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Godzilla Minus One

The big lizard kicks Japan while its down in the wake of WWII, making for a remarkably tragic yet uplifting tale of human perseverance.

This article predates the Odd Trilogies website. It was originally published on Film Yap.

Approaching 70 years since Godzilla’s debut, it seems appropriate that owner studio Toho Co. has opted to take the character back to his roots with Minus One, setting this story in the aftermath of the very event that inspired his creation to begin with—the mass destruction of Japanese populations at the end of World War II.

The result is a notably serious and remarkably effective meditation on the disease of war and its lingering effects on the lives of survivors, harkening back to the franchise’s metaphorical origins.

In 1945, we meet Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot who’s not ready to die. After falsely claiming engine failure and abandoning his duty, Shikishima bears witness to absolute horror: a T-Rex-like reptilian monster, which the locals call “Godzilla,” attacks the island, killing almost everyone.

Doubly racked with guilt, as both a failed kamikaze and the survivor of a horrible disaster, Shikishima returns home to Tokyo, only to find his entire neighborhood burnt to the ground and his parents dead—the result of the firebombings by the US. If only cowards like him had fulfilled their duty, maybe this would never have happened.

He meets a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), and a child, Akiko (Sae Nagatani), though she tells him they are not related. Like many others, their homes have been destroyed. Shikishima allows them to stay in what’s left of his home, and they begin to form something of a family unit, with Shikishima and Noriko working together to raise and provide for Akiko.

Throughout the film, director Takashi Yamazaki pulls no punches in hammering home the suffering of Japanese civilians in the wake of the war and the guilt that haunts Shikishima. Although he seems to have found some productive purpose post-war in the form of his found family, he can’t bring himself to truly embrace them. He’s a survivor who shouldn’t exist, after all. He was meant to die. He’s kept awake at night by nightmares of the Godzilla attack.

Two years pass, and Shikishima gets a job minesweeping off the coast. He joins a ragtag crew (who are a delightful ensemble throughout the second and third acts) and puts his pilot skills to work sharpshooting mines.

The fun is cut short by the reappearance of Godzilla, now colossal in scale (and even meaner). As the monster grows larger and increasingly aggressive, the people of Tokyo now fear that what little they’ve managed to make for themselves out of the rubble of the war will be once again destroyed.

Here, Godzilla is one angry-looking bastard. Deep ridges adorn his forehead, convening between red-orange eyes, petrifying his face in a constant scowl. His dorsal spines are spikier, almost coral-like in structure, and his entire body is crusted in a jagged carapace that appears inconsistent in pattern and texture, as if grown by mistake. Nuclear radiation is a hell of a drug!

Altogether, it’s a really lovely blend of the traditional pear-shaped suit design of the older, practical films, and the meatier, more muscular, and more brutally detailed designs of Shin Godzilla and the Legendary Pictures films. Like ShinMinus One employs an entirely computer-generated Godzilla (as far as I can tell, anyway), but painstakingly recreates a lot of the stiff movements and body jiggles of the old suits. It’s a really gorgeous and satisfying rendition of the character that, I imagine, will please just about everyone.

Godzilla also has a few new tricks up his sleeve, or at least, new spins on familiar tricks, which I’ll not spoil here. I will say, however, that his trademark atomic breath packs a real wallop this time around, devastating in its effects on the surrounding environment, and traumatizing for nearby witnesses in the imagery it produces.

Yamakazi makes sure to consistently pepper the film with weighty Godzilla encounters, but frankly, enduring even the longest blocks of monsterless human drama was never a chore with these characters. They’re a great mix of emotionally complex, funny, and diverse in background and perspective. I found myself leaning in every time the minesweeping crew were together in a scene because I just wanted more of their dynamic. Shikishima is maybe the most compelling protagonist I’ve ever seen in one of these.

That’s refreshing, as it’s a frequent (often justified) complaint that the human element in Godzilla films eats up too much of the runtime without offering enough in the way of emotional substance or memorable characters. I think sometimes that complaint has a habit of morphing into, “Why don’t we just stop focusing on humans and just do straight Godzilla for two hours?”

I’m not innocent of this. I remember saying something along those lines in response to 2019’s King of the Monsters, a film that I was initially very frustrated by (and still have problems with) but have come to admire more and more as time passes and I become more familiar with the character’s history. Of course, a human-less Godzilla film is an implausible—and, moreover, misguided—wish, and I think Minus One is kind of the perfect example of why. It’s a dramatic reminder of the character’s origins as a metaphor for human strife and hubris. Godzilla has represented a lot of different things in a lot of different movies, but at the end of the day, it’s the human perspective that gives the monster meaning.

I think Minus One can also serve as an example to other Godzilla films moving forward. Not that it’s the first to have an interesting human angle, but it does seem like it takes a uniquely focused approach to how it handles its characters, keeping their stories small, personal, and visceral, rather than trying to capture too many perspectives in one go and under-serving all of them. We seemingly can’t—and probably shouldn’t—take the humanity out of Godzilla. So why not make the most of it?

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Wishes he could forego sleep to watch more movies. Besides co-hosting Odd Trilogies and writing reviews, Andy builds Gundam models, loves on his three cats, and spends way too much time managing his Plex server. You can follow his movie-watching habits on Letterboxd.

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