Godzilla Minus One

My friends, I would be perfectly happy with just another cool Godzilla movie. That’s what I want to see. But it turns out the new one, GODZILLA MINUS ONE, is an actual masterpiece. I think you could say the same of 2016’s SHIN GODZILLA, a visionary take on the big guy. This one, from writer/director/special effects supervisor Takashi Yamazaki (RETURNER, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO), is more of a sweeping emotional one. Set between 1945 and 1947, it’s a serious and very involving post-war melodrama about the opposite of a war hero.

As WWII is winding down, kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki, RUROUNI KENSHIN: KYOTO INFERNO) lands on Odo Island with engine troubles. Or so he says. The mechanics all give him a look as their boss, Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki, BATTLE ROYALE II, HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI, SAMURAI MARATHON) tells him they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. “What are you implying?” Koichi cries, and storms off.

Tachibana catches up with him and says that, for what it’s worth, he’s on his side. The government treats life as cheap. It makes no sense to give your life for a war that’s already lost. Yeah, we agree, but that’s not gonna wipe the shame off of Koichi. So you see, this is a movie about about a guy who chose to live, and feels tremendous guilt about it.

Oh, and also this is a Godzilla movie! Out of the blue, a fuckin ferocious dinosaur motherfucker already named Godzilla by the locals comes out of the water and starts roaring at them. They don’t know how lucky they are that he’s merely the size of a t-rex at this point. But they’re counting on the only soldier among them, Koichi, to get in that actually fine bomber of his and use its powerful guns to protect them. This is his chance to prove to himself, and to the mechanics, and to the world, that he’s not a coward after all, that he can be courageous, that he has a purpose!

He does not do that. Whoops. The next day he wakes up, the only survivor besides Tachibana, who makes it very clear that he’s not on his side anymore. Not remotely. Okay, yeah, actually this guy Koichi is a coward. Yikes.

So that’s the deeply uncomfortable rock bottom the movie has to climb up from: a protagonist who feels worthless because he failed his supposed duty in war and then his actual duty in life. He returns home to Tokyo, which is now just piles of rubble. His neighbor Sumiko (Sakura Ando, SHOPLIFTERS) survived to tell him his parents are dead and to shame him for being alive. She says if he’d done his job her children wouldn’t have been killed. Savage.

After a chance encounter with a shoplifter named Noriko (Minami Hamabe, SHIN KAMEN RIDER) – who he tries to narc out! – his guilt and/or empathy gets the better of him and he lets her stay with him in what’s left of his house. She has a baby named Akiko (Sae Nagatani) given to her by a dying stranger. Sumiko shames her for not knowing how to take care of a baby, and generously donates her stash of rice.

I have at times criticized some of the American Godzilla pictures for having boring human characters, but the best kaiju movies usually have more going on than monster action. This one is so good it can go long stretches without me even thinking about Godzilla (though it does not choose to abuse this power). I love this story of Koichi and Noriko forming a family unit, but denying it’s exactly that, while Koichi struggles to redeem himself. He takes a government job on a rickety wooden trawler finding and detonating leftover mines – that it’s a risky job is good because it pays enough to support the family and he clearly wants to punish himself.

The job reintroduces Koichi to Godzilla (now giant and a great swimmer) and also lets us meet a set of lovable supporting characters, most notably Dr. Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka, THE HIDDEN BLADE), who will ultimately mastermind a civilian plot to stop Godzilla from stomping through cities. Post-war Japan has no military, and these people don’t trust the government anyway. There’s a big community meeting scene where they propose the plan, which is a clever one that we get to excitedly anticipate them executing. But you could almost forget that with all the intense character drama going on here. Not wanting to repeat the sins of the war, Dr. Noda insists on volunteers only, and no suicide missions. Most in attendance opt out, feeling they already sacrificed too much in the war. I love how Yamazaki keeps Koichi’s face visible in the crowd. I kept seeking him out, staring at him, waiting for him to step forward and make a rousing speech or something. Isn’t this the chance he’s been waiting for? But he keeps it to himself.

