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Movie Review - Godzilla Minus One

I’m starting to notice a pattern here. See if you can spot it.

1998 - Tri-Star pictures releases Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich's Godzilla. I think we know how that went, being more like the recently released Jurassic Park with some atomic testing thrown in so as not to completely buck the entire history of the franchise.

1999 - Toho releases Godzilla 2000, kicking off the 'Millenium' era of Godzilla films, due largely in part to fans clammoring for a return to form. Seriously, Godzilla 2000 started production two months after the American release. It was literally Toho saying 'Aw, hell no!'.

2014 – Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures kick off their ‘Monsterverse’ with Godzilla, which you can see my review of here. It did well at the box office but ultimately felt like a movie more focused on humans than the Big G…and the humans were, I’ll be polite and say bland.

2016 – Toho releases Shin Godzilla first in Japan then in the United States. The US release is extremely limited, running only a week (October 11-18) on 440 screens. It went on to be one of the most critically acclaimed entries in the series in Japan, draw the highest grosses of any live-action Japanese film that year and took the lion’s share of Japan’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, winning 7 awards (including Best Picture) of the 11 it was nominated for. I've reviewed the film here to be succinct, I felt this was Toho firing back again at the American effort, essentially saying ‘THIS is how you f***ing do it.’

In the years that followed, WB and Legendary’s Monsterverse has continued, releasing Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Godzilla Vs Kong (2021)…all to varying effect. Ultimately, while these films prove to be good fun, a common thread is that the humans always bog down the proceedings, their personalities ranging from severely annoying to maybe passable, making it difficult to get invested in anything except for the monster battles. This is all well and good, hell, the bulk of the Heisei films merit similar reactions, and Hollywood did indeed bring their A-game to the effects. But it was pretty clear that as tentpole films, the entertainment value was fairly disposable. I’ll admit, I’m not sure I’ve revisited any of these films…whereas I’ve had a good number of re-viewings of Shin Godzilla.

Now, in 2023, we have Godzilla Minus One. And once again, Toho has put Hollywood on notice. Not only can you have a terrifying Godzilla, but you can also have humans that the audience will get invested in, worry over, cry with and for, serving to anchor the film’s fantastical events in a reality not seen since Shin Godzilla all the while carrying the torch of the 1954 original when it comes to the themes and stark warnings. Before I go further, let me try to summarize:

Post-War Japan. As a nation tries to rebuild in the wake of fire bombing and the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we follow a failed Kamikaze pilot as he returns home…only to find that he, like so many others, has lost everything he’s known including his home and his parents. Bearing the shame and post-traumatic stress of his time spent at war, he must join with the rest of his countrymen in rebuilding their nation. But when a nuclear test in the Bikini Atoll awakens what had once been the subject of island folklore, a wounded Japan must find a way to stand on its own, without US help, or otherwise face certain destruction at the hands of Godzilla.

Where to begin? There’s so much to love about this film. Perhaps its best to lead with the characters, as this film pulls off a small miracle within the spectrum of Kaiju films: it has fully fleshed out human characters that not only will the audience sympathize with, but also end up cheering for by the film’s climax. The story focuses on Koichi Shikishima, a failed Kamikaze pilot very clearly suffering from PTSD…something that the film’s events do absolutely nothing to assuage. Also not helping is that nearly everyone he encounters, especially once he gets back home to Tokyo, has completely no sympathy for him. He was supposed to die for his country, yet he’s still alive. Such shame and dishonor. For an American kinda-sorta equivalent, think of how vets were treated when coming back from Vietnam. Koichi’s own neighbor holds him in utter contempt as the story opens. As the story unfolds, we find him as part of not only one, but two families…both of them never falling into two-dimensionality as many humans in Kaiju films do. His first family consists of a woman and child he encounters on the street, the second, his crewmates at his new job on a minesweeping boat. Each of these dynamics enrich not only Koichi’s character but also of the components of these families. There’s an awkward nature to his relationship with Noriko and Akiko (the woman and child) where he both wants them to be his family yet keeps himself at arm’s length from them, for example, constantly telling Akiko that he is not her father. The fact that the film gives us the insight that it’s his PTSD and the ghosts that haunt him pushes this film far, far past the utter lack of characterization we got from Ford Brody: Unkillable Dude [He means WB & Legendary’s Godzilla. – Ed.] back in 2014. To their benefit, neither of these two become a hinderance or annoyance as is so often the case in Kaiju movies. You do want to see the moment where Koichi accepts the fact that he IS Akiko’s father (albeit not biologically). There IS a palpable will they/won’t they between him and Noriko…and your heart breaks a little bit when she talks about moving out. You want to reach into the screen and just slap the bastard: “Propose already, dammit!” In the meantime, his crewmen help him not only to embrace the skills he learned in wartime, showing him there’s still use for them during peace, but there’s still a use for HIM during peace…and world is a better place with him in it, even if his ‘war is not over’. Doc, the Captain and the Kid themselves become characters we care for as we come to see how much they care for Koichi and, more often than not, provide a contextual comic relief (I’d almost prefer to call these segments ‘lighter moments’)…because let’s face it, this picture is fucking grim at times, so the moments we get to throw back a sake or three with these guys is most welcome indeed.

