The Plot: In the dying days of WWII, Kamikaze pilot Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) has a close encounter with a large creature that Odo Island locals call Gojira. Two years later, he’s still haunted by his near-death experience. He now works on a small minesweeping boat, destroying mines left by the Americans. He also cares for a young girl along with Noriko (Minami Hamabe). They are not the parents, but have become a nuclear family of sorts following Japan’s destructive defeat. Gojira re-emerges though, intent on staking out his territory and has set his sights on Tokyo. Following nuclear tests, Gojira is not only bigger but even more powerful than before…
The Verdict: Think James Bond is the longest-running film franchise? Think again. That huge lizard Godzilla or more correctly Gojira has been around even longer and is even more prolific. Starting in 1954, Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla film was a bleak response to Japan’s injured post-WWII state and the dangers of nuclear annihilation. Since then, there have been many more entries from Japan. Sorry Hollywood, but nobody does Godzilla (and kaiju films in general) better than the Japanese. Even Gareth Edwards, director of the 2014 US production of Godzilla, admitted that the latest entry Godzilla Minus One is what a Godzilla film should be like. Additionally, the advance word from the US recently was that it was not only one of the best Godzilla films but also one of the best of the year. High praise indeed. Can it possibly live up to the hype? Absolutely.
Taken at face value, Godzilla Minus One really shouldn’t be this good of a film. When you’re 37 films deep over nearly 70 years, what is there left to prove with the king of the monsters? Quite a lot it seems. Gone are the days when there was a stuntman in a mostly inexpressive rubber suit, stomping about model sets and bashing other creatures like King Ghidorah and Mechagodzilla. Times have moved on and the advance in visual effects has now rendered Godzilla more realistic, unstoppable and genuinely frightening. The seed for the latest film lies in 2016’s Shin Godzilla, which was a fine film in its own right. Godzilla Minus One takes it to another level though, with production studio Toho intent on matching that film’s quality. They’ve done more than that – they’ve surpassed it with a triumphant roar of the lizard himself.
The film’s greatest strength lies in writer-director Takashi Yamazaki’s rock-solid script, which places itself during the American occupation of Japan and at the very beginning of the atomic age – hence the minus factor. There’s a really strong resonance there to begin with, with Japan dealing with the shame of defeat and the wide-ranging destruction of the atomic bomb. This is echoed in the main character of Koichi, a young pilot who was trained to deal with dying with honour but is scared of what death actually means. His character arc is well-rounded from his initial brush with Godzilla through to the barnstorming conclusion when he may very well have the last word. There’s a nice contrast to the unfolding chaos in the gentle relationship he has with the lady and child he inadvertently cares for – no cloying sentimentality or bonus dog to look after either. Hollywood could learn a thing or two here.
Yamazaki further solidifies the story by making it a collective effort of people working together to solve a monstrous problem. No cutaways to the halls of Government or politicians using the appearance of Godzilla to seek out votes. Instead, Koichi works with a ragtag group of sailors, naval personnel, scientists and Tokyo civilians to hatch a plan to take on Godzilla. It’s an alternative way to approach such a story, but it works well because of the utter conviction and sky-high stakes involved with Godzilla’s atomic breath. As to Godzilla, there are no attempts to placate him or make him work with other kaiju. He’s pure bad-ass from the beginning, intent on showing these puny humans who is the boss. The visual effects are top-notch here, worthy of anything that Industrial Light And Magic and Weta can produce. The awesome scale of Godzilla’s destruction is not only shown but also felt in the kind of way that visual effects films rarely achieve. It makes you care for the humans caught in the ensuing crossfire.
Godzilla Minus One is undoubtedly a monster smash of a film. It achieves a near-perfect blend of character, action, suspense and a historical aspect that amplifies the very origin of Godzilla while respecting the franchise’s revered legacy. Believe the hype. Over to you Hollywood with Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire due in the spring. Try and beat this one.