2023 | PG-13 | starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe | written & directed by Takashi Yamazaki | 2h 4m | In Japanese with Subtitles |
Godzilla Minus One roars across the ocean and around the world on the 60th anniversary of the big G’s debut and delivers a thrilling ride that celebrates the film’s history while deliver it’s own absorbing original story with an angle that- in all that time – we have never seen in a Godzilla film before. The film is a triumph – balancing a period piece, a character study on national grief and a big crowd-pleasing cheer-the-heroes monster movie with glorious disaster set pieces. I loved it.
Post World War II Japan has been devastated by war and partly obliterated by the dropping of the nuclear bomb. Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki, regular Studio Gibli voice performer) is a Kamikaze pilot whose plane failure prevents him from completing his mission and forces him to return to his bombed-out home only to be greeted as a coward. He reluctantly ends up sharing his life with an also abandoned woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe) who has also come across an abandoned child. As the two grow as a surrogate family, disaster strikes when mythical monster Godzilla, mutated in size by atomic testing, marches on land and destroys everything and everyone in it’s path, wreaking atomic vengeance on a country already on the brink of collapse.
Like most of the straight-horror Godzilla films, they’re never really about Godzilla. It’s common for him to be used as an embodiment of nuclear age fear even decades after the bombs went off so it’s smart for Minus One to take us back to Post-War Japan, while at the same time I can’t recall the dinosaur being used for a specific metaphor for an individual character the way he is for Shikishima here. As he literally says, Shikishima’s war isn’t over and here comes a new threat and an opportunity for possible redemption or complete annihilation. It’s simple, but it’s carefully built over the first act as Koichi and Noriko awkwardly try to put back the pieces of their own separate, shattered lives. That, plus a colorful cast of characters that surround our leads really fleshes out the world.
There are moments in this movie where I had both thought “are they showing Godzilla too much?” and “Godzilla hasn’t been around for a while”. He’s shown early in full, but then kept sparingly, maximizing each appearance throughout the film. The version of Godzilla is downright terrifying. There’s a rage and a cruelty to him. Visually, he looks spectacular. The whole movie looks terrific. The special effects have heft and weight. We spend a lot of time on the ground level with people running through crowds and get a good sense of the scale of this threat (one of the things that Gareth Edwards’ terrific 2014 American Godzilla did as well). In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Godzilla chases a small tugboat through the ocean, a scene that shows Godzilla in his most reptilian and surrounds the characters (and audience) in a vast open ocean. The town Koichi returns evokes the post-apocalyptic rubble look of Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (and the title seems to evoke it too).
In a Hollywood era where an entire generation of writers can’t and won’t write a true cheer-the-heroes popcorn film, it’s nice to see that someone still can. Godzilla Minus One stands in opposition to almost every current Hollywood moviemaking trend. In an environment that is irony poisoned, it (like last year’s Terrifier 2) is a sincere film that doesn’t feel the need to signal to the audience that it’s also a bit campy. It has the nerve to create melodrama, letting it’s characters cry and flail before the camera in a way American movies program us to snicker at. The film weaves little nods into it to previous films, bellowing the original theme as Godzilla shows up in the city of Ginza, without beating us over the head with it. Dropping it in the Deep Movie Analysis Chamber, it’s also an interrogation of the Disposable Male Trope. With every man from Independence Day to Armageddon to Wonder Woman blowing themselves up to save the day at the drop of a hat, Minus One works through that moral question, not taking sacrifice lightly and complicating it with issues of love and duty.
It also defiantly rejects the recent trend of movies attempting to subvert our expectations by delivering twists in the plot or characters out of nowhere for the sake of shaking up the audience and not being “predictable”. Godzilla Minus One presents the exact inverse of that – possibly to a fault. This movie tells us exactly what it’s going to do and then does just that. It doesn’t just tell us plan A and B, but also C and D. While it’s true that a well written movie is going to be solvable, is going to line the clues out for us, Minus One could have done a better job of hiding those clues. We’re not supposed to know everything. And yet, watching the film’s final open water grand finale play out is still deeply satisfying. Satisfying in a way I haven’t seen much of this year.
I have a nit-pick with the climax, which I won’t reveal here, but to say that the movie choses to create a sense of mystery in it’s climactic moment when it would have been better to just hit the gas and go, making a clear definitive statement about the choice Shikishima was making. It’s rare for a movie to be so tightly written and clear in it’s theme that a single action wraps up all of it’s storylines. The finale is so well done this moment of uncertainty takes the air out of it a bit.
Giant monster movies perpetually have an issue with how to awkwardly integrate the human stories into the action, often feeling they could be pulled out all together. Godzilla Minus One is the exact opposite. It knows exactly what to do with both it’s monster and it’s human characters. It’s a post-war character drama that also has Godzilla in it and that strong human backbone elevates both sides, aiming to please Kaiju fans and surprise non-fans. If it’s not perfect, it’s damn near-perfect. One of the best movies of the year and best Godzilla movie of my lifetime. Godzilla already has many fans, but this is the kind of movie that creates Godzilla fans.