As a diehard daikaiju fanatic since early childhood, I take my Godzilla movies seriously, no matter how serious — or not — the movies themselves might be. The original 1954 Godzilla is not just my favorite monster film, it's my favorite film of all time. Many monster movie fans have opined that Godzilla Minus One, Toho's newest entry into the venerable franchise, rivals or even surpasses the power and quality of the original. I think not, but this film offers plenty of appeal not only to Godzilla fans but to a far wider, more diverse audience.
There may be spoilers ahead.
As with most of the Godzilla films made during and since the Millennium era (1999–2005), Godzilla Minus One reinvents the monster, disregarding its cinematic history, retaining only the time-proven tropes. Even a number of the earlier films with disparate timelines hearken back to the 1954 original, using it as the jumping-off point for all-new continuities. Like Toho's prior Godzilla outing — Shin Godzilla (2016) — this Godzilla has an all-new origin story.
In a nod to the Godzilla origin story depicted in 1992's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, in which a "Godzillasaurus" appears to a regiment of Japanese soldiers on a remote Pacific Island called Lagos, Godzilla Minus One begins near the end of the war on Odo Island (the name of the island where Godzilla first appeared in the 1954 original) and also presents a "Godzillasaurus." Unlike in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, this Godzillasaurus is anything but gentle, and, rather than saving the lives of the encamped Japanese soldiers, it all but wipes them out in a ferocious fury.
In the 1954 film, Godzilla appears due to hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific, well into Japan's post-war recovery and ascension as a formidable economic power. Godzilla Minus One's story begins at the end of the war, and the narrative advances only a couple of years beyond. Its setting is a post-war Japan in which "recovery" barely qualifies as a pipedream for most. It is the detonation of the first atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll in 1946 that transforms this Godzilla into a true daikaiju.
It is survivor Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a "failed" kamikaze pilot, whose story propels the human drama. After the war, having moved back to a fire-ravaged Tokyo and bearing the burden of survivor's guilt twice over, Shikishima feels that he may already be dead, and his shattered existence is some kind of dead man's dream. On one hand, there are those around him who consider him a disgrace, the personification of weakness; essentially the reason that Japan lost the war. On the other hand, Shikishima meets a young woman named Noriko (Minami Hamabe) whose determination to survive, to thrive, is so great that she unilaterally chooses to take in an orphaned little girl named Akiko and settle in with him as an informal family unit. This all but forces Shikishima to reevaluate his outlook, to consider that his life has a purpose. That he can dare to dream again.
One can hardly argue that this depth of characterization is typical of Godzilla films of any era. Certainly not of the contemporary Monsterverse Godzilla franchise, whose token nods to characterization barely reach the level of the old Saturday morning Godzilla Power Hour cartoon. As Shikishima's life stabilizes, he takes a job as a "mine cleaner" — a position that puts him on a ship with a team whose job is finding and destroying the 60,000-some active mines in the ocean around Japan, placed by both the Japanese and US military forces. His shipmates, overall an engaging and sometimes humorous bunch, bring both depth and liveliness to the character interactions. They serve as motivators for Shikishima, whose desire to live has finally taken solid root. While he, Noriko, and Akiko might not have become a true, traditional family unit, it's clear that they are bonded by a deepening love.
As one might infer, the mine cleaners' day job comes with a few unique hazards. Deadly hazards. But living so close to the edge brings these men both self-awareness and passion. Shikishima finds his niche among these men. Understandably, Noriko doesn't much like it. Especially when crewmember "Doc" Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a former weapons specialist and now liaison with the Japanese government, informs the men they've been ordered to check out an American destroyer that has been attacked by... something... and left adrift.
