Has it really been almost 70 years since Godzilla was created?
When you think of a monster movie, Godzilla is usually the first monster that comes to mind. Everything about him is iconic and his reputation within the industry is legendary… for the most part. With 38 films in the series, there are most certainly going to be moments in the kaiju’s career that aren’t exactly praiseworthy, like whenever those dirty Americans get ahold of him. I kid of course, as the franchise has always ranged from excellence to mediocrity depending on the era, with Toho pumping out titles at an unheard-of pace in the 60s to mixed results.
I bring all of this up because we’re currently in a Renaissance of sorts for the King of the Monsters. The last major Godzilla between the recent Apple TV+ series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters and the upcoming Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, the American side of the franchise is actually pumping out good titles. As for Japan, it’s been seven years since the last major Godzilla film, Shin Godzilla, gave the folks at Toho the time to craft a truly great Godzilla movie to celebrate his 70th anniversary that i was able to see early at the Japan Society.
And thankfully, that anniversary project is a triumph. Godzilla Minus One is a wonderful love letter to everything that Godzilla is and will be.
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Godzilla Minus One
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Release Date: December 1, 2023 (Theatrical)
Set in the aftermath of World War II, Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a disgraced kamikaze pilot with severe PTSD. At first, it’s because he abandoned a suicide mission, instead choosing to land on a small island and hide out until the fighting is done. While hiding out on the island, he encounters Godzilla, who murders all of the mechanics present. Shikishima returns home to a destroyed Japan and begins to rebuild, forming a found family of sorts with a woman named Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and a baby that she found. Shikishima is still haunted by his memories of the war and Godzilla, made even worse by Godzilla’s sudden reappearance and rampant destruction. Alongside a group of veterans, it’s up to Shikishima to not only stop Godzilla but find some purpose in his life after fleeing the war.
Godzilla Minus One is a very back-to-basics film for the franchise. While there are plenty of metaphors and symbolism present in the film, it’s remarkable just how simple a lot of the movie is compared to other entries. There are no massive government conspiracies or different monsters vying for screen time. This is Godzilla’s movie and he owns every second he’s onscreen. He just perfectly encapsulates this sense of fear and awe-inspiring power whenever he stomps around and lays waste to anything in his way. He’s only present in a handful of scenes, but you can’t help but be impressed at what he’s capable of.
Despite only having a budget of around $15, you wouldn’t be able to tell that from what’s on screen. Godzilla Minus One feels like a blockbuster in all of the best ways. Action scenes feel massive in scale and with plenty of extras running around, it only helps to increase the scale and scope of the destruction present. Granted, most of the scenes that don’t involve Godzilla take place in ridiculously small and barren environments, but you don’t really notice that given the solid character drama present in the film.
As someone who rarely cares about the human cast in a Godzilla movie, I found the story of Shikishima to be effective. He’s haunted by the war and how that, alongside his encounter with Godzilla, led to extreme survivor’s guilt, which impacts every decision he makes. He feels he’s undeserving of Noriko’s affection because he’s a coward who left people to die multiple times and feels that he needs to defeat Godzilla to atone for his weakness or die to be at peace. In that way, there’s an element of Moby Dick present in the film as Shikishima tries to hunt his own white whale to find some peace in his life.
The rest of the supporting cast also does a standout job, effectively creating a sharp divide between those people who have experienced war firsthand and those who were removed and view the veteran’s actions as noble and praiseworthy. At times, the reverence the non-combatants put on the military is rejected by these veterans as they argue that war and killing others is nothing to be praised for. There’s a lot to really dig into in how Godzilla Minus One depicts the military, specifically veterans, in a sympathetic light and the difficulties of post-war Japan, and a lot of time is spent just fleshing that dynamic out. There’s actual meat to the bones of the film that requires some pause for thought and heavy contemplation.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie does exactly this, as we watch a bunch of veterans begin to prepare an assault against Godzilla before he attacks Tokyo. They know what they signed up for and are doing so voluntarily, but instead of a grim aura of death hanging over them, there’s optimism. They laugh at the fact that this isn’t a suicide mission, despite the odds being demonstrably against them. They laugh as they load up ships and prepare all of the necessary weapons to defeat Godzilla, comfortable in the fact that they chose to do this and they’re not being forced into it. They made the decision to protect the future of Japan, and that’s all that matters to them.
There actually is a hopeful message to the film, one that affirms that life is worth living no matter the cost. Godzilla usually serves as a metaphor in his films (or at the very least in the good ones), and here he’s a symbol of war trauma. Wherever he goes, he leaves destruction and scars anyone who encounters him both physically and mentally. Most of the cast of veterans say that when they’re trying to stop Godzilla the war never ended for them, and for these characters that’s true. But the film’s ultimate thesis is that the darkness can be overcome and people can go on to rebuild their lives, much in the same way Japan rebuilt after World War II.
Is the film perfect? No, but its flaws aren’t major. The second act of the film tends to drag a bit as we’re building up towards the inevitable climax and while I do like a lot of the messages and themes of the film, that doesn’t mean that the characters themselves are really fleshed out. Shikishima is, but Noriko feels like more of a tool for Shikishima’s development, and his coworkers all fall into very basic archetypes. They’re funny, especially the captain of the ship and his gruff disdain for the government, but they’re not especially impactful. And of course, I will always bemoan that we don’t have enough Godzilla, but that’s something I don’t hold against the film since when he’s present, he’s unforgettable.
I’m not the biggest Godzilla fan personally, but Godzilla Minus One made me a believer. The film is an optimistic and hopeful film not only in the strength of the Japanese spirit but also in faith in the power of Godzilla as a brand. This is a perfect entry point for people who want to get into the series, not only due to its placement in the 1940s but because it’s everything that you could want from a Godzilla movie. There’s good character drama, powerful metaphors, and of course, tons of destruction that will leave you in awe. THIS is how you make a Godzilla movie. Legendary Pictures, take notes.