Godzilla Minus One, 2023.
Written and Directed by Takashi Yamazaki.
Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki Yamada, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Mio Tanaka, Yuya Endo, Kisuke Iida, Gôshû, and Saki Nagatani.
Post war Japan is at its lowest point when a new crisis emerges in the form of a giant monster, baptized in the horrific power of the atomic bomb.
Boasting maximum spectacle and effectively melodramatic emotion, let it be known that writer/director Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One is proof that just because there are 30+ installments of a franchise (a blending of Japanese and American productions, with the latter typically yielding mixed results), it doesn’t mean the series has reached the peak of what it is capable of achieving with a familiar story and cataclysmic destruction, heightened in intensity with a bombastic rally-cry score from Naoki Satô.
This is a film that all but spells out what its climactic action beat is going to be as soon as it announces what the protagonist specifically did in World War II (or what he was supposed to do), comfortable telegraphing it with confidence that the performances, surprisingly moving and thoughtful narrative, craftsmanship, and satisfying carnage from the G-Man are more than enough to keep viewers tensed up and anticipating that exciting moment with baited atomic heat breath.
Some might already be raising their eyebrows at Godzilla Minus One also committed to telling a robust personal story regarding its human characters, but it’s also important to note that the problem frequently is that most films, especially Hollywood blockbusters, forget to tell a compelling story around those characters or find some humanity within them and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding them that go beyond life under threat by a monster.
More importantly, the pacing is on-point and knows how to appropriately push through the passage of time while hitting on key character moments with clarity and emotion, all of which are usually elevated by striking compositions from cinematographer Kôzô Shibasaki capturing a post-World War II Japan ravaged by nuclear weapons and Godzilla.
Pushing through these rough and uncertain years is kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki excellently handling the intentional overacting and yelling while also demonstrating some nuance in other scenes.) He is suffering from survivor’s guilt for several reasons, chief among them being that he chickened out when it was time for him to fulfill his kamikaze duties in the war and subsequently has another cowardice moment when Godzilla first reveals himself, attacking the Japanese aircraft repair base he stops by. During the commotion, Koichi is instructed to mount a turret and rain down metallic hellfire on Godzilla, only to freeze up and watch everyone die.
While taking refuge in a nearby destroyed archipelago, Koichi encounters and befriends Sumiko (Sakura Ando, who can also be seen in the brilliant, emotionally powerful Monster in US theaters this weekend), a woman tending to a baby left in her possession by a dying mother. Initially, Koichi wants nothing to do with them, but he slowly develops a bond with them that might be able to save him from despair. Unfortunately, he still regularly has nightmares and finds himself potentially with a death wish, taking up dangerous jobs cleaning up underwater mines with a likable crew who inevitably go on to become involved with planning and taking on Godzilla.
There is no denying that this is a standard redemption arc, but standard is okay when the execution is this gripping. Time and location also play a huge part, as Japan is left with nothing (less than nothing if one interprets the title that way) and desperately needs to carve out a future for itself without the aid of a government disinterested in getting too involved for political reasons. The result is a private army of citizens banding together for the future in a thrilling showdown containing a rather ingenious scheme to take out Godzilla, whether it works or not.
As for Godzilla wreaking mayhem, those sequences are visually stunning and unexpectedly visceral. The usual means of destruction are here, ranging from the atomic heat ray to casually stomping on civilians and buildings, but the Godzilla depicted here is more brutal while still carrying that nonchalant, stiff movement. There are also stylish and suspenseful set pieces crafted around his relentless destruction, including a perilous train escape and both underwater and airborne attacks on Godzilla. Visually, it feels as if the amount of money sunk into the film and the tons that Godzilla weigh are about equal, here unafraid to present numerous action sequences in daylight, assured that the special effects will hold up.
Tragedy, humanity, guilt, redemption, love, and sociopolitical commentary provide momentous thrust to the tried-and-true exhilarating cinematic ingredients. Godzilla Minus One is a stunning epic-scale achievement suggesting that, with strong craftsmanship and the right talent, even long-standing series like this one can still reach some towering new highs.
SEE ALSO: The Essential Toho Godzilla Movies
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com