From here, a long stretch of delicious, fairly graphic monster action ensues. This, of course, is what moviegoers have come to see. Like some kind of ultra-powerful Megalodon, Godzilla proves himself a daunting — and genuinely frightening — aquatic enemy, captured by brilliant cinematography. Of course, Godzilla is hardly relegated to water-based antics, and when he makes landfall, the onscreen spectacle is in many ways unrivaled by any daikaiju film made since the advent of CGI. Certainly better (with perhaps a handful of exceptions) than most of the graphics presented in the Monsterverse franchise, whose budget exceeds this film's by many, many, many times. (Godzilla vs. Kong's budget was reportedly between $155 and $200 million; Godzilla Minus One's was $15 million).
Without diving too deeply into spoiler territory, it's fair to say that the character and monster stories converge in meaningful ways, further developing the individuals as well as propelling the action. Unlike so many prior Godzilla films, particularly of the Heisei era and, later, Shin Godzilla, there is very little focus on the Japanese government's and military's responses to Godzilla's attacks. Ostensibly, the Imperial government and military have been stymied by the tumultuous US and Soviet presences in the Pacific and the restrictive terms imposed on Japan following its surrender. Instead, a ragtag band of initially unaffiliated individuals come together, loosely under the direction of Doc Noda and a former Imperial Navy Admiral, who rely on their ingenuity and limited resources to formulate a plan.
In the context of the film, the logistics of the ultimate plan might be debatable, but there's no denying the sheer energy of the action and the portrayal of courage on the parts of our protagonists.
|"Doc" Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) meet for their first run as minesweepers|
|Noriko (Minami Hamabe) suddenly realizes there's something out there...|
|A graphic recreation of Godzilla's attack on the Tokyo train from the 1954 original|
Yamazaki also directs most of the monster action with a masterful hand. It's safe to say that this was the first time ever in a Godzilla movie that I felt an honest-to-god chill when the full extent of the monster's power is initially revealed. The director showcases Godzilla's attack on Tokyo using everything from panoramic to character-level views, allowing us an intimate sensory experience of the violence and terror of such a brutal rampage. Most memorably — in a scene similar to one in the original 1954 film — a group of reporters is narrating from a high rooftop as Godzilla advances through the city. As the monster passes, the building collapses, and the camera view is on the reporters as their world comes down. It's a particularly harrowing moment, expertly executed.
While the CGI occasionally announces, "Hey, look at me, I'm CGI!," the better part of the effects work is impressive, presenting a lifelike monster and environment rather than a world rendered with an exaggerated palette, such as in the Monsterverse films. Not to denigrate the characteristic "oil-painted" look of the Monsterverse's effects work, but its busy, overly vibrant colors and compositions, as impressive as they might appear on the screen, also build a wall between that world and me as the viewer. I can't get immersed in that environment because it doesn't feel like a living environment. It's more a vivid cartoon. This is mostly not true in Godzilla Minus One, so it offers a far more immersive experience.
While there are the expected Akira Ifukube musical cues in the Godzilla Minus One, which are inserted to good effect, the original score by Naoki Sato offers a very different kind of background from either the classic Ifukube cuts or any other Godzilla movie score. Largely, it weaves, pulses, and throbs in the background, an ambient sound wave that builds atmosphere and tension. With ethereal, eerie tones, it heightens the sense of the unknown that Godzilla represents. The various character themes include everything from deep, rich orchestral tones to mellow melodies played on acoustic guitar. It's one of the most effective scores — maybe the most effective — that I've heard for any modern daikaiju movie. Interestingly, Godzilla's roar, which sounds familiar yet unusual, is a recording of the original Godzilla roar — created by composer Ifukube by rubbing a leather glove over contrabass strings and slowing down the recording — amplified via loudspeakers.
As a longtime Godzillaphile, I have adored the franchise since the first film, regardless of whether the movies are serious and grim or light and whimsical. At the end of the day, Godzilla Minus One portrays the monster as the impressive, terrible, essentially demonic thing my youthful brain imagined. And that I still want to imagine.
That is a big win.
|"Doc" Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka) contemplates the consequences of failure.|
|A stroll through the countryside|
|It's clobberin' time.|
|All that remains of the Wako Building clock tower after Godzilla's stroll|
|A display of incredible power|