I there’s a golden age of Godzilla, it’s hard to argue that we’re not in it right now. Let’s face, the king of all kaiju is hotter than atomic breath right now, and on all fronts. Usually, the Toho oft-rebooted franchise is clicking, while here in America we’re getting crappy, occasionally-embarrassing versions that do Godzilla no justice. But right now with Legendary’s Monsterverse running wild, Toho has gone back to its roots and achieved the true pinnacle of Godzilla glory with Godzilla Minus One, a stunning achievement that manages to surpass even 2016’s revitalizing Shin Godzilla.
In a way, Godzilla Minus One springboards from what Gareth Edwards attempted with his 2014 movie, which I found to be pretty dull. But he attempted to do something by making the humans more than just puny insects waiting to get stomped. He tried to give us real stakes so we could invest in the human cost of battling the kaiju. But with Godzilla Minus One, the formula is just right, calculating post-WWII trauma and atomic age anxiety, along with a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt. Godzilla isn’t the central character by any means. He is a force of nature, an unstoppable, irresistible presence wearing down a nation that has just lost a war, one in which its government literally told its soldiers to sacrifice their lives to a hopeless cause. With heavy restrictions placed on Japan after the fighting, any attempt at rebuilding would take multiple generations to complete. Those who would start it, would never reap the fruits of their labor. Certainly, nobody had the will to fight another war.
And that goes double for kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki). In short, Koichi is a coward. He definitely sees himself as one, but so too the people forced to endure the humiliation of defeat in war. We meet Koichi as he’s faking a malfunction in his plane so as not to fulfil his kamikaze duties. He lands on Odo Island where Godzilla emerges and attacks the military mechanics. Koichi, as the only gunner, has a chance to take out Godzilla but is too scared to shoot. As a result, the other men all die, and Koichi is left to carry the burden of his cowardice.
Self-sacrifice is a big theme in Godzilla Minus One. A dismissive government casts a noble spin on self-sacrifice as its soldiers hurl themselves into certain doom. But real sacrifice comes from the living, who give of themselves to help others live, to rebuild, to love, to find new purpose. Koichi can’t get over the sins of his past, but nevertheless takes in a wandering stranger, Noriko Oishi (Minami Hamabe), and the orphaned daughter Akiko (Sae Nagatani) that she cares for. Along with ex-military men Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and Sosaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki), Koichi finds renewed reasons to live, and a use for his gunnery skills, as a destroyer of leftover mines. It’s risky work, but one he’s willing to do in order to care for Noriko and Akiko, But also, possibly, because he hopes one day it’ll go wrong and his suffering will be ended in an unexpected explosion.
Koichi is constantly being pulled in different directions, with one foot in the living and one in the dead. When Godzilla threatens to destroy all of Ginza, putting the people he’s unexpectedly grown to love at risk, Koichi begins to muster up the courage to fight for them, no matter the cost.
So yeah, Godzilla Minus One is basically a post-war melodrama with a dash of Godzilla. Usually, the mix is the other way around. Godzilla dominates the screen and we endure the puny little humans scattering around at his feet. But here, Godzilla is truly terrifying. There’s no attempt to humanize the creature. When he arrives, people die and towns are destroyed. Godzilla could be any force of Mother Nature; a monsoon, a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, a meteor making landfall. He is something to be survived, and the power at Godzilla’s disposal is beyond human measure. Because the scaly beast seems so indestructible, it makes the efforts of Koichi and his colleagues, all ex-soldiers with backgrounds in tragedy, or citizens worn down by war, even more engaging. As Koichi tries to learn to live again, it’s like he’s pulling Japan out of its collective despair into a future where they can find reason to hope.
Director Takashi Yamazaki treats Godzilla with all of the reverence he deserves. After 70 years, we’ve grown accustomed to its roar, to the glowing build-up to his unstoppable atomic breath. We’ve seen it all before, tweaked in a thousand different ways to try to add something “cool”. These aspects are truly crowd pleasers, and Yamakazi uses them sparingly for maximum effect. The first time Godzilla unleashes his atomic blast you might catch yourself holding your own breath as I did, anticipating its destructive impact.
I don’t consider myself a Godzilla aficionado. I’ve seen my share of the classic movies and all of the most recent ones, both from Japanese and American studios. None of them have ever had the emotional impact on me that Godzilla Minus One had. There were tears shed in the theater I was at, as people connected with Koichi’s story and his seemingly impossible showdown with Godzilla. As we all know, nothing can ever truly keep this kaiju down, but Godzilla Minus One has set a towering bar to surpass. It’s not just a great Godzilla movie, it might just be the best one yet.
Godzilla Minus One is in theaters now.