After 2016’s critically acclaimed Shin Godzilla, another soft reboot of the 1954 kaiju classic Godzilla may seem redundant. However, Toho’s latest resurrection of the beloved property, Godzilla Minus One, proves that it deserves inclusion into the upper echelons of the long-standing monstrous franchise. The most intimate and emotional entry since the black-and-white original, Minus One effectively establishes a sympathetic link between its modern audience, a war-ravaged Japan, and its defeated population, particularly the film’s complex protagonist. The ensuing spectacle of kaiju destruction begets despair and hopelessness while preparing for a riveting finale in one of the franchise’s best-written stories to date.
At the tail end of World War II, kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) foregoes his suicidal duty in hopes of living on. Shirking his responsibility on Odo Island, he and the garrison there encounter Godzilla for the first time. Two years later, Shikishima returns to an unrecognizable version of Tokyo eradicated by Allied air raids, wracked with survivor’s guilt and disloyalty to his country. When he runs into a stranger, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), and the baby she adopted from a dying woman, Shikishima hesitantly takes them in. Despite struggling with his ongoing internal “war,” Shikishima suddenly has something to live for besides himself. But the re-emergence of Godzilla off the coast of Tokyo threatens his new life, and Shikishima must band together with new friends and the private citizenry of Japan to defeat the creature.
Unlike Shin Godzilla and most other Japanese-produced films in the franchise, which primarily follow the efforts of government-led coalitions against the radioactive monstrosity, Minus One provides a more relatable and personable perspective. Writer/director Takashi Yamazaki introduces Shikishima as a broken and troubled man with PTSD from the war and his near-death experience on Odo Island, who simply wishes to break free from his mental trauma and live a happy life with his new family. In stark contrast to the more politically charged teams facing Godzilla in earlier entries, Minus One offers viewers compelling characters whose tragedies are meaningful in the face of the titular monster’s wanton rampage.
Godzilla’s iconic devastation is glorious, showcasing the especially impressive CGI and VFX work of companies Shirogumi and ModelingCafe with only a $15 million budget. While other franchise films are more prominent in scale and monster combat, Godzilla’s actions in Minus One are more heartbreaking when considering the charming and complicated characters we’ve come to know and appreciate during the movie’s runtime. Its various attacks on sea vessels snuff out hope of Japanese defensive measures, and its ruination of cities is soul-shattering. Visually and thematically, Godzilla is at its most terrifying, and its destructive capabilities are unnerving. Kôzô Shibasaki’s beautiful cinematography and Naoki Satô’s score alongside the legendary Godzilla theme enhance these horrifying and tragic elements greatly.
Although Minus One paints a tale similar to its ’50s predecessor, our connection to its people, all complete with unique personalities, flaws, and dreams, underscore the parallel themes of post-war fear, paranoia, pain, and regret with arguably greater efficacy. Some detractors say that Godzilla is in the movie too little, which is a fair enough point after getting used to Legendary and WBD’s jam-packed MonsterVerse. Still, the mere threat of Godzilla looming about makes this film much more unsettling, and like Ishirō Honda’s classic, his sporadic appearances make sense in the script’s tight structure. Godzilla Minus One is still imperfect (though its flaws are few and far between), but it is the most exciting and emotionally captivating Godzilla film in many years, and one that any movie lover can appreciate, kaiju fan or not.