Godzilla Minus One Review: Latest Reboot Brings Toho’s Biggest Star Into the 21st Century

When Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya’s singular creation, Godzilla (Gojira), shuffled out of the ocean depths in 1954, little did they know that their gigantic, atomic fire-breathing monster—a monstrous metaphor for nuclear devastation—would be celebrating its 70th anniversary next year. Given Godzilla’s protean ability to morph with changing trends and newer audiences, it’s more than likely that audiences in 2094 (or their post-human equivalent) will be not just celebrating the king of the monsters’s 140th anniversary, but also looking forward to the next half-century and beyond.

Subsequent sequels, remakes, and reboots, including the ongoing, American-made, big-budget MonsterVerse series naturally kickstarted by Godzilla (2014), never fully recaptured the horrors and terrors of the 1954 Japanese original. Until now, that is, and writer-director-visual-effects-guru Takashi Yamazaki’s (Ghost Book, The Great War of Archimedes) reboot Godzilla Minus One. At times startlingly downbeat and crushingly bleak, at others uplifting and optimistic, Yamazaki delivers a multi-layered, tonally perfect, provocative take on Godzilla and post-WWII Japan. In Yamazaki’s hands, Godzilla feels almost entirely new, both as a terrible force of nature and destruction and as an all-purpose metaphor that can change with the times. And it’s all thanks to Yamazaki and his collaborators on both sides of the camera.

Godzilla Minus One opens in 1945 during the closing days of World War II. Japan’s defeat isn’t a matter of if anymore, but when. For Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot with wavering loyalties and a keen instinct for self-preservation, throwing his life away on a lost cause seems like a deeply unwise, illogical decision. Landing on a Japanese-held island for “repairs” on his faulty plane, Koichi hopes against hope to avoid his fate or barring the fate the Japanese military has set for him and others like him, another day or half-day of life.

The airplane techs on the island greet Koichi with wariness and some doubt, but before they can act on those doubts, the title character appears, wreaking havoc on the airfield and worse yet, leaving only Koichi and the chief mechanic, Sōsaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki), alive. Not surprisingly, Tachibana blames Koichi for hesitating when he should have attempted to engage Godzilla. Koichi would have failed, of course, but Tachibana stubbornly rejects the possibility, leaving Koichi with the equivalent of badges of dishonor (photos of the dead men) as a reminder of Koichi’s failure of nerve.

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After his brief, terrifying attack in the prologue, the title character hovers offscreen for the better part of another 30-40 minutes before returning for several command performances, each one both different than the last and brilliantly staged by Yamazaki and his team. With Godzilla temporarily offscreen, Yamazaki focuses on Koichi and his painful, anguished reintegration into society. Marked as a coward and—by at least one neighbor, a traitor to Japan—Koichi’s deep-seated emotional and psychological struggles take centre stage. Across Godzilla Minus One’s remaining running time, Koichi’s arc follows a not-entirely-predictable character, from a one-time pilot, once driven by nationalism and cultural attitudes about collectivism and self-sacrifice, to one driven by a straightforward, clear-eyed ideal, sacrificing himself for a greater good.

That “greater good” for Koichi includes Noriko Oishi (Minami Hamabe), a young woman who follows Koichi home one day, and Akiko (Sae Nagatani), an infant survivor Noriko saved from almost certain death. Connected by need and not biology, Koichi, Noriko, and Akiko form a makeshift family—first by default, later by intention. Still haunted by his actions during the war, Koichi remains at a physical and emotional distance. Even as he turns into a “good provider” for their family by getting a well-paying job aboard a minesweeper, which slowly improves their fortunes, Koichi can’t bring himself to ask for more from Noriko.

While Godzilla represents a far greater danger, one defined not by ideological fervor, but by pure instinct, Yamazaki’s implicit worldview leads him to turn Godzilla Minus One into a celebration of the generation that survived the horrors of WWII (some, admittedly, self-inflicted, though that admission appears nowhere here) and the seemingly infinite resilience needed to rebuild post-war Japan.

Taking a deeper dive into Godzilla Minus One, however, and Yamazaki’s critique of the Japanese government before, during, and after the war isn’t anywhere as clear and non-ambiguous as it first appears. Yamazaki skirts an incredibly fine line, allowing moviegoers to make the film’s themes fit whatever preconceptions or biases they had before entering the theatre. Multiple times several characters express their bitterness either at the slow-moving, inefficient bureaucracy that hinders their efforts to stop Godzilla after it makes landfall in Tokyo or at their conduct of the war. The latter can be read as either criticism of the Japanese government for bringing Japan into a destructive war or their incompetent management of the war, leading to inevitable defeat.

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Wherever the characters stand ideologically on the just-concluded war, they ultimately set aside their differences and unite to defeat the existential threat presented by Godzilla and its atomic breath. Yamazaki celebrates both unity and more importantly, collective action—free of bothersome government interference, no less—when Koichi, his minesweeper buddies, and ex-navy men agree to participate in an ingenious plan concocted by Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a brainy ex-navy engineer and one of Koichi’s minesweeper compatriots.

That, in turn, leads to a nerve-shredding set piece that easily qualifies as best-in-class—or among best-in-class—across Godzilla’s 70 years and nearly 40 films. Godzilla Minus One sets the concluding, decisive battle on the water, the motley assortment of decommissioned ships, merchant vessels, and tug boats the last defence against a rampaging Godzilla. Yamazaki uses every cinematic tool available to deliver a harrowingly intense, spectacle-rich experience on par with its bigger-budgeted American counterparts. As the battle progresses toward its inevitable climax, Yamazaki nimbly cross-cuts between multiple ships, their respective crews, and Koichi in full-on redemption mode.

In those last, stirring, riveting moments of Godzilla Minus One, Yamazaki’s overarching theme, that only collective action—a renewed nationalism separated from from the self-destructive politics of Imperial Japan—can defeat an existential threat like Godzilla, fully comes into focus. As we’ve repeatedly learned in the past, however, any rumours of Godzilla’s demise remain, if nothing else, exaggerated.

Currently in theatrical release, Godzilla Minus One will be available via VOD and streaming within the next several months.

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