I’ve seen drastically different interpretations of MINUS ONE’s politics, from “fiercely anti-war” to “right wing nationalistic propaganda.” Some are touched by these broken people banding together to survive the torment of war and its after effects, others see it as a Rambo “Do we get to win this time?” for Japan. Maybe it’s a FORREST GUMP that lets you fill in its ambiguities with your own biases. I won’t pretend to understand Japanese politics at all, either in the era depicted or the one the people who made this have lived in. I’ll just say that to me it’s a story about the survivors of a war finding hope and pride in the act of working together for a better cause, with a different philosophy that affirms life. I gotta give a SPOILER warning here but it’s very important that this a guilt-ridden deserter who gets a second chance to kamikaze himself. It leaves us in suspense about whether he’ll do it and whether the movie believes that would redeem him. And I was riveted about both.

As the only trained pilot in this vigilante defense force, it falls to Koichi to fly an unused prototype jet they have access to, and lure Godzilla to where they need him. But it needs some repairs before it can fly, which gives him the perfect excuse to masochistically track down the best mechanic he knows and the guy who hates him most in the world, Tachibana. Man, it is beautiful to have a kaiju movie with characters and melodrama I’m this invested in. I’m scared of what Tachibana is gonna say to him, and also desperately wanting them to confront this, work through it, try to find some kind of peace together.

I love the way so many of these characters begin with firm convictions that change with the circumstances. Back on Odo, Tachibana supported Koichi deserting the war, then turned on him when he froze up while Godzilla ate his colleagues. Tachibana spent years thinking Koichi deserved to die, and agrees to help with the jet only after he realizes he wants to kamikaze Godzilla. Some of the most compelling questions are whether Koichi can stop Godzilla without dying and whether or not Tachibana would forgive him for it.

And then there’s the neighbor Sumiko, who is outraged that Koichi didn’t sacrifice himself in the war, but when she realizes he plans to sacrifice himself to kill Godzilla, she’s outraged by that because he’d be abandoning Akiko. Things change.

These characters and their emotional struggles really are what’s so exciting about GODZILLA MINUS ONE, but don’t let that imply that the kaiju shit is subpar. It’s worth noting that while Yamazaki’s previous works include the 2005 drama ALWAYS: SUNSET ON THIRD STREET (which won 12 Japanese Academy Awards including best picture and best director), he also did the 2021 theme park attraction Godzilla the Ride: Giant Monsters Ultimate Battle (a five minute 3D-animated flying theater motion simulator ride located in the Seibuen amusement park in Tokorozawa, Saitama, Japan). So he’s not some pretentious dude slumming, he’s a man of varied talents, and more than qualified to deliver a great selection of both new and traditional Godzilla business. Early encounters are in the water, not walking but swimming like a gator, spine wriggling like a snake’s, his back plates protruding, creating jets of water as he glides. He’s less agile on land, and when he comes ashore to stomp through Ginza the great score by Naoki Satō (RUROUNI KENSHIN) hands the baton to original Akira Ifukube themes taken from KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. We get some direct tributes to GOJIRA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, like a re-creation of the iconic train-in-the-mouth scene, this time with the character we’re most protective of inside. I wondered if this was supposed to be a different perspective of the same events in the 1954 film.

As heavy as it is on WWII and o.g. Gojira, this is also a 2023 Godzilla movie, so it’s modern digital effects (done by a company called Shirogumi), giving the big guy different stages of mutation, evolving powers, incandescence. There’s an awe-inspiring scene where we follow up his back as his iconic spikes pop out one-by-one like switchblades and glow blue with radiation, but even that pales in comparison to the scenes where he uses his atomic breath. It has always been cool when he uses it but in this incarnation, believe it or not, it’s reminiscent of the bomb test in OPPENHEIMER or at least the Holdo maneuver in THE LAST JEDI: a face-melting blast, eerie silence, overwhelming destruction. It’s so powerful it burns his face but, by the way, this Godzilla has regenerative powers.

That’s one of the coolest touches in a movie constantly foaming over with cool touches. It makes for a classic oh-shit-what-the-fuck-are-we-gonna-do-now moment when it first foils them, but also it’s perfect for the symbolism of Godzilla. The devastatation of war must be stopped, but certainly can’t be killed, so what do you do?

In the end the way the story is resolved is about human beings, tiny as we are, facing our mistakes, our failures, our regrets. A final conflict is between Koichi and his (and Japan’s, and men’s) insecurities. We figure he’ll save the day, but at what cost? We really don’t know for sure.

