It’s been a big final month of 2023 for overseas fans of Asian cinema, with some all-stars bringing their game to cinemas. John Woo returns to American movies again with Silent Night. Hayao Miyazaki simply returns, with The Boy and the Heron. And with a name even more well known than those cinema legends, the kaiju king, the monarch of monsters, returns yet again. Godzilla is back.
For context, this reviewer dipped into the Godzilla back catalogue for the first time about four years ago. Number one on the watch list was the powerful and harrowing original Godzilla, followed by a smattering of the charming later Showa era movies such as Godzilla: Invasion of Astro-Monster, with their crazy plots and monster vs monster smackdowns, and a couple of the American monsterverse films that kicked off with the 2014 Godzilla. At time of writing, I haven’t seen Shin Godzilla, the previous Japanese take on the story, nor have I dipped into any other kaiju settings. No Gamera, no Ultraman, no Big Man Japan. So while Godzilla Minus One felt familiar enough, it will likely be an even bigger deal for dedicated fans.
This film is another serious telling of the emergence of the giant cryptid, setting itself apart from any other continuity, while featuring all the roaring, blasting, infrastructure destruction and last ditch human attempts to survive, that make kaiju films their own genre. Story reset notwithstanding, Godzilla Minus One feels in conversation with the original 1954 film, starting with the fact that it goes back in time to a similar period in history. Godzilla Minus One opens in the last days of World War II, a setting already rife with conflict and upheaval. The trick with kaiju flicks is to make the human story compelling — or wacky — enough to fill the gaps between the monstrous set pieces and ideally to bring the human scale drama and epic scale action together in a meaningful way. For the most part, the movie pulls this trick off.
On the human side of the equation, the main character is Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a Japanese pilot. He returns home to Tokyo after the end of the war to find the city in ruins — an ominous scene, given what Godzilla typically does to Tokyo in a movie bearing his name. Shikishima attempts to rebuild his life, along with Noriko (Minami Hamabe), a woman who, out of nowhere, hands him a baby to get out of a tight spot. These three people form a found family and along with some other supporting characters set about getting themselves and the country back up and running.
Godzilla Minus One flies into touchy territory in its opening moments considering the mission Shikishima is involved in. Director Takashi Yamazaki has covered the subject of certain Japanese war tactics before in his controversial 2013 film Eternal Zero, but in this case the question of sacrificing oneself for a greater cause is all in service of Shikishima’s journey as a character. His war will not be over until the fear and guilt lurking in his mind can be expunged. From what we see however, the horror that keeps him up at night is not so much the Second World War itself, but something else that happened while he was out there.
On the monster side of the character equation, this Godzilla lives up to the legend. The destructive force of a tornado, earthquake and volcano, rolled into one and housed in the body of the most terrible lizard that ever lived, he’s a towering force of nature.
I was surprised how soon Godzilla appeared in the original film, popping his immense brow over the brow of a hill and belting out one of his iconic roars. He appears even earlier in Godzilla Minus One, but in a fashion that means seeing the monster in the flesh doesn’t get old too soon. The threat of him haunts the early stretch of the film as Japan rebuilds, and scenes of a small crew on a small wooden boat carry the same undercurrent of dread that made the shark hunt in Jaws so tense. The leviathan is lurking somewhere out there beneath the surface. One classic feature of Godzilla movies that is withheld for quite a while is the strident theme music. When it does boom out, the atmosphere of impending doom ascends to a new level.
Once the scaly, spiky beast is chomping and stomping away in earnest, the human drama converges with the larger scale peril. It’s time to rally the troops, or rather, the civilians, as the post-war situation makes a military response impracticable. The goal is still to destroy Godzilla before Japan is destroyed again, but it will take more than guns to do the job. One touch of nuance missing from Godzilla Minus One is the naturalist angle. There is a note of regret in the 1954 film, mainly espoused by Takashi Shimura’s character, that the urgent need to prevent Godzilla’s rampages rules out the chance to learn more about the gargantuan creature. The possibility of understanding or studying this Godzilla is never raised.
Other individual character responses to the dire situation are varied and interesting, but the nuts and bolts of the build up to the showdown gets to be a bit of a slog. There’s a long meeting to explain the operation, where objections are raised and countered, but then a follow up scene has a smaller group of characters raising more questions and this discussion tapers off without really being wrapped up. When the time for action arrives it is clearly shown on screen to great effect, but even then, an ace final move has also been set up, so the big main plan is kind of dramatically redundant.
Some other stakes are outlined to give the finale some extra weight. This civilian operation is carried out with the hope that everyone will survive, placing a strong value on human life in marked contrast to the death caused by Japan’s imperial ambitions and the resulting fallout. Preserving human life is easier when the opposition isn’t human, but the hope that none of those lives will be sacrificed stretches back to the film’s opening moments, tying the arc of Godzilla Minus One as a whole into a neat package.
The denouement unfortunately undermines the preceding drama with a couple of last minute reveals. One of these was emotionally resonant, but the other was quite deflating, even though I grudgingly understand why it is there. These grumbles are still not enough to undo my enjoyment of the impressive scale and robust intertwining of the human and monstrous stories over the previous two hours, and hearing the Japanese “Gojira” spoken throughout the movie gave me the warm fuzzies, even with my nostalgia for this film series measured in a mere single digit number of years.