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Godzilla Minus One

Japan's iconic kaiju gets one of its best films yet in this affecting and spectacular monster movie, which takes Godzilla back to its World War II-era roots.
By Sarah Ward
December 01, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
December 01, 2023
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Since 1954, there have been few pieces of movie music as meaningful, magnificent and momentous as Akira Ifukube's Godzilla theme. It's a tune of urgency and spirit, and of foreboding and triumph alike. The OG feature that brought Japan's towering kaiju to the screen isn't a masterpiece simply due to its score, but the picture's main song contributes as forcefully as Zilly's big bite. Memorable film music doesn't solely make an impact when it is echoing, though. When Ifukube's all-timer fades away in a Godzilla flick can impart as much as when it resounds. Godzilla Minus One knows this expertly, because the first Japanese live-action entry in the franchise since 2016's exceptional Shin Godzilla is a movie about living in the silent shadow and aftermath of devastation in addition to being about its namesake making an appearance in post-World War II Tokyo.

A film that deploys its theme so artfully, precisely and potently is a film that knows how to thoughtfully ponder more deeply than a gash from pop culture's ultimate giant lizard. That's evident from Godzilla Minus One's name as well, which references the desolated state that Japan was in at the 20th century's midpoint, plus the magnified ruin that comes with Godzilla being Godzilla. Writer and director Takashi Yamazaki (Lupin III: The First, Ghost Book) tackles everything in his entry to the creature-feature saga with that kind of care and insight, and the picture that results isn't just better for it — it's one of the best Godzilla efforts yet. Electrifyingly moving and heartfelt, it's the Godzilla movie equivalent of the blazing blue spikes that its chief critter now sports. It dazzles and stands out, including at a time when the kaiju is everywhere, with the American Monsterverse fresh from 2014's Godzilla, 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters and 2021's Godzilla vs Kong, plus Monarch: Legacy of Monsters on streaming, and with 2024's Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire on the way.

Yamazaki doesn't just go back to Godzilla's beginnings. He ventures further into the past, albeit still to Odo Island. As the Second World War is almost at an end, the land mass is being used as an aviation hub. Kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunokuke Kamiki, Suzume) arrives to escape having to donate his life to the war effort, only for Godzilla to emerge. The same situation awaits, and the same outcome.  Kōichi survives alongside mechanic Sosaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki, Fence); however, this won't be anyone's last encounter with the mutated, ferocious, radiation-breathing dinosaur-like being that was initially conjured up as a metaphor for the trauma inflicted in that war, and by atomic weaponry. While Godzilla still represents the fallout from and anxiety sparked by going nuclear, and due to combat in general, Godzilla Minus One stamps its way among the series' greats by being delicately and affectingly attuned to the human toll.

The fact that he still lives while others fell victim to Godzilla haunts Kōichi as Yamazaki's film tracks him in subsequent months and years. Movies about the monster who has multiple Tokyo statues dedicated to it can also turn their commentary inwards, towards Japan — so, after Shin Godzilla leaned on bureaucratic bungling to nod to the Fukushima meltdown, Godzilla Minus One tears into the military concept that a single life is expendable. Being wracked with survivor's guilt and dismay over abandoning his kamikaze mission drives Kōichi to seek redemption once Godzilla returns, and disrupts the makeshift family that he forms with Noriko (Minami Hamabe, Shin Kamen Rider) and a baby orphaned in the Japanese capital's bombing. Lingering over the narrative, though, is the truth that every person and their time alive matters, and that people banding together can take on colossal problems — yes, that means Godzilla.

Kōichi's first post-war job: ridding the sea of mines, another gig where his existence is treated as expendable. Jaws sinks its teeth in as inspiration as the ragtag cleanup crew take to their task — and, of course, as a formidable figure from the deep surfaces to wreak havoc. Yamazaki matches the blockbuster thrills of Steven Spielberg's game-changer, masterfully crafting tense ocean-set sequences that are a spectacle to behold. In the air, the Top Gun flicks get a run for their money. When Zilly tramples through Ginza, complete with train carnage that tops Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, it's another stunning moment. When you have a background in special effects, as Godzilla Minus One's guiding force does — including on Shin Godzilla — gifting the screen one of its best visual renderings of Godzilla yet isn't a given, but Yamazaki repeatedly delivers with the craggy-skinned, plate-clad critter and the damage it causes. Viewers can see it all clearly, too; there's no hiding shoddy CGI in dim night scenes here.

Also as plain as not just day, but as a skyscraper-sized beast: that the people dwarfed by Godzilla Minus One's eponymous presence are suffering and grieving both individually and en masse. Although performances aren't reliably among the highlights when the king of the monsters is in the frame, film or genre, Kamiki, Hamabe, Aoki, Sakura Ando (Shoplifters) and Hidetaka Yoshioka (Dr Coto's Clinic) — the latter pair as one of Kōichi and Noriko's neighbours, and a big-thinking scientist, respectively — are all terrific. The weight and toll, stakes and pain, and fears and horrors that Godzilla is wrapped up in as a symbol are resonantly conveyed in their portrayals, which also enjoy a similar role as Ifukube's always-rousing theme song. Words, sounds and tunes can say much, and do, yet the emptiness when they're hushed can also speak volumes. Godzilla Minus One understands the importance of both, and how to balance the two.

Now 37 live-action entries in, Godzilla is the longest-running film franchise ever, a feat befitting an on-screen titan in multiple senses of the word. Over the saga's 69 years to-date, almost everything that can happen in a Godzilla movie has, for better and worse — "an internet" being the saviour in the awful 1998 first American flick proving a prime case of the series' direst of developments — but Godzilla Minus One shows that the finest instances won't ever stop thundering with surprises. When a Godzilla feature is as substantial as this one, spawning seven more decades of films feels warranted. The possibilities continue to be endless. So far, no one has made a mashup movie starring the two hugely popular creatures both linked to Bikini Atoll, aka Godzilla and SpongeBob SquarePants, for example. Nothing beats Zilly blasting into the world that created it, however — back in 1954 when Ifukube's music first delighted and, with composer Naoki Satô's (Kazama Kimichika: Kyojo Zero) score assisting, also now.

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