Godzilla fans, please do yourself a favor. If you haven’t seen Godzilla Minus One on the biggest screen possible, please do so, ASAP. It’s one of the best films in the franchise’s 70-year history. Its sobering human story and exploration of Japan’s collective trauma post-WWII returns the franchise to its roots. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, Godzilla Minus One makes the King of the Monsters terrifying again. I mean, really, really scary.
While the film certainly focuses plenty on the big guy, Godzilla Minus One is equally concerned about the human narrative and good storytelling, perhaps more so than the action sequences, special effects, or blue blasts of atomic breath. Set in 1946, the film’s protagonist is Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot plagued with PTSD and guilt. He, along with other military survivors, are sent to Odo Island, where they’re supposed to vanquish Godzilla once and for all before he reaches Tokyo and stomps around. However, Koichi freezes up and won’t pull the trigger that could have saved countless lives.
The movie then zips along through a few years in post-WWII Japan, following Koichi’s fateful encounter with the prehistoric antihero on that island. Koichi eventually meets and lives with Noriko Oishi (Minami Hamabe). Together, they adopt an orphaned child who lost her parents in the war. Every single character, including two men Koichi works with to sweep mines in the sea, which ignites Godzilla’s return, wears trauma on their sleeves. Meanwhile, the shots of Japan capture a people struggling to overcome the lasting horrors of the bomb.
In terms of the story, there’s a lot to like here, from Koichi’s moral struggles as a disgraced kamikaze pilot, to the war wounds his fellow co-workers show out on the seas, upon the tugboat they use to blow up the mines. Like the original film, this is as much a Japanese melodrama as it is a monster movie. You see people on the streets begging, hungry for food, living in what’s left of their homes, as rain pours down.
To be clear, the King of the Monsters features prominently, and boy, is he frightful. Unlike some other Godzilla sequels, he’s not out to restore order to the environment or save Tokyo from various other monsters. No, he’s here to cause destruction, and like the first film, he’s an apt metaphor for nuclear devastation and war. When he roars and bellows his deadly breath, it has the effect of the atom bomb, pulverizing buildings, shattering windows, and slaughtering innocent civilians who barely survived WWII.
Writer/director Takashi Yamazaki also has plenty of shots of Koichi and his two crew members out on the high seas, terrorized by Godzilla. There are a few scenes that resemble Jaws for the level of suspense, chase sequences, and the fact you often only see Godzilla’s scaly back and spikey fins. When he does rise out of the water, look out! Overall, the effects look pretty great, though there are one or two CGI sequences that aren’t quite on par with the rest of the film. That said, it’s a small gripe. Meanwhile, the Godzilla score never sounded so good. Kudos to composer Naoki Sato for that.
Now that 2023 nears its end, I can safely say that Godzilla Minus One is certainly one of my favorite horror films of the year and one of my favorite films of the year generally. This film contains what Hollywood blockbusters too often lack, that being good storytelling and interesting characters. And as much as this is a Japanese drama about the trauma of war and the lasting effects of the bomb, it’s very much a horror movie. The King of the Monsters is back, baby!
Godzilla Minus One is currently in theaters.