I want to note that although MINUS ONE is much less expensive than the American Monsterverse movies while also being (to me) way more satisfying, there is I think a misunderstanding about that. I keep seeing people saying that because this has a reported $15 million US budget there’s no excuse for Hollywood movies not to look this good for that cheap. But that ignores that Japan’s animators and FX artists are even more notoriously overworked and underpaid than ours. What we should aspire to is people being able to make work this good while also being treated and compensated well. Even if it’s more expensive.

Anyway I really appreciate that we could get such a serious “prestige” Godzilla movie from Japan even as Adam Wingard’s goofy neon hollow earth take continues over here. Godzilla and his whole genre are malleable like that. According to a 2016 article in Otaku USA Magazine, SHIN GODZILLA producer Akihiro Yamauchi said that “one touchstone for the Godzilla reboot was the Alien franchise, in which each film is directed by a new director who adds his own unique touch.” I sure hope they continue with that philosophy. It’s paid off so far. (On the other hand I totally approve of Yamazaki’s request to do one more.)

I knew this was supposed to be a serious one, but I was shocked to find myself being reminded of Clint Eastwood’s best picture nominated WWII drama LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. That’s likely an accident, but there’s definitely some influence from DUNKIRK (and also JAWS). In my research I found that Yamazaki has cited GOJIRA, JAWS, PRINCESS MONONOKE, and Shusuke Kaneko’s kaiju classics GODZILLA MOTHRA KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK and GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS as influences. I know it’s too soon to carve this into stone but I think this might be the most emotional investment I’ll ever have in non-monster Godzilla characters, as well as the scariest I’ve ever seen Godzilla. It is certainly up there with the best kaiju movies ever made, and the best movies of any type this year. Godzilla, you’re not a minus to me, you’re a plus!

P.S. If you’re reading this review when it’s new, please note that MINUS ONE was planned for a limited engagement, and it has been extended due to its surprise success, but don’t expect it to play forever! I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen. Seeing it in legit IMAX was practically a religious experience.

P.P.S. This The Verge interview with Yamazaki has some good quotes about what Godzilla represents to him in the movie.



This entry was posted on Thursday, December 7th, 2023 at 11:48 am and is filed under Reviews, Monster, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Godzilla Minus One”

  1. I only now learned that it started in my part of the world last week already! Not sure if its a little advertised limited release or I was just not paying attention. Trying me best to check it out next week as long as it still plays nearby, but no promises.

  2. This was very good. I can’t go as far as “masterpiece” but that says more about me than it does about the movie. I’m far too cynical and emotionally defensive to give myself over to melodrama the way a more well-adjusted person like Vern can. People start blubbering and my walls go right up. It’s real easy for my sympathy to turn into contempt. I can admire the relative effectiveness of the emotional manipulation on display while never quite feeling it. But even a loveless fuck like me can see that this is top-tier Godzilla right here. It’s far more successful at the kind of shameless mawkishness that Emmerich is always shooting for but failing at because he just can’t bring himself to be earnest about it. Yes, I thought the end twists were far too telegraphed to hold any power, but they don’t ruin anything. It’s all way too corny for me to take seriously but it fits the vibe and the period. And the monster stuff is excellent. So if you’re a fan of the big guy and you’re not allergic to emotion that hasn’t been filtered through 17 layers of irony the way I am, you will almost certainly like it more than I did, and I liked it as much as I am capable of.

  3. I’m not usually into Godzilla flicks, especially when it’s a monster battle kind of thing…but this looks great. So Godzilla is CG even in Japan now huh? End of an era but had to happen.

    I remember seeing the Godzilla movie from 2014 or whatever and thinking, they need to do it like Cloverfield. You don’t always need Godzilla if there’s tension and staying with people trying to survive works so well…like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Japan really seems to be doing that style now, old school monstster style stories.

  4. But also at the same time these movies seem to come up with actual interesting stories, not just “good guy solves the mystery of the mysterious happenings and then must try to stop the giant monster somehow. Give these guys a real story that would be interesting without a monster, then throw a monster in there.

  5. Go ahead and put me on the list of folks who thought this was a masterpiece. I absolutely loved it and found myself thinking about it all weekend after seeing it. A friend of mine said they thought that if this were the first Godzilla movie ever and didn’t have the stigma of being associated with a character which has 70 years of history with a lot of silliness in its past, it would be in the conversations around award season. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but I think that the fact someone I know (who isn’t a Godzilla mega fan or anything) is even thinking that way says a lot about just how damn good this this is.

