there’s another layer of human drama that I wanted to infuse and make a part of the whole experience. Audiences can handle both.”

Yamazaki can’t help but smile at the fact that another Scott film, “Napoleon,” is also nominated for Best Visual Effects. As is “The Creator,” directed by Gareth Edwards, who made the 2014 version of “Godzilla.” In a recent joint interview, Edwards told Yamazaki, “I watched your amazing film and spent the whole time very, very jealous.”

“It’s a really surreal experience,” Yamazaki said. “You look at the other nominees and it’s like we’ve wandered into this festival of the gods. For me, I’ve considered Industrial Light & Magic to be the highest standard of what VFX means – always on the cutting edge of technology and visual expression. And this year, there are four films that have some ILM involvement and then our film. It’s hard to process. We’re just humbled to join this exclusive club.”

This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

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