Film Review: “Godzilla Minus One” — Much More than a Monster Movie

By Michael Marano

The heart, intelligence, and artistry of Godzilla Minus One makes it one of the best kaiju films ever made.

Godzilla Minus One, directed by Takashi Yamazaki. Screening at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, AMC Boston Common, and other cinemas around New England.

A displeased Godzilla in a scene from Godzilla Minus One.

The first shot of Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One is a thesis statement.

It depicts a rickety WWII fighter plane landing on a pockmarked airstrip on an island in the Pacific. How many times have we seen that over the past 80 years? From The Fighting Seabees and The Flying Tigers to every episode of Black Sheep Squadron that made your drunk uncle weepy as he watched the show during family gatherings, highball glass in one hand, a Lucky Strike in the other.

But Yamazaki’s shot of this cliché is an innovation. Throughout Godzilla Minus One, Yamazaki uses new angles, both literal and metaphoric, cinematic and narrative, to amp human drama, human suffering, human failures, and human triumphs. A kaiju crushing cities is, of course, business as usual. It’s what sells tickets. It’s the money shot in the trailers. Yamazaki reinvents the trope so we see the damage in ways that focus less on the buildings being destroyed than on the lives being destroyed.

Drawing innovative approaches to storytelling and cinematic angles, Yamazaki has made a new kind of Godzilla story. Godzilla movies have always exploited other genres: Bond/espionage movies; eco-thrillers; police procedurals; crusading reporter stories; children’s movies … 2016’s Shin Godzilla was a Strangelove-like political satire. Yamazaki’s hybridization via Godzilla Minus One is fresh because it is self-consciously dated, a historical drama deeply attuned to the film’s just-after-WWII setting.

Godzilla Minus One crosses the kaiju movie with neorealism, and it is an inspired choice. The storyline has more in common with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves than it does with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, any of Noriaki Yuasa’s Gamera movies, or even Godzilla vs. Megalon. In its essence, this is an urban domestic drama about people trying to survive in the same stunned, bombed-out, sweaty, dazed late-’40s Tokyo in which Kurosawa filmed Stray Dog.

Ryunosuke Kamiki plays Koichi Shikishima, a kamikaze pilot who chooses to not throw away his life for a war that’s already lost. However sensible that choice may seem — assuming that’s the real reason he decided to not complete his mission — Koichi is a ghost. He is a guy who should be dead. An encounter between this phantom man/boy and a profoundly destructive force reinforces the sense that Koichi is living on borrowed time that he has gained, intentionally or not, through the deaths of others. The kid is filled with Deer Hunter levels of PTSD and survivor’s guilt. It’s not too much of a stretch, as he freaks out at the prospect that he might already be dead, to imagine Koichi sitting across from Christopher Walken, spinning a chamber for a fresh turn of Russian Roulette.

Koichi’s psychological fragility is part and parcel of the tenuousness of life in the firebombed Tokyo to which he comes home. It’s a smoldering apocalyptic hellscape, as burnt out and damaged as the Hiroshima depicted in Keiji Nakazawa’s autobiographical manga Barefoot Gen. The guy’s only tether to reality (and reason to live) is Noriko Oishi, a girl (played by Minami Hamabe) who comes into his life through means I will not spoil, even under threat of waterboarding.

The personal drama of Koichi and Noriko, their unorthodox and beautiful love story, and the stories of the people close to them, serves as a  microcosm of what is worth saving as Godzilla attacks Japan. On the one hand, that is obvious. But by focusing on regular people left on their own after the failures of the Imperial government, Yamazaki inserts revelatory dimensions of humanity into this monster movie. The usual cast of characters who fight kaiju  — scientists, reporters, and military officers — is absent. Here, it is stand-up civilians who rally to save their country. It’s a minor miracle of Yamazaki’s storytelling skill that each character has a complete and satisfying arc.

In Godzilla Minus One, the people of Japan are  trapped in a global stalemate, unable to bring their own, almost entirely mothballed military might to bear against Godzilla because of the terms of their surrender, and unable to solicit foreign help lest it flare tensions between the Yanks and the Soviets.

The term “neorealism” in film and fiction refers to the naturalistic depiction of regular people in relation to the economic and moral consequences of war. In international relations, “neorealism” often means the hardball interactions of superpowers who, in the regular course of realpolitik, bulldoze those same regular people. In other words, there are colliding “neorealisms” in this movie.

For example, at one point Koichi and his lovable lug co-workers, regular schlubs doing a dangerous, shitty job at sea, realize that they are truly and royally fucked by the-superpowers-that-be. They’re ordered to do something foolhardy to “stall for time” because Japan can’t defend itself thanks to the US and the Soviets using all of the Pacific for their sandbox fight/pissing contest. Neorealisms collide, and this leads to the best Jaws rip-off scene ever executed. Stand-ins for Quint, Brody, and Hooper face something in the water with foam surging off its dorsal fins that is primordial, prehistoric, and pissed off.

So, Godzilla Minus One has all these nontraditional kaiju movie elements going for it. How is it as a straight-up monster movie?

Godzilla’s rampages are spectacular … and personal. Thanks to Yamazaki’s innovative cinematic strategies, monster destruction has never been as overwhelmingly fierce. A building smashed by a giant creature is a tried and true trope. A building being smashed filmed from the POV of a bunch of poor sons of bitches on the roof — that is brutally astonishing.

The heart, intelligence, and the artistry of Godzilla Minus One makes it one of the best kaiju films ever made. See it on the biggest screen possible, preferably IMAX. Even if you don’t like monster movies, this transcends the genre.

Novelist, critic, personal trainer, and occasional professional Dungeon Master Michael Marano‘s first exposure to Godzilla was when he saw Marv Newland’s Bambi Meets Godzilla on PBS when he was five. When he saw Bambi get squished he jumped out of his skin. Soon after that, he caught Son of Godzilla on Creature Features, and that was the moment he fell in love with not just Godzilla, but movies themselves. He’s on Bluesky and Threads @madprofmike and at www.GetOffMyLawn.Biz

1 Comment

  1. Allen Michie on December 2, 2023 at 10:51 pm

    This was a great review—thoughtful and perceptive, and beautifully contextualized in various genres.

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