That seems like a natural segue to Godzilla himself. I’ll still continue to praise Shin Godzilla’s portrayal of the Kaiju and the threat he posed to modern society…but in this film, he’s downright terrifying. Here, he’s a force of nature that comes calling while Japan is still down and recovering from the war. And let’s be clear, he DOES NOT take shit from anyone. We see him eat people, we see them fling them in the distance, we see him utterly rampage throughout Ginza. His atomic breath in this film places an emphasis on ‘atomic’ and there is absolutely no second-guessing what the imagery might be referring to. This kaiju is, without a doubt, the culmination of the wrath and shame of the Japanese people post-World War II brought to cruel, harsh life and the movie makes you bear witness unflinchingly. As we find ourselves in the closing moments of the second act of the film, director Takashi Yamazaki creates such an atmosphere of hopelessness that you truly wonder if there’s any way at all the Japanese can save themselves.

Let’s talk about atmosphere for a moment here, because Yamazaki does something really good here. Yes, there’s no doubt that Koichi is our main character and the focus of the movie, but there is not a second that goes by in this film where you cannot help but feel Godzilla. He’s lurking. We’re shown evidence of his presence. So even in the emotional moments where, say, we might be wanting Koichi to get his shit together and recognize the family he has…we also end up understanding his point of view, because in a present where the very real threat of losing those he cares for to a giant radioactive mutant lizard is everywhere, does it do more harm than good to emotionally invest in those around him knowing, more likely than not, he’ll end up surviving them as well. The dual nature of the film’s vibe is a difficult thing to capture even in mainstream film…but to do it in a kaiju film? Absolutely unheard of. But it totally works and Yamazaki deserves any and all praise for that.

Helping him in constructing that feeling is the score provided by Naoki Sato. Sato’s score does exactly what the best scores do: provide the emotional heartbeat of the film. The perfect marriage here between scene and sound…and sometimes the lack of sound…always puts the viewer right into the movie. There are bits that are rousing, inspirational, dreadful and downright terrifying. To that latter end, Akira Ifukube’s original Godzilla theme emerges here in such a way so as to be expected, but not to be cliché, avoiding the pitfalls that were present in earlier eras of the Big-G…especially the Showa era. Also worth noting, as I hinted at a couple of sentences ago, this score isn’t overbearing, filling silence with music for the sake of doing so. Instead, it knows when silence is the most effective tool in its arsenal, and I can think of at least one scene where that silence truly signifies that shit is flying fanward.

There’s a point that I wanted to discuss, but I wasn’t sure how to fit it into this review without it feeling shoehorned. Thankfully, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have afforded me such an opportunity. Just after the release of Godzilla Minus One, they released their trailer for the next chapter in the Monsterverse series: Godzilla X Kong – The New Empire. The timing for this release is both perfect and tone-deaf all at the same time. It’s perfect because it provides the best example of compare/contrast that they or Toho are ever going to get. The Monsterverse trailer provides more of the same: action, monster fights, human characters for the sake of human characters. It’s systemic of the biggest problem with American Godzilla films. Sure, you’re there for the monster fights, to be sure, but ultimately, they end up devolving into military porn; a showcase of tech and gadgets manned by humans were never really care about in an effort to ‘save the world’ or ‘save Godzilla/Kong’ so on and so forth. It’s all bang and no buck. Godzilla Minus One and its predecessor Shin Godzilla are much the opposite and honestly, they’re all the better for it. With the recent Japanese films, there’s a focus on theme, commentary and above all, characters. Shin Godzilla proved a biting commentary on the perils of bureaucracy in times of emergency (in this case, the 9.0 earthquake and the resultant Fukushima meltdown) and the role of a modern Japan in a world that in some ways still won’t let it live down its role in World War II. Minus One doesn’t necessarily offer quite so much commentary (although one could say that one of the core themes is that it is up to the people to decide the direction and fate of a nation, not its government), but instead offers contemplations on post-war mental illness such as PTSD and how that affects soldiers being reintegrated into society as well as what the true definition of what makes up a family. Even unifying those seemingly disparate things is perhaps the main throughline of the theme that great things happen when people come together, whether it be as small as something like a family or as gigantic as fighting off a giant radioactive kaiju.

