Thursday, November 30, 2023

Horrors in the Aftermath: Godzilla Minus One (2023) Review

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 US. 


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, abso-fuckin-lutely. 


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. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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