THE STORY – Post-war Japan is at its lowest point when a new crisis emerges in the form of a giant monster baptized in the horrific power of the atomic bomb.
THE CAST – Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando, Yuki Yamada & Kuranosuke Sasaki
THE TEAM – Takashi Yamazaki (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 125 Minutes
Few characters have cultural relevance as much as the iconic Kaijū Godzilla. For almost seventy years, moviegoers have flocked to theaters to enjoy watching the classic movie monster rampage innocent cities and even fight other popular monsters. As we speak, there is about to be a new Godzilla series on Apple TV, and there are plans to make another sequel to the Warner Bros. “Monsterverse.” Despite Godzilla’s impact on popular media, it could be hard to make Godzilla feel like anything other than another Kaijū flick after all this time. Sure, audiences will still show up no matter what, as long as Godzilla’s name is in the title, but like anything else, the formula can get stale after a while. With “Godzilla Minus One,” director Takashi Yamazaki delivers a satisfactory experience with all the essentials to be found within a Godzilla film and leaves audiences with an impactful drama about the will to keep moving forward in the face of unimaginable destruction.
Set in post-war Japan, “Godzilla Minus One” follows a disgraced kamikaze pilot named Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki). He has fled from his duty to sacrifice his life for his country and their cause. As Shikishima attempts to reconcile from his self-perceived cowardice, he runs into the one and only Godzilla and witnesses firsthand the destruction that he brings. He eventually crosses paths with Noriko Oishi (played by Minami Hamabe) and a young child she adopted during the aftermath of the air raids from the war. Shikishima and Noriko (both bonded by loss) attempt to build a new life together in Tokyo. Yet the survivor’s guilt plagues Shikishima, and he has to face it as Godzilla continues to threaten not only his home but also those he cares for.
Being unfamiliar with most non-American Godzilla films, there’s something so refreshing about watching “Godzilla Minus One” and seeing Godzilla absent for large portions of it. The film, for the most part, plays out like a melodrama about a man coping with his PTSD, and Godzilla becomes the embodiment of this trauma that he cannot avoid. It could’ve been easier to align with most interpretations from Western media, where it’s just Godzilla destroying objects for two hours. Sure, that is always entertaining to a degree, but Yamazaki was more interested in going in a different direction. “Godzilla Minus One” is very much dedicated to making a character study that explores the ramifications of war and its effect on those trying to establish normalcy in their lives again. Of course, normalcy is impossible when you have a giant lizard causing mass destruction that is unparalleled to anything seen before.
Don’t worry; Yamazaki also delivers on all the great Kaijū mayhem audiences come for as well. The way he captures the scale of Godzilla is creative and feels tactile. From the first appearance of Godzilla, you see him chomping soldiers to pieces and laying waste on a small airfield. This only escalates as the monster goes from attacking aircraft carriers to eventually laying waste to large cities. Unlike other interpretations of Godzilla, seeing the Ginza sequence is quite horrifying. Audiences will feel the impact of each blow Godzilla delivers, and by the end, the destruction left in his path leaves viewers feeling quite somber.
While it is fantastic to see Yamazaki flex Godzilla’s power during the film’s more action-oriented sequences, he doesn’t shy away from how detrimental these attacks are toward innocent civilians. It’s even more devastating as it’s only a couple of years removed from the aftermath of World War II and in this regard, Yamazaki perfectly balances the line between melodrama and traditional monster film. There will be a certain crowd who will be adamant in their criticism of the special effects in the film, which would be quite misguided. In the past few years, special effects (mainly CGI) have been under the scrutiny of the public eye in most Hollywood films as the quality of work has dropped. This is primarily due to certain studios becoming allergic to committing to practical effects or the overworking of VFX artists, which results in less than desired results. The result resembles a film like “RRR” from last year. The craft is solid for the overseas VFX studio, and at the end of the day, the final results aren’t bad enough to take away or distract from the genuine emotion Yamazaki conveys with his direction. The only time the special effects become slightly distracting is with more of the backgrounds in certain scenes than with Godzilla himself. The way Godzilla slowly walks around the city actually feels more reminiscent of older monster films than what we typically see today. Watching this Godzilla lack mobility and move at a more stagnant rate helps sell the creeping, dreadful terror that the powerless civilians experience.
The only major issue with “Godzilla Minus One” is that it feels underwhelming where the story eventually ends up. Seeing Shikishima evolve throughout the film is very fulfilling. But by the end of his journey, it feels like the film is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to end on a positive note, which is fine, especially with how it ties into Shikishima’s story, but it somewhat comes at the expense of that transformation. Not to mention, being a film in a long-running franchise, “Godzilla Minus One” begrudgingly leads to setting up an eventual sequel in this universe. While it doesn’t entirely nail the ending, everything that comes before it is a delight, especially for longtime fans of the franchise. With its focus on character and strong themes, Hollywood should take a note from “Godzilla Minus One” and make more monster films akin to what Yamazki has achieved with this film.