Review – Godzilla Minus One

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Overview

Synopsis Godzilla appears in Japan in 1947 to destroy a country reeling from losing the Second World War, resulting in the survivors of that war coming together to protect Japanese life in the face of government indifference.

Length 2 hours, 4 minutes

Release Date November 3, 2023 (Japan), December 1, 2023 (US)

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Toho International

Directing Takashi Yamazaki

Writing Takashi Yamazaki

Composition Naoki Satō

Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki Yamada, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando, Kuranosuke Sasaki

There is a curious tendency among film nerds to prefer darker material to more light-hearted material. This instinct is not new, as superficial maturity is a cornerstone of any adolescent’s view of the world—embracing dark characters and ideas rather than exploring the mature fully formed ideas that come with adulthood.

As film critic Bob Chipman points out, this predisposition extends to the Godzilla franchise as well, with darker entries like Gojira, GMK: All Out Attack, and Shin-Godzilla being more heavily praised for their heavy tone and themes, rather than the more lighthearted films like Mothra vs. Godzilla, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, or Godzilla Final Wars.

With the recent trailer release of Godzilla X Kong, this tendency drew a lot of acrimony towards mainstream Hollywood films, with the American sequel ironically having more shared DNA with the original goofy Showa-era Godzilla sequels than many of the recent serious Japanese films. This doesn’t mean those darker films lack merit though, as evidenced by the surprising cultural breakout of the newest film in the franchise—Godzilla Minus One.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: General city destruction with characters being implicitly crushed or dying off-screen. 30,000 people are said to have been killed in one scene. A man brawls and beats another man until his eye is swollen.
Language/Crude Humor: Some infrequent language including h*** and d***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters casually drink alcohol in a few scenes.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: Japanese characters are shown praying to and honoring their dead loved ones.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Themes of survival, protecting human life, and bravery.

Review

It has been a pleasant surprise to watch as the box office has been curiously overtaken by two films this past month—The Boy and the Heron and Godzilla Minus One. These two Japanese films were made with relatively smaller budgets, by auteur directors, and have greatly overperformed in the US by the standards of foreign language films—respectively grossing more than $36.8 million and $42 million. 

While this didn’t come close to the larger successes of Wonka ($134 million) and Aquaman 2 ($77 million), the fact that Godzilla Minus One had grossed so much on a $15 million budget compared to the $200 million DC sequel seemed to speak to a lot of curious trends in modern Hollywood, from superhero fatigue to the portrayal of political themes in mainstream films, to Hollywood’s overinflated blockbuster budgets. Godzilla Minus One is currently tracking to become one of the highest-grossing Japanese films ever released in the United States, a record likely to draw a great deal of attention and curiosity from Hollywood.

The film follows the story of Kōichi Shikishima, a Japanese Kamakazi pilot who chooses not to go through with his assigned suicide mission in the final days of World War II, landing instead on a small Japanese island claiming that his plane has issues. However, the mechanics immediately suspect him of cowardice. That night, a large prehistoric beast called Godzilla, which lives around the small island and is only known to the locals, attacks the airstrip and kills all but two Japanese men, including Shikishima. 

Shikishima returns to his home in Japan a few months later only to discover his family’s home having been destroyed by American bombing efforts, with his surviving neighbors all accusing him of cowardice for refusing to die for his country. After two years of living with other survivors and finding work as a minesweeper, life has only just begun to return to normal in Japan. Unfortunately, this is cut short when a newly irradiated Godzilla arrives in Japan and destroys the city of Ginza, leaving the country vulnerable as Americans are nervous about spooking the Soviet Union by attacking the creature, while the demilitarized Japanese government is unprepared for this possibility. 

With few options, a handful of Japanese Navy survivors gather together and create a civilian-led plan to defeat the creature using mothballed military equipment, allowing Shikishima to face his trauma and regrets by saving Japan and serving a cause greater than the government who asked him to go to his death.

Much has already been written about Godzilla Minus One as an exploration of Japanese postwar life. Director Takashi Yamazaki had the brilliant idea of moving the attack from the more prosperous 1950s to the lowest point in recent Japanese history and uses his story to brilliantly depict a painful moment in time for his people. The director, well known in Japan for his more serious prestige dramas, here crafts an emotionally wrenching story about human survival, survivor’s guilt, and learning what it means to decide that life is worth living in the aftermath of tragedy. 

In many ways, the villain of the story isn’t Godzilla but the Japanese government itself. It is a force that is never directly depicted in the film but hangs over it, having called upon Shikishima to kill himself in the name of a war that would inevitably be lost. Godzilla is a representation of the horror the war inflicted upon the country, showing just how poorly the government cared for its citizens and soldiers; thus giving the war survivors a chance at personal redemption to fight for a cause that they believe they can succeed at without sending people needlessly to a meaningless death.

Much of this is realized through some excellent production design and cinematography. Yamazaki has been very clear that the film’s actual budget was likely much lower than the public numbers released by Toho, and yet you wouldn’t know that looking at the movie. It has massive naval combat scenes, a fully CGI Godzilla, and an extensive city destruction scene with a handful of the most chilling visuals in the entire franchise.

I will admit that I do wonder why this particular film in the franchise has become a quiet success in the US. To a degree, I do think that the movie’s prevalence is more a sign of the times than its essential qualities. Audiences are highly dissatisfied with the majority of new films at the moment and yet they flood into movies like Top Gun: Maverick or Barbie, and it isn’t clear to Hollywood yet what that means. It thus becomes easy for narratives to be built around films like this, surmising that the lack of supposed “wokeness” is why it is succeeding or that Americans are suddenly open to foreign cinema because Hollywood movies suck.

Given my enjoyment of the entire Godzilla franchise, it’s easy for me to be cynical about audiences suddenly corralling to this film given the narratives surrounding it. But having seen it twice, I feel like the movie more than holds up on its own terms. I’m not sure I agree with the consensus that it is the best Godzilla film ever—given that there are 38 other entries in the franchise—but I will concede that it may be the most humane Godzilla film yet; a story that takes this franchise’s tendency to fill the screen with stock humans and vapid scientist characters and gives them life and pain in a way movies, like Destroy All Monsters or Godzilla vs Kong, didn’t.

Godzilla Minus One hardly needs an endorsement after four weeks at the top of the domestic box office. And yet, it is worth affirming that this little low-budget monster movie has rightly been embraced as a great work of contemporary genre fiction in a time when American audiences are growing bored with the more stultifying and safe movies coming out of studios like Disney and Warner Bros. It is wonderful that a low-budget movie from a niche franchise can find such an enthusiastic audience, made up of many people who likely haven’t seen a Japanese Godzilla movie before.

Positives

+ Excellent script
+ Very well done special effects
+ Great performances

Negatives

- Some claustrophobic feeling sets/execution

The Bottom Line

Godzilla Minus One has proven to be one of the most popular films of the year, and also creates one of the most humane and emotional entries into a franchise with nearly 40 films.

 

9

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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