After countless variations and sequels, plus major studio Hollywood versions, Toho is back in the driver’s seat for the first time since 2016 with a new take on the 70-year-old Godzilla franchise, a consistent run far longer than Bond and just about anything else. The very good news here is that just when you thought there was nothing new to do with the giant lizard who enjoys stomping on cities and all their inhabitants, along comes what might be called the first Godzilla art film — or at least one where the humans actually are three-dimensional and recognizable.
In writer-director and VFX supervisor Takashi Yamazaki’s (The Eternal Zero) hands, Godzilla’s screen time adds up to more of a supporting turn to the humans whose lives are deeply affected by his re-emergence. And unlike any previous film, including Ishiro Honda’s irresistible 1954 original, this one isn’t dubbed into English. Godzilla Minus One also is for the first time a period piece. It also happens to be a masterpiece, a thrilling adventure, love story, war epic, psychological drama and, oh yes, monster movie. I wasn’t expecting it, but this Godzilla is firing on all cylinders.
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Set at the end of World War II, we first meet pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) landing on the Japanese island of Odo by faking engine trouble. But it soon is revealed to his colleagues there that he is actually a kamikaze pilot who now has deep issues about not fulfilling his duties and remaining among the living. Things get worse quickly with the first appearance of our title star, who emerges from the ocean to threaten every trace of humanity on the island. When asked to use his plane’s gun capability to kill the stomping monster, he fails, and the result is the death of just about everyone there except an angry chief mechanic Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki).
Returning post-military duty in a haze to a bombed-out Tokyo, we see this is a disturbed man suffering PTSD among other things. A local rips him a new one when she learns he was a kamikaze pilot but still got to come back when so many died in the war. He meets a young woman named Noriko (Minami Hamabe) who is caring for an orphaned baby girl named Akiko. With the help of an older neighbor Sumiko (Sakura Ando), he joins Noriko and Akiko and starts a new life trying to rebuild the destroyed area. This is not any swelling romance but a believable relationship nevertheless. As luck would have it, he eventually gets a job working on a minesweeper boat and spends a lot of time with the lively crew there on the ocean defusing mines left from the war.
Months pass into 1946, and the U.S. is beginning its Bikini Island nuke tests, and guess who re-emerges, now truly radioactive and lit up and ready for action? The sequence that follows is in many ways more reminiscent of Jaws than this franchise as the ill-equipped boat’s crew must battle Godzilla. You almost expect someone to say “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” at any minute.
Later Koichi awakens in a Tokyo hospital room, unaware of the fate of his friends but determined to warn Noriko that they must get word to the city that this fearsome monster is headed there. When Godzilla does arrive, all hell breaks loose on a city that thought it couldn’t get worse than the war. It does, as Yamazaki sets his cameras on the creature picking up entire passenger trains, citizens running for their lives and other charming clichés of movies pre-computer imagery. Fun. The question remains: Will Koichi finally stop the war within himself and do the right thing for the people? There is a plan, and it involves this kamikaze Top Gun in the mission of his life.
Setting the film just after WWII in Japan, still the only population center to experience the tragedy of having an atomic bomb dropped on them, is inspired. Godzilla always has represented the dark side, the result of what we have done to ourselves. To battle him is always to save our own humanity from this monster made of nuclear waste and the worst of what we do to the planet. It is no spoiler to suggest, as always, that we haven’t seen the last of what Godzilla is capable of. If anything, Godzilla Minus Zero is the thinking-man’s entry into the franchise and one that opens new doors.
This movie has it all, and on a $15 million budget I found that economy begets ingenuity. The action scenes and even Godzilla himself outstrip what the far more expensive effects of the Warner Bros. and Sony Godzilla reboots did with all that technology and CGI available. It is just a lot more fun to see what Yamazaki does here, less sophisticated and even with a charming wink to the, uh, less savvy earlier entries in the venrable series. The acting also is aces, with Kamiki delivering an emotional and moving performance in the lead role and the other stars lending fine support, most notably Hamabe as Noriko.
Naoki Sato’s score is exceptional and, showing affection to where this all started, there also is sweet use of music icon Akira Ifukube’s original Godzilla theme.
Producers are Minami Ichikawa, Kazauki Kishida, Keiichiro Moriya and Kenji Yamada.
Title: Godzilla Minus One
Release Date: December 1, 2023 (U.S.; opened Nov. 3 in Japan)
Director-screenwriter: Takashi Yamazaki
Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Munetaka Aoki, Minami Hamabe, Sakura Ando, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Hidetaka Yoshioka
Running time: 2 hr 5 min
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