As the credits started rolling on Toho Studios’ latest kaiju blockbuster, I was left startled by the emotions burning in my chest. I was left nerve-ridden by the film’s incredibly tense bouts of destruction, the hairs on my arm standing in accompaniment to Naoki Sato’s roaring orchestral soundtrack. My eyes ached from tears shed, unexpectedly so, for the film’s painting of the human condition in both its darkest and most hopeful hours. Lastly, my head was clouded from confusion. Somehow, Godzilla: Minus One managed to not just be a spectacular monster-movie but an incredibly poignant and personal distillation of the effects that nationalist warfare had on the people of Japan after World War II.
Written and directed by Takashi Yamasaki, the film finds itself set during the tail end of World War II and sees shamed kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima attempting to get a grip on and a commitment to his life. Just as he begins to leave the trauma of his past behind, Godzilla arrives to reduce Japan to ash after nuclear testing awakens him from a deep slumber.
While the plot reads as something incredibly generic for the series, Godzilla: Minus One is as powerful and fresh as it is due to execution. As boring as the human character in kaiju films can be, this film still dares to place a human character at the film’s core, but their story and growth are deeply interlinked to Godzilla’s role in the film. This approach has been attempted before, but there’s something extremely engaging about how Shikishima’s growth, and the film’s overall thematic thesis, evolves in juxtaposition to what Godzilla means metaphorically to the people of Japan.
However, before the over-analysis begins and those looking for an exhilarating blockbuster experience roll their eyes, I would be filled with guilt if I didn’t praise the film on a technical level first. On a budget of only 15 million dollars, the film puts even the most recent and extravagant Hollywood productions to absolute shame. It’s a beautiful film, with incredibly convincing special effects work that effortlessly blends real tangible sets with a purposeful use of CGI that gives Godzilla formidable tangibility. This isn’t just shocking because of how small the budget is but because the visual work rivals other recent films starring the King of Monsters with budgets nearly one hundred times the size.
The performances, action sequences, and rampant kaiju destruction are all pulled off massively with a great sense of escalation that borders but never outright becomes unbelievable. This is the most realistic Godzilla’s impact has ever felt, but it never gets so ‘realistic’ that it loses the magic of watching big monsters wreak total havoc. This is the most exciting Godzilla action has felt in a good while because the realism seeds every action sequence with the tense, unconscious worry in the back of the viewer’s head that what’s occurring is entirely possible.
Now, the success of ‘Godzilla’ as an entity in this movie is defined by what the monster represents to the story at hand. There are SPOILERS from here on out, so do tread lightly. This film is at its core a rumination on the social effects Japan’s incredibly fascist disdain for life had on veterans coming out of World War II. Godzilla represents the might of America’s brutality, which was a response to Japan’s own; the monster being awakened in this film because of the physical effects of nuclear weaponry. Everything Shikishima goes through is driven by how he slowly recovers the humanity that warfare stripped him of.
Godzilla permeates the early film as a looming threat that grows all the more intimidating as Shikishima begins to allow his past traumas to become faded, yet omnipresent, memories. By the end, Godzilla’s need to be defeated in order to protect Japan simultaneously reaches an emotional climax where Shikiishima rejects death as a means to honor as he flies a near suicide-mission, the film itself tying together its beautiful character writing, its tense devastation, and cutting historical commentary together in a way that makes it difficult to separate them into singular parts.
One of the best moments in the films comes during the finale. All seems lost, and in a traditional scene like this, a great sacrifice is made in order to save the day. However, the audience is left feeling uneasy. The entire film has treated Shikishima’s suicidal isolation and imposter syndrome regarding his survival as a pendulum within his ideology. Regardless of the film’s messaging, he’s been so unreliable and emotionally vulnerable that him subverting his own growth was always a chance. So, it was equal parts likely for him to die as it was for him to live. As the film is drained of sound and he brings his jet fighter in to put an end to Godzilla once and for all, the only thing you could hear in my cinema was tension. My heart was pounding so loud it was all-consuming. Then, after the scene came to a close and a roaring choice was made to bring down Godzilla while choosing to live, I broke into tears.
It was without a doubt one of the strongest feelings I’ve had in the cinemas this year. Escapist film has grown so focused on marketability, content, and likability that it’s rare for a franchise film like this to take a chance on tackling material like this. When Martin Scorsese criticizes modern popular filmmaking feeling like rollercoaster rides, what the Funko Pop crowd fails to recognize is that he isn’t criticizing franchise filmmaking in concept, but in that it’s become a corporate grind house of bland mediocrity focused on being as brand-able as possible to as many people as possible.
Godzilla: Minus One dares to be political with substance. It dares to be declarative in its themes and approach all too touchy subject matter with depth, substance, and humanity. The reward for that is crafting a cinema experience that can be a pure riveting adventure on the outside with how strong the filmmaking is in junction with the picture’s narrative, while also containing some profound messages reserved often for only the most pretentious of arthouse films.
The film is also incredibly balanced in tone and character writing. While it doesn’t feature a large cast, there are plenty of growing arcs for the film’s side character that grow alongside the main plot quietly yet make themselves known when they’ve reached a point of impact. Levity also permeates the film’s more charming moments, giving the overall dark yet inspiring a story a bit of balance. I wouldn’t say that these scenes border on comedy as it is more often than not framed as the result of comradery between the characters, so it come off as something that’s tonally rooted in the story and not a sudden left turn into comedy.
Please, support this film so that more of them like this get made. Is it perfect? No, the film’s pacing can feel a little sluggish at times and there are some leaps in logic main that I would argue as necessary for some of the film’s emotional surprises, but in all honesty, those little faults pale in comparison to how great the whole project is.
Godzilla: Minus One is a Monstrous Triumph
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