A radioactive monster that represents the atomic arms race terrorizes Tokyo in the immediate wake of WWII in Godzilla Minus One, the 33rd official entry in Toho Studios’ Godzilla series that opened worldwide last weekend and closed out the recent 2023 ASEAN Film Festival in Prague.
Unlike the campy monster-mash action that has dominated recent Hollywood efforts like Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs. Kong, Godzilla Minus One one takes a serious-minded approach to dealing with the horrors of war, represented through a terrifyingly large kaiju… and comes out as one of the best films in the franchise and one of 2023’s surprise blockbuster hits.
Godzilla Minus One opens during the final days of WWII on the fictional Odo Island, as kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) fakes a mechanical error to avoid diving into battle. His cowardice is underscored when he’s unable to pull the trigger on a giant monster – the one the locals call Godzilla – attacking in the dead of night, leaving a pile of bodies in its wake.
After the war, Kōichi returns to his home in Tokyo to find his home reduced to rubble from air raids and his parents both deceased. In a plot device that could have been lifted from Charles Dickens, he crosses paths with Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and the infant she has found herself caring for, and this makeshift family begins to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Given his military experience, Kōichi lands a dangerous but well-paying job clearing up sea mines on a small shanty alongside an amiable crew. But Kōichi’s brief recovery from the horrors of war is shunted by the return of Godzilla, now even larger and more powerful than before, who is first spotted at sea headed for mainland Tokyo.
While many of the Toho Studios Godzilla movies and the most recent Hollywood entries from Legendary Pictures, have showcased Godzilla as a benevolent protector, Godzilla Minus One presents the creature as a terrifying force of horror. Like the original film, Godzilla represents the terrors that have been unleashed by nuclear war, and the raw destruction they leave in their wake.
In Oppenheimer, one of the most powerful films of the year, Cillian Murphy‘s nuclear scientist fears that he has started a chain reaction that will destroy the world; Godzilla Minus One can be seen as an unlikely but apt sequel that uses Godzilla as a metaphor for the arms race, with Japan left on its own as tensions between the United States and Russia surge.
Godzilla Minus One was written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who previously worked on franchises like Doraemon and Lupin III as well as the 2019 WWII movie The Great War of Archimedes, which this Godzilla film shares a number of similarities with. He cannily frames most of the monster action from ground level, giving the catastrophic events a distinctly human perspective.
Only about 20 or so minutes of Godzilla Minus One directly center on the titular beast, with the majority of the running time dedicated to Kōichi, who failed his country during the war but seizes the opportunity to redeem himself. It’s an impressively deep character arc for a Godzilla film that works largely thanks to Kamiki’s engaging performance as a veteran who can’t escape his past.
While many of Hollywood’s action movies failed to live up to the hype in 2023, here’s one that pulls no punches and satisfies in almost every possible regard. It should be noted that this is a Godzilla movie: it can turn melodramatic and heavy-handed, with some comically over-the-top performances. But with that caveat, Godzilla Minus One will more than please any existing Godzilla fan, and holds enough broad appeal to convert some new ones.