GODZILLA MINUS ONE might be the best Godzilla movie in recent memory. Not the best ever, as GODZILLA VS. MEGALON still exists, but it is a contender for the upper echelon of Big G movie rankings. It also comes at a time where Godzilla content is at an all-time resurgence, what with GODZILLA X KONG arriving a few months into 2024.
Writer/Director Takashi Yamazaki (who also handled some of the visual effects) brings us back in time to 1945, in the final days of World War II. Here we meet a kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who has landed on the remote Odo Island due to a perceived issue with his plane. While the plane is being inspected, the island is attacked by a giant monster that one of the men says the locals told him about named Godzilla. Kōichi survives that encounter with one of the other garrison men who holds him responsible for the deaths of his friends.
Back in Japan, Kōichi goes home, or what is left of it, as the bombing of the city by the US in the war has left it in rubble. He encounters a woman named Noriko who has baby, Akiko, with her. By circumstance, they are thrown together and determined to survive. But fate has a different plan as while they are trying to rebuild their lives, Godzilla appears to tear it down once more. Japan survived one war, but now a different one has come to them in their lowest point that they must face with not military might, but defiance and ingenuity.
A beautiful and moving film, GODZILLA MINUS ONE brings to mind other period pieces set during wartime. If you didn’t have the threat of a monster looming over it, it might be a romance, with Noriko and Kōichi carving out a little life for themselves as friends but never quite lovers, due to Kōichi’s survivor’s guilt. And that itself is a giant hurdle for him to get over, for despite a good job and friends, he doesn’t feel like he deserves to live for abandoning his duty as a kamikaze pilot and for the massacre that happened on Odo Island. Because of that, he can’t marry Noriko despite the fact she obviously enjoys his company and has stuck around. When Godzilla finally shows up once more, that kicks Kōichi’s guilt into overdrive as he must face the thing he fears the most and the source of all of his failures.
Speaking of which, the Big G is sporting a new look in this movie. It’s sort of like a cross between the Heisei era Godzilla, Legendary Godzilla and Shin Godzilla. He’s huge, with a weight that shatters the street underfoot, yet nimble enough to thrash and crash about with fury as he destroys everything in his path. The profile is the same too. He’s not more dinosaur-like due to the CGI. Instead they create what it would look like if it were still a man in a suit. His breath weapon has a pretty great firing sequence that will bring to mind GODZILLA (2014) but with a unique twist, and the explosion it makes rivals that of Godzilla’s heat ray in GMK but with far greater destructive power. It’s the little things afterward that really set it apart, how it needs to recharge and it seems like using the weapon itself hurts him, but so spiteful is he that Godzilla would gladly suffer if it meant annihilating his foes in blue fire.
The destruction this time around isn’t incidental, like a creature wandering around and doing everything accidentally. Godzilla clearly things everything is his territory and he will do what he damn well pleases as he gives into base instincts. We’re treated to a vision of this early on when Godzilla first appears, and when he lands in Tokyo, it’s clear that this is not a beast you can reason with. It understands only violence and that is how it will be dealt with. And boy, does he devastate whatever he touches–especially if you make him angry and Godzilla decides to use his most powerful weapon, the heat ray.
With it being the end of the war and Japan disarmed, fighting Godzilla ends up not being as easy as deploying as much firepower as possible. Instead, it requires those who have no power to step up and help with a plan that risks all of their lives with no guarantee of survival. It’s a heart-stirring approach that really raises the stakes for the final battle.
Music this time around is handled by Naoki Satō (Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero) and creates a swelling, oppressive atmosphere with walls of strings and dissonant punches. We are treated to a few Akira Ifukube cues which are expected since that’s the music we associate with Godzilla, but at times they feel out of place, especially when using tracks from KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. It’s a shame because he does such job that I’d rather he keep the nostalgia to a minimum and make it his own.
The same could be said for Yamazaki, since it feels like parts of the film have the DNA of others in the series. Maybe it’s homage, but it lessens the film somewhat, but not enough to make it unenjoyable. He does a pretty amazing job in weaving the human story with the monster action so you never feel like you’re lacking in either and you care about both equally. It definitely harkens back to GOJIRA with its serious tone and that’s a good thing, as some of the other movies didn’t have that grounding. There’s a place for both in the series (you don’t get to 70 years and 37 films without having a bit of variance, and it’s nice to go back to the feelings of shock and awe the original gave us so long ago.
The performances are solid amongst the cast. I especially liked the ragtag crew that Kōichi works with. They’re a motley bunch from different walks of life but they all bond over their job of cleaning up mines after the war and watching them pal around on the boat reminds me of Brody, Hooper and Quint on the Orca in JAWS, which is appropriate considering the beast that is out there with them. They’re all just trying to survive a bad situation without losing their minds.
Where does it stand in my own rankings? It’s hard to say after one viewing but it’s in the running for new favorite out of the modern offerings. I’d say it might have wormed its way into the top 5, easily. Not a perfect film, but it is damn close and that is what makes it so enjoyable. It’s playing in theaters now so go check it out.