Godzilla Minus One
2023, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Takashi Yamazaki. Starring Ryūnosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Sakura Ando, Sae Nagatani.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 1, 2023
The best Godzilla movies are about more than just big kaiju battles. Environmentalism in Godzilla vs. Hedorah, scientific hubris in Godzilla vs. Biollante, bureaucratic inertia in Shin Godzilla – all themes that give those films depth. The spectacular Godzilla Minus One has equally grand ambitions: to explore the soul of postwar Japan.
While arguably better known for family-friendly releases like his two Doraemon movies, writer/director Yamazaki has dealt with historical drama before: in kamikaze drama The Eternal Zero and The Great War of Archimedes, his fictionalized retelling of the construction of the battleship Yamato. But it's not just his skill with rendering waves crashing on bows that made him the perfect pick for this kaiju period piece. There's a questioning aspect to his earlier dramas, an attempt to understand Japanese martial and imperial culture, and that's front and center once again in Godzilla Minus One.
More specifically, it's given human shape in Koichi (Kamiki), a veteran with a dirty secret: He was a kamikaze pilot who fled rather than suffer an honorable death in flames. As his neighbor, embittered widow Sumiko (longtime Hirokazu Kore-eda collaborator Ando) spits at him, maybe if he'd done his job then they wouldn't be sat in the rubble of a bombed-out Tokyo, surrounded by grief, ghosts, and guilt. Koichi has plenty of that, buried in survivor's guilt even if he almost unwillingly builds a proxy family with Sumiko, young drifter Noriko (Hamabe), and Akiko (Nagatani), the orphaned infant that the gutsy Noriko has taken in. At the same time, Koichi seems to be daring death to finally take him, working to clear the tens of thousands of mines that were left in the seas of Japan by both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Allies.
Right there, that's more than enough to provide an enthralling historical drama about Japan's postwar reconstruction, and Yamazaki embraces that story and those characters with tenderness and thoughtfulness. And then Godzilla stomps through the city.
This could be a cumbersome juxtaposition, but, as with those best Godzilla films, the monstrous carnage doesn't crush the human drama but only adds to it.
As for Godzilla himself, this is a great design: a mixture of the sinister, snarling leviathan of the early Heisei era and the bubbling, twisted, cancerous mass of Shin Godzilla, with a stunning new version of his energy-channeling back spikes. To see him smash through a newly rebuilt Tokyo to Akira Ifukube's classic theme, filmed in a way that might trigger memories of Saving Private Ryan, is both astounding and oddly sobering. It's a spectacle throughout which Yamazaki keeps Koichi, his proxy family, and his oddball workmates centered. The real conflict is within, as the pilot faces a simple but defining choice: to finish his kamikaze mission, or to protect and embrace the life he doesn't feel he needs. And that's where Yamazaki truly finds the heart of Godzilla Minus One: as a simple metaphor for the postwar change in Japanese culture from one where you were expected to sacrifice yourself without question to one where the hope is to live for others. There's as much of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru here as there is the rubber-suit genius of Godzilla creator Ishirō Honda (himself never shy of political subtext), and that's a pairing as powerful as any monster mash-up.