Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Notable Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki
Yamada, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Mio
Tanaka, Yuya Endo, Kisuke Iida, Saki Nagatani
At this point, we might be in one of the best ages for
Godzilla. As a long-time fan myself who used to watch Godzilla Vs Megalon
on repeat on a shitty VHS tape, it’s truly a golden age. Just in one year, we
have a new Godzilla TV show on Apple+, a new Godzilla/Kong film,
and the topic of this piece - the latest Toho Godzilla stand-alone
story, Godzilla Minus One. It’s so much content it’s hard for my heart
to hold it all in.
Godzilla is the word. And the word is spreading, even in the
Despite Godzilla’s dominance in newer US films, TV, and
video game appearances, it’s hard to deny that a new Toho Godzilla film isn’t
the most exciting thing from the kaiju franchise. Even though Godzilla Minus
One is essentially remaking the original Godzilla film at its base,
the participation of director/writer/visual FX guru Takashi Yamazaki and strong
initial marketing hyped this film to a new level. Could it hold a candle to the
strength of the last Toho Godzilla “reboot,” Shin Godzilla? Could it tell
a new story with Big G in a way that could still be exciting?
The standing ovation that Godzilla Minus One received
at my theatrical screening says in its own deafening Godzilla-like skreeonk,
Godzilla Minus One takes its blueprint from the 1954
original, but it retains its own identity. It is spectacle used for awe,
powered by a horrifying rendition of the thermonuclear kaiju, but it has so
much to say about the human condition in the wake of a horrific spectacle. Like
Shin Godzilla, the film is slinging a lot of socio-political messaging
in its narrative. Still, it is done through impressive humanistic character
storytelling in a tumultuous period of Japanese history after World War II. If Shin
Godzilla was a disaster film satire at its heart, Godzilla Minus One
is a war film, and it’s glorious in how that translates so seamlessly to the
kaiju blockbuster framework.
With its time being set in the wake of World War II, Godzilla
Minus One is very aware of its thematic and narrative weight. The film
focuses on its main protagonist, Koichi Shikishima, as he deals with the guilt
of abandoning his mission as a kamikaze pilot for the Japanese military during
the war. Not only that but the island he lands on finds itself and its small
group of mechanics under siege by a pre-nuke Godzilla. While the film moves
quickly into a post-war landscape and the devastation that Japan has seen from
it, the film is told chiefly through the traumatized and guilt-riddled eyes of
its protagonist as he desperately finds a reason to keep going - with the help
of a young woman, an orphaned baby, and some new friends on a small boat who
are tasked with blowing up unused sea mines.
At one point, Koichi, played by a haunted Ryunosuke Kamiki,
blatantly states that the war has never ended for him. A theme foreshadowing
how the monster that he saw during the war was only going to come back into his
life in an even more destructive form, powered by nuclear fire and manifested
as guilt incarnate.
Godzilla Minus One litters its landscape with an
ensemble of fantastic secondary characters, embodied through solid performances
that elevate caricatures into real people. As its narrative plays out, bringing
the makeshift family around Koichi back into the path of devastation, director
and writer Yamazaki nimbly navigates the war drama into a more traditional
kaiju formula. In many ways, Godzilla Minus One is a remake of the
original Godzilla, but its identity is forged in a modern lens of the
historical time frame, and it allows it to analyze many socio-political
elements with its characters - including gender roles and the dichotomy between
government and private citizens. It’s a brilliant script that sets the
foundation for a war film that just happens to replace its impending evil army
with an impending evil giant ass lizard.
This then begs the question - does Godzilla Minus One
succeed as a “Godzilla film” as much as it does as a war film? Although
Godzilla once again is off-screen for the majority of the film, which is not a
problem for me, but I know a handful of folks who will complain about that once
the film gets a wider release, his presence is daunting. Yamazaki plays the
expectations of his arrival with the utmost tension so that when the scarred
monster does appear - he’s absolutely horrifying.
An early appearance of Godzilla as he approaches the small
boat of our protagonist is played out like the finale of Jaws on steroids, and
the mid-film attack on Ginza showcases Big G’s devastating destruction in full.
This is not a Godzilla film to shy away from showing people being
crushed or hurled through the sky along with the crumbling buildings, and it
partners well with its “horrors of war” thematic threading. When Godzilla
finally busts out his “heat ray,” the results are truly impactful - visually
and aurally. The IMAX sound system of Godzilla iconic roar and explosive breath
rattled my ribs - in all the best ways.
Godzilla Minus One fully embraces its big battle sequence as
the final plan crafted by our heroes comes to fruition in the last act. Its
bombastic score, which heavily features the original Godzilla theme,
goes into full throttle, the heroism of its characters becomes infectious, and
its themes around the choice for life in the wake of death pulled a lot of
tears from my audience (and me, I suppose if I’m being honest).
It’s not that Godzilla Minus One is a perfect film,
it kills off one character in the most generic manner mid-film, and there’s a
reveal in the third act that feels a bit flat, but it’s so impressively
executed in so many of its choices that it's hard not to admit it might be one
of the best films in the almost-70 year franchise. The spectacle is gorgeously
crafted, the characters are heartfelt and layered, the thematic weight is
fantastically embedded into the narrative, and Godzilla returns to being the
horrifying manifestation of human flaws.
In a new golden age of Godzilla, Godzilla Minus One
is a modern classic that rises above just being a Godzilla film. It
rises from the depths to become one of the year's best films.