Written and Directed by Takashi Yamazaki | 124 min | ▲▲▲▲△
We’ve had plenty of Godzilla to enjoy in recent years, mostly in the ever expanding Monarch monster-verse, the Hollywood-licensed take on the legendary Japanese beastie. The American Godzilla showed up with some success here, and then in an abysmal sequel, and most recently and more successfully at odds with a giant ape of some renown. There’s also a Monarch show to be watched on AppleTV+.
But, let’s be honest, the best Godzilla movies come from the source, Toho Studios, the Japanese production house that gave us the original way back in 1954. Their Shin Godzilla remains my favourite of the 21st Century as both a gigantic monster movie and a satire of Japanese bureaucracy.
Godzilla Minus One, also from Toho, is a blast, too. The first stroke of genius for this one is setting it back in the post-war period.
Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a kamikaze pilot who refuses to die for a lost cause. In his shame he lands on a remote island claiming his plane is malfunctioning, but the mechanics, led by Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki), find nothing wrong. After a first contact with Godzilla, Shikishima finds his way back to a Tokyo in ruins where he reconnects with a neighbour (Sakura Andô) who chastises him for not doing his duty, while informing him his parents died in the bombing. He also meets a local woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), caring for a baby that’s not her own. They help each other rebuild their lives over the next couple of years, but then, Godzilla returns. Shikishima, teaming up with a group of mine-hunters and scientists, puts a plan together to destroy the creature before it can kill more people.
The old-school melodrama is thick in this one. Shikishima’s guilt from the war is a weight he must find a way to put down, and the monster provides a healthy opportunity. The question is, will he sacrifice his life the way he was trained to do or find another way to protect Japan and his new family?
The film explores a host of heavy themes with a deep nationalistic streak, but as the traumatized population comes together to find a way to stop Godzilla, the period trappings lend it a comforting anachronism. All Godzilla movies are freighted with nuclear anxiety, even in 2023, but it isn’t hard to connect this one to fears of extreme weather, the climate crisis, and continuing chaos on geopolitical fronts.
The human drama is sticky and sincere, but what works best are a number of exceptional set pieces and sensational blockbuster effects — especially impressive considering this film was made at a fraction of the cost of its American counterparts and looks better than many of them. The monster itself is enormous, elemental, and frightening, and longtime fans are likely to thrill to the return of the original musical themes by Akira Ifukube.
Seen in IMAX, it’s hard to compare the movie to anything else as effective at this scale lately aside from Oppenheimer, with which it shares an atomic horror, though Godzilla Minus One has the edge on the popcorn escapism front.