Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One is one of the and most impressive entries in the series based around the classic kaiju.
In 1954, Japanese filmmaker Ishirō Honda created one of the most recognizable and classic figures ever conceived for the big screen, Godzilla. The classic roar of the mutant reptile has been heard through multiple generations, and, seven decades after its creation, its impact is ever strong. The first kaiju (a Japanese word that literally means “strange beast” and is associated with media involving giant monsters) paved the way for other creatures to be born, like Ultraman, Mothra, and King Ghidorah. And now, thanks to Toho and director Takashi Yamazaki, we get Godzilla Minus One, a picture that departs from the blockbuster gloss of the big studios and feels more engraved in the original masterpiece’s themes.
Yamazaki’s rendition of the classic monster goes further away from the original’s 1954 setting. Godzilla Minus One takes place immediately after World War II, in 1946. A prologue introduces it, set near the end of World War II on an island that contains a feeling of forthcoming damnation. There is something eerie within those surroundings; despair and melancholy ooze from the pores of everybody habituating in that encampment. On that island, we meet our hero, Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a man assigned to be a kamikaze pilot. But after claiming to have had technical issues with his plane, he deserted his post.
Kōichi may not know it in that instance, but his decision not to fix the place has just saved his life. However, what happens next will leave a scar on his mind, body, and soul. During the night, a weaker (yet terrifying) version of Godzilla attacks them, unleashing a path of destruction and flames. Kōichi, fearing for his life, is frozen. He’s unable to pull the trigger on his aircraft’s gun to shoot the creature down or even move. The image of something indescribable destroying the land where you stand in a matter of seconds leaves him cold. He is left scarred not only because of his inability to act upon such a towering force but also due to being one of the few survivors of the attack.
This prologue helps us be deep in the mindset of the main character’s mental stability as he perceives the trigger of his trauma. The war isn’t even over, and Kōichi has to continue facing the horrors of WWII and the premonition of another attack by Godzilla. But at least something has helped him stay strong after those events. A few years later, Kōichi has started a family alongside a woman named Noriko Oishi (Minami Hamabe) and an orphaned baby. This is a grouping of people who have been left behind or separated from their past lives because of the war. While they might be isolated for different reasons, they all connect with the tragedy they have experienced and the grief each one holds.
After all that suffering the three of them have gone through, they have finally stopped letting the demons eat them alive and started regaining some sense of normalcy within their lives, specifically Kōichi. His new job at a minesweeper still takes him back to the cataclysm he endured, removing and detonating naval mines, but he’s been able to confront it thanks to the people he has by his side. Unfortunately, this life that has kept him alive through these post-war melancholic days is in jeopardy when Godzilla emerges from the depths of the sea again. This time, the monster is stronger, more dangerous, and more fear-inducing than before. Kōichi puts together a crack team of veterans and ex-Navy civilians to take down the beast. They have decided to confront it instead of stepping back and letting fear run their lives.
One of the most interesting things that Yamazaki does in Godzilla Minus One is making the human characters the center of attention instead of the titular beast. While you ultimately pay the ticket for Godzilla, the characters keep you invested due to their tangible emotions. You feel their sorrow, pain, and grief throughout each interaction, even with the melodramatic touches that pop up from time to time. Yamazaki gives us plenty of time to explore who Kōichi is. The Japanese filmmaker lets us into the mindset to dissect his emotions, whether it is his resounding guilt or the hopefulness of his newly formed family.
In the same way he previously reinvented the character of Lupin in his animated feature Lupin III: The First (2019), Yamazaki is interested more in the characters than the spectacle, although there is a big amount of detail and attentiveness put into the action set-pieces. He develops intriguing dynamics that make us care about what’s taking place instead of them being disposable background characters. This is one of the reasons why the majority of the MonsterVerse films falter.
In the past couple of years, Hollywood has been developing some features based on the aforementioned kaiju for their multi-million-dollar franchise. The assortment has been a mixed bag, except for Gareth Edward’s version of Godzilla. They are solely crafted to deliver the popcorn entertainment side of these types of films: action set-pieces, disaster film mayhem, and big monsters fighting one another.
That isn’t a bad thing per se: it is interesting to see the different variations of these creatures. Still, when you look at these films in more depth, they feel hollow. The main reason why that happens is that they lack fully-fledged characters who serve as the film’s heart and soul. Without them, you get CGI monsters hitting each other for no particular reason, which occasionally looks cool but runs stale quickly. You can see the difference immediately in Godzilla Minus One, where the weight of the narrative and its characters is felt in every instance, moving the film forward to a stirring and impactful climax.
Like in Toho’s previous release, Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla, and Ishirō Honda’s creation before it, the creature is a metaphor for the trauma that Japanese people suffered from the destructive force of the atomic bomb and natural disasters. These are films that focus on deconstructions of the government via anti-war messaging. All of the horrors of war are put together into one devastating figure. There are many details of this analogy in the creature’s prehistoric design and in the way Yamazaki envisions Godzilla’s atomic breath. He sees it as a machine slowly building up to a powerful release of force.
As Godzilla’s scales begin to appear on its back, his ultimate attack charges. And when the creature unleashes such energy, it culminates in an impact that takes the shape of a mushroom cloud, which symbolizes the caved-in impact of an atomic bomb. The sound cuts out once the attack is unleashed, leaving its surroundings decimated. That sequence is both striking and frightening. This is one of the best set-pieces of the entire year due to Yamazaki’s handling of tone – blending horror and action with the melodrama attached to its screenplay – and direction, a standout moment in the movie. The other action set-pieces are also very impressive and exhilarating. Most of them are set around the sea, as man and beast clash in grand-scale battles, referencing Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Joe Dante’s Piranha in the process.
By stripping things back to get a throwback feeling yet with a fresh perspective, Yamazaki and Toho take things in a different direction that’s more character-focused and story-driven rather than a complete showcase of spectacle. All of these elements culminate into one of the best entries in the series of kaiju-related movies.
Godzilla Minus One is now available to watch in US theaters, IMAX and 4DX, and will be released in UK cinemas from December 15, 2023.