YouTube commentator James Rolfe (aka Cinemassacre) made the comment in his review of this film that “The only Godzilla movies are the Japanese ones.” I’m not sure I agree with a fairly exclusionary statement. True, the American versions have been various forms of lacking, but if any kaiju fan is brutally honest with him or herself, we have the late 60s and 70s Showa era Godzilla and Gamera films to thank for the public perception that kaiju films are just children’s (or overgrown children’s) entertainment. What most fail to see is that Godzilla films are at their best when they’re about something, whether it’s a commentary on the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs that ended Japanese involvement in WWII (Godzilla, 1954), the threat of pollution (Godzilla vs Hedora, 1971), Japan being stuck in the middle of the Cold War between the US and the USSR (Return of Godzilla, 1984) and of course the aforementioned Shin Godzilla. Yes, I’m sure there are some I’m missing, those are simply the first to come to mind. Godzilla films are at their best when they’re terrifying on some level, and most times, nothing is as terrifying as a good long look in the mirror. Godzilla Minus One does this exceptionally well.

While being awfully damn close, this film isn’t perfect. While special effects quality does vary a bit during the running time, most of the time you’re not going to notice…or, at the very least, it will not draw you out of the story. I did have one minor issue though, and that’s Godzilla’s walk. Each time he’s on land, his walking is very robotic, stiff…artificial. While previous films, both American and Japanese, have jettisoned the man-in-a-suit approach either for motion-capture (American) or CG over practical effects/animatronics that are in picture (Shin Godzilla), this is a pure CG Godzilla and his walk cycle looks like just that, a walk cycle…not a giant lumbering creature bringing forth absolute destruction.

This leads inevitably to the discussion on the film’s budget. Much is being made in the blogosphere that Minus One had a budget of only $15 million. On the surface, that’s AMAZING. Think about it, here’s a film that with maybe just a few more bucks thrown at the special effects could’ve been absolutely perfect! Now, compare that to the budgets of the Monsterverse films: Godzilla (2014) - $160 million, Godzilla King of the Monsters (2019) - $170 to 200 million and Godzilla vs Kong (2021) - $155 to 200 million. No information about Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire was available at the time of this writing, but a budget of up to $250 million, given recent inflation, wouldn’t be out of the question. And NONE of these films offers the depth, heart and just downright entertainment value of Godzilla Minus One. It certainly is worth noting, especially for Hollywood execs, that it’s simple math: produce a $15 million dollar film that’s well-written and well-acted, deep with relatable characters and not only is there not a whole lot of risk to the company or production studio, if you look at Minus One’s review scores right now, most of them are either at least favorable but more often than not, including this one, absolutely glowing. That said, there is a downside to this $15 million number. You see, the stresses, demand and strain on both effects houses and their employees isn’t unique to American films. It’s happening in Japan too. So, for what we got, that meant a lot of employees putting in very long days for little in the way of compensation. Of course, in hindsight, Toho could’ve certainly upped the budget to provide these visionaries with higher wages or better working conditions (including shorter days) but no one could’ve predicted how well Godzilla Minus One would do not only in Japan but globally. It both highlights the problem facing modern entertainment, but also a testament to the artists behind this film. While it’s reassuring to know that it’s not just Hollywood who are being dicks about this, it remains outrageous that the very thing that is becoming a cornerstone of modern films, special and digital effects, is being treated not much differently from sausage production at the start of the 20th century: obscenely long hours, little pay and the health risks that go with both of those. [Finally, you got to use goddamn Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in something. Your high school English teacher must be so proud. – Ed.]

How does one write a closing paragraph when you’ve already blathered on long enough? The short version of all this is that if you have the chance to see Godzilla Minus One, kaiju fan or not, GO. It’s quite possibly the best cinematic experience I’ve had in a while…possibly of all 2023. In the long 70 year history of Godzilla films, I can honestly say this has got to be the best one ever…a tall order since I thought they’d never top Shin Godzilla. But they did. And they did it with heart, with deep human characters that you truly care for and, of course, one terrifying giant radioactive lizard. While there is just the teensiest flaw in the special effects, that’s not enough to dissuade me from giving Godzilla Minus One our highest rating, the coveted Hypno Cat.

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