Why some say it’s significant ‘Godzilla Minus One’ won an Oscar the same year ‘Oppenheimer’ did

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For many Japanese Americans, the Oscar win for “Godzilla Minus One” on Sunday symbolized much more than just a place in the halls of film excellence.

The kaiju monster movie, which takes place in a postwar Japan that’s grappling with devastation and loss, took home the prize for best visual effects, the first Academy Award in the franchise’s 70-year history. Against the backdrop of a ceremony dominated by “Oppenheimer,” a film focused on the man behind the atomic bomb, many Japanese Americans say the win for “Godzilla Minus One” felt like a small acknowledgment of their historical pain.

“There’s so many movies that try to humanize these people who’ve done horrific things,” said Dylan Adler, a Los Angeles-based comedian of Japanese descent. “But there’s so little media or movies at all talking about the Japanese civilians that died in the trauma that [the bombings] caused. That is why ‘Godzilla’ the movie — I love that it also won an Oscar the same year that ‘Oppenheimer’ did.”

“Godzilla Minus One” follows kamikaze pilot Koichi, who fails to follow through on a suicide mission yet, while returning from the battlefield, manages to miraculously survive the monster.

But upon his return home, he discovers that his parents and neighbors have died. Wrestling with his own survivor’s guilt as Godzilla continues to wreak havoc among civilians, Koichi seeks to redeem himself by going head-to-head with the monster.

The monster was historically written as a metaphor for the ills of nuclear weapons and atomic testing. William Tsutsui, the author of “Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters,” said its heavily furrowed skin or scales were imagined to resemble the keloid scars of survivors of the two atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Though there’s no explicit focus on the atomic bomb in “Godzilla Minus One,” the film illustrates the enormous magnitude of grief that grips the country after the war.

Meanwhile, “Oppenheimer” — which took home seven Oscars for its portrayal of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the integral figure in the top-secret U.S. effort to make the first atomic bomb — has received heavy criticism for its absence of Japanese loss. In fact, in one scene, when Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, is giving a speech, he visualizes the members of his predominantly white audience as victims of the bomb. Others also criticized the film for portraying the burden of guilt around the weapons falling on Oppenheimer alone.

Nolan said he chose not to illustrate the aftermath of the bombings or the victims because “to depart from Oppenheimer’s experience would betray the terms of the storytelling.”

“He learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the radio — the same as the rest of the world,” Nolan said in a discussion with NBC News’ Chuck Todd. “That, to me, was a shock. … Everything is his experience, or my interpretation of his experience. Because as I keep reminding everyone, it’s not a documentary. It is an interpretation. That’s my job.”

Cillian Murphy in
Cillian Murphy in

For decades, Adler said, U.S. media has uplifted stories of American heroism and tragedy after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, associating those of Japanese descent with Japanese imperial forces.

“It is just one side of the war. It truly is just the American, white side of the war,” Adler said. “That is the only perspective that is shown.”

Coupled with Japan’s own history of colonization, Adler said, speaking about the grief of Japanese people has almost felt taboo. But the recognition of “Godzilla Minus One” has felt like a bit of “catharsis,” he said.

“That was a film devised from the trauma of the two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians, and the fact that it did win an Oscar does make me hopeful,” he said.

Phil Sakanashi, an Irvine, California-based photographer, said he was heartened when he saw that the academy had recognized “Godzilla Minus One.” But he’s not quite ready to say the award symbolizes greater openness toward Japanese and Japanese American stories.

“Half my family’s in Japan, and half my family’s in the U.S. I’ve seen both sides. I’d love to see a broader understanding and recognition of what the people have gone through,” he said. “My grandfather in Japan, he died partially because of just the shame and the pain it caused him to fight for his country and to lose. And on the other side, my American side, my great uncle’s in the [442nd Infantry Regiment, made up of second-generation Japanese American soldiers], and I’ve had family in camps. It was devastating on both sides.”

Tsutsui said the original movie, released in 1954, drew laughs in theaters from American audiences, interpreted as a low-budget cheesy monster movie. The latest movie’s award at the Oscars could represent a shift in how some interpret Japanese cinema.

“Those of us who are baby boomers, who grew up with a certain stereotype of what a Godzilla movie is — that is to say, badly dubbed, poor special effects — we’re increasingly in the minority,” Tsutsui said. “People who are younger today and on the cutting edge are looking at movies for what they are, rather than as part of a much longer history. And they recognize ‘Godzilla Minus One’ is a great movie that had wonderful special effects. That, to me, is a very positive change.”

However, Tsutsui said he’s not so sure whether academy voters appreciated the movie beyond its special effects value.

“I think they just went and saw this movie and said it has great visual effects. … It really is the wonderful job that [director Takashi] Yamazaki and the team did,” he said.

And as positive as the night was for “Godzilla” fans, others still worry that the “Oppenheimer” sweep will send the wrong message.

“I understand the story [‘Oppenheimer’ director Christopher] Nolan was trying to tell was from Oppenheimer’s perspective, but to completely neglect the lived experiences of Japanese civilians by excluding all images of the actual destruction wrought by the atomic bombs has aligned this film within historic propaganda narratives and essentially justifies the existence of nuclear weapons,” said Rob Buscher, a longtime Godzilla fan and the executive director at the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium. “I personally believe that the success of ‘Oppenheimer’ will further erase the reality of human suffering from the discourse related to the atomic bomb.”

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This article was originally published on NBCNews.com