  6. For what it’s worth, this is the first time I ever found Godzilla to actually be scary. His first appearance out of the darkness is something that’s going to stick with me.

  7. I’m seeing this tomorrow and am seriously pumped, but I gotta say, I’m equally pumped for Wingards next Godzilla/Kong joint too. The trailer looked cool, Wingard is a solid director, and these new Monsterverse flicks they’re putting out have all delivered. Are they high art? No. But I’ll be damned if they don’t deliver exactly what they say they will on the tin.

    And I’ll be honest: I’m basically a huge mark for giant monsters being rowdy cunts, going around stirring shit, giving each other snap kicks to the head.

  8. I both loved this for its heart and admired it for how it celebrates Godzilla as a cultural touchstone. In 2023, when we are still watching cities being levelled by war, the now generational legend of Godzilla is used to provide the necessary scale to tell a humane tale about loss and courage. It is rare for a film that asks for so much suspension of disbelief to be so generous in emotional payback. I think Vern touches on this correctly, the dramatic stakes the film sets up are about its moral stance.

    I haven’t watched the orginal in years, but I felt that this was in constant dialogue with and even piggy-backed on it, from the way the Ginza sequence showed some unfilmable-back-then scenes and shifted the emphasis from the crowd scenes to the protagonists’ perspectives, to the extension of the final plan so as to specifically address the novel themes. Just beautiful narrative work, simple but grand.

    For what it’s worth I didn’t think that Godzilla himself was scary. The upright stance, the eyes on the front of the head and the short ankle, I consider these a callback to the familiariness of 70 years of suitmation Godzilla. But what he does is terrifying once more, because the city and its people are rendered that much more powerfully.

    It might be interesting to note that my wife, who is a complete Godzilla innocent, also said she enjoyed it, although she did fall asleep a couple of times at the quiet parts. Also my 8-year old tried to evade some of the scary bits, but he hasn’t yet had the necessary experience to time the bathroom breaks correctly, so no face was lost.

    All in all, a great time at the movies.

  9. I LOVE this movie. I’m perhaps not the worlds greatest Godzilla fan, but of the 15-16 I’ve seen, this is THE masterpiece. As for the politics, I see that a lot of people with, should we just say “strange” interpretations, seem oblivious to the fact that Godzilla this time represents the psychological damages of war/PTSD, and that it’s as usual up to the people to cure it, since they won’t receive any help from the army and the politicians.

  10. Fresh out of the theatre and it lived up to the hype.

    One question though: when Godzilla is upright in the water, especially during the climax, is he treading water the entire time? Like are his thicc thighs just powering away out of sight? If so, that makes him even more awesome.

  11. I think it’s an instant classic. The current multiverse craze letting Hollywood do multiple Batmans and Spider-Mans at once seemed like the latest Death of Cinema to me (collect them all!), but this makes a compelling argument that you can have the same ‘character’ in multiple franchises at the same time and have it work.

    I hesitate to speculate on the politics, since it’s a modern-day Japanese take on post-war Japan, but it seems to me Tachibana is the closest to speaking for the author. There’s nothing shameful in Koichi refusing to die for nothing, BUT he should be willing to risk his life to actually defend his people. The whole movie seems to be interrogating the difference between principled pacifism and simple cowardice.

  12. I don’t think cowardice come into it. In my opinion the story tells us that there are ways to solve conflicts without millions dying. And after all the melodrama we needed that ending!

  13. Everything I could want it a movie. Plus Godzilla. Leaving the theater I had the quote from Pedro Pascal’s character in that Nicholas Cage movie when he was referring to how Paddington 2 made him “want to be a better man.” Well, this is officially my Paddington 2

    So grateful I caught this in the theater, gonna keep that ticket stub in a place of honor, just WOW.

  14. Vern – I think regarding politics, I would say a good comp is TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Hell both movies have a similar 3rd act that can’t help but feel a debt to a certain 1970s space movie.

    I do have a nitpick with this film, merely a nitpick in an otherwise great film and its only because I have history OCP: I call bullshit on the plot device of the Americans refusing to help Japan because “Cold War” (huh?)

    I mean I get it, the conceit in all these films is that Japan more or less stands alone against these monsters. But you could’ve had the same result with a more credible explanation: Remember those American ships Godzilla wrecks? What if he wrecks enough that America isn’t able to immediately re-enforce/resupply Japan for a few weeks/months thanks to that demolished shipping traffic?

