By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
The biggest drawback to monster / kaiju films is the tedious focus on disinteresting human characters between the massive moments of monster mayhem everyone comes to see. This was evidenced in the most recent American rendition of Godzilla in Godzilla vs. Kong, a film that featured some spectacular action sequences and plenty of dull character arcs despite an impressive ensemble cast. Refreshingly, however, this is not the case with Godzilla Minus One, a film that wonderfully accompanies its high-stakes action with incredible emotional depth and intimacy.
Godzilla Minus One is the 37th film in the Godzilla franchise, and the fifth in the Reiwa era of revival films that kicked off with Shin Godzilla in 2016. Requiring no knowledge from other Godzilla films, Godzilla Minus One takes place shortly after the end of World War II in a war-ravaged Japan. As the country tries to heal from its wounds, so does Kōichi Shikishima (played by Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot who fled during the war and has struggled with significant survivor’s guilt ever since. Shikishima, now supporting a young woman Noriko (played by Minami Hamabe) and their adopted child Akiko, finds work aboard a minesweeper recovering and deactivating wartime mines from the waters of Japan. This already perilous job becomes all the more threatening when Shikishima and his crew come face to face with the one and only Godzilla.
It’s a testament to how complete a picture Godzilla Minus One is that it excels equally well with as a drama and kaiju film. Regarding the latter, director, writer and visual effects supervisor Takashi Yamazaki crafts one of the most visually stunning and effective monster movies of all time. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that the film’s production budget was a mere $15 million. Perhaps better than any Godzilla or kaiju film to date, Yamazaki’s film captures an immense scale that showcases the true horror of Godzilla. In this sense, unlike some of the more recent American films that leaned more heavily into action, Godzilla Minus One is far more oriented as a horror film. Whether Godzilla is emerging from the waters or stampeding through busy city streets, the creature, its vastness, and its capacity for destruction are absolutely terrifying, to such an extent that Godzilla Minus One feels more like a horror film than an action film. Amplified even further by sweeping sound design and mixing, this is a Godzilla, unlike the adaptations shown in the recent American trilogy of films, that is a true and unreserved villain. And, as is the case with villains effectively handled in most films, Godzilla is not overused in Minus One, instead appearing in prominent doses that never overstay their welcome.
While excelling in every department as a monster movie, where Godzilla Minus One stands apart from its predecessors is the profound emotional depths it achieves. Yamazaki’s film is a wartime character drama at its heart, one that has more similarities to Clint Eastwood’s Letters of Iwo Jima and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk than would ever be expected for such a film. Ryunosuke Kamiki’s lead character Shikishima proves to be a compelling lead from the very beginning as a soldier riddled with guilt and traumatized by the war. As he tries to settle down and lead a new life in a destroyed post-war Japan, Shikishima develops an endearing relationship with a woman named Noriko and a child in her care named Akiko. Shikishima is reluctant to take the two in at first, but, over several years, grows close to the two and crafts a loving family together. And it’s this family that emotionally anchors Godzilla Minus One in making it far more than just a monster movie. The characters are deeply complex, and brought to life by outstanding performances (especially by Kamiki), that, at times, make you forget that this is a Godzilla movie altogether.
Complementing its propensity for profound emotionality is the film’s poignant social commentary and metaphors. First appearing less than a decade after the end of World War II, Godzilla has always possessed a number of interesting real-world parallels. As Godzilla in the original 1954 film was awakened and empowered by radiation from nuclear weapons, the kaiju has often been viewed as a metaphor for nuclear weapons or as a symbol of the mammoth United States wreaking havoc on the people of Japan. Recent American films in the franchise have really distanced themselves from tapping into these themes and metaphors, but Godzilla Minus One wholeheartedly embraces them. Seeing an already destroyed Japan field yet another nuclear-powered weapon in Godzilla so shortly after the war elicits such a palpable sense of dread that feeds seamlessly into the film’s implementation of the horror genre. Again, Godzilla Minus One is far from a conventional monster movie.
All of this emotion and scale culminates in a jaw-dropping third act that rivals any seen in recent Hollywood blockbusters. Epic does not begin to describe how rousing and goosebumps-inducing Godzilla Minus One’s tension-filled final act is. Made all the more gargantuan with a sweeping score from Naoki Satō, this final act goes above and beyond in delivering expected kaiju action and unexpected emotional intimacy. Get ready to shed a few tears here, something that could rarely, if ever, be said about such a film.
If there is anything critical to be said about Godzilla Minus One, it’s that the film’s pacing somewhat lags in the first act. After appearing in the film’s opening sequence, Godzilla goes absent for a large stretch of the movie, which is used to establish the characters and lay the foundations necessary for later emotional payoff. Although this first act is absolutely necessary in making the film ultimately as emotional as it is, in the moment, it feels somewhat slow and can make the wait for Godzilla’s return mildly frustrating. In the grand scheme of things, however, sluggish pacing only mildly detracts from what is a stunning cinematic achievement.
Godzilla Minus One is a masterfully crafted kaiju / monster film. White impressing beyond belief with the horror and scale of its action and destruction, Takashi Yamazaki’s film hits unexpected heights with the emotionality and intimacy it evokes. In addition to deftly exploring a host of wartime themes and metaphors, incredible emotional depth is found in the Ryunosuke Kamiki’s central character Shikishima and the relationship he has with his found family. Sluggish first act pacing only mildly detracts from what is one of the year’s best films.