  15. A fantastic film. One of the best of the year. They managed to make Godzilla terrifying and to have an actually touching central story.

    I do find it interesting to think about the politics of the film. I think it is an anti-Japanese government in WW2 film, but not an anti-war film. They state that the problem with the war was the soldiers were sacrificed by leaders who did not care for their lives and made them commit suicide and fight with poor equipment. The main character is traumatized, not because of the war, but because he was forced to become a kamikaze pilot. In the end he’s cured when he finally gets to fight the right way with proper equipment and leaders who respect human life and don’t want him to throw his away. I just hope this message is supposed to apply to wars in general and not to Japan in the WW2. They deserved to lose that war, no matter what way they fought.

  16. I wouldn’t say the movie is pacifistic since it’s very much about self-defense, but I appreciated that it was very particular about what is worth defending: actual community of people who help each other grow as opposed to some abstract notions of ‘honor’ and ‘national pride’ that the military complex tries to take advantage of. I read it as anti-fascistic.

  17. Took my 8 year old son to this last weekend and he loved it! Do you know how good a subtitled movie about PTSD and survivors’ guilt has to be to keep the interest of a third grader?! Giant monster helps of course, but he didn’t get bored during the melodrama.

  18. I was under the impression this was a prequel (hence the time period and the “Minus One”), so I watched GODZILLA ’54 and RAIDS AGAIN in preparation. But that doesn’t seem to be the case? At least, I can’t see how Godzilla would not be a known quantity in Japan after this one.

    Anyway, I loved this. Godzilla is legit scary and awesomely (in the old-fashioned and new-fashioned senses of the word) powerful. His rampage in the middle of the film is devastating in multiple ways. Koichi’s primal scream at the end of that scene is harrowing. And while the movie telegraphs all the beats it will hit in the third act, I can’t say those beats weren’t effective as hell. The emotional scenes moistened my eyes. The old-school theme music gave me chills– and a couple of us were still whistling it in the men’s room afterwards.

    Godzilla seems to be as versatile a character as Batman– you can place him in any story and ascribe any meaning to him, and it works. I know every movie is about “trauma” these days, but we live in traumatic times. I was afraid for a second this would be a pro-kamikaze movie, but thankfully that’s not the case. In times of great strife, it is courageous to live. I like that.

  19. Hot damn, that was something. A genuine thank you for this review Vern, I would not have gone to the theater for this one otherwise. After reading most of your review, some of the comments, and hearing Kermode and Mayo’s effusive praise, I felt compelled. I read like 3/4 of the plot in your review before I decided to stop and watch the movie, and it was still entertaining watch all those beats play out.

    Not just a great Godzilla movie, a great movie period. The humans aren’t a distraction or a formality between the monster attacks, they are genuinely compelling characters dealing with devastating circumstances. When Big G reappears in Ginza after a long dormant stretch, instead of being excited to watch shit get wrecked I was concerned for the characters. I have never gotten misty-eyed during a giant monster attack before this movie.

    At first Noriko being alive seemed like an almost too happy ending, but I felt the movie had earned it. They COULD have just left it there, but the filmmakers had more on their mind than just another monster movie, and that meant more than just a Hollywood ending. The signs of Godzilla’s radiation infecting Noriko show the damage that remains even after surviving a conflict, whether that is literal radiation sickness or the trauma and pain that affected characters throughout the movie. And just like future conflicts/wars Godzilla is still out there, growing and bubbling under the surface until it bursts forth again. What could have felt like a lazy sequel set up instead feels like a button on the themes of this movie.

    Also, the way Koichi kept surviving these devastating Godzilla attacks reminded me of the story of Tsutomo Yamaguchi. Either the luckiest or unluckiest guy ever, he survived BOTH the atomic bombs after being less than 3 km away from each of their detonations. In fact, he was trying to describe the Hiroshima blast to his boss in Nagasaki when the second bomb dropped! Somehow, he survived another 65 years to age 93 before he succumbed to cancer.

  20. https://www.vulture.com/article/godzilla-minus-ones-oscar-nominated-vfx-budget-was-usd15-m.html

    An article on the VFX development for Minus One. It sounds like there simply wasn’t the kind of overwork many are attributing to the studio.

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