After appearing in several Hollywood blockbusters, everyone’s favorite Kaiju has returned home for his latest outing, Godzilla Minus One. The film marks Toho studio’s 33rd Godzilla film, and their first live action outing since Shin Godzilla (2016). Like that film, Minus One is far removed from Big G’s Hollywood adventures, giving us another top class Kaiju film that beautifully pays tribute to the franchise’s origins, combining heartfelt human drama, social commentary and large scale spectacle in equal measure.
No stranger to large scale sci-fi, director Takashi Yamazaki has crafted what is arguably one of the finest Godzilla films to grace the screen. Like the 1954 original, Minus One takes a completely serious approach in storytelling and its portrayal of Godzilla. Unlike the heroic portrayal in Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), this take on the legendary Kaiju is a terrifying force of nature, destroying everything in his wake.
Opening at the tail end of WW2, we are introduced to young Kamikaze pilot Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who lands his plane on Odo Island claiming that it is faulty. The engineers on the island fail to find anything wrong with his plane, which brings to question Shikishima’s courage.
Shikishima doesn’t have much time to dwell on this as that night he and the engineers find themselves attacked by a prehistoric monster. All but one of the engineers perish when Shikishima fails to attack the monster with the machine guns of his plane.
Surviving this attack, Shikishima is sent home where the guilt of his supposed cowardice weighs heavy on him. Eventually he finds himself with a makeshift family made up of Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and a young baby they have adopted. Even then, he is unable to get over his guilt and doesn’t feel he has the right to be happy.
He is finally given the chance to redeem himself with the re-emergence of the same monster he confronted on Odo Island, now horribly mutated due to the dropping of the atomic bomb. Now known as Godzilla, the gigantic creature destroys everything in its wake with Shikishima and his allies working together to find a way to stop him before it’s too late.
Takashi Yamazaki was clearly the perfect choice as director, previously showing his fondness for Godzilla by including him in a memorable dream sequence in his hit movie Always: Sunset on Third Street 2 (2007). Amazingly, Yamazaki reportedly made Minus One for $15 million, although further reports have stated it may have been even less. While this is a small fraction of what it cost to produce either of Godzilla’s recent Hollywood movies, you wouldn’t know when watching the finished product, with Minus One easily surpassing any of Legendary’s Godzilla movies.
Yamazaki’s film does take a more leisurely approach than previous Godzilla movies, allowing us to get to know the characters and setting before allowing Godzilla to unleash hell upon them. Whilst Minus One may take a somewhat more dramatic approach, it is never boring with it still managing to captivate in its quieter, sombre moments.
The CGI perhaps isn’t up to the standards of Hollywood’s best but still manages to impress, with each of the film’s action scenes being perfectly realized, featuring the kind of large scale destruction that is expected from the series. Each set piece builds on the last that you truly wonder how Godzilla’s human opponents will defeat this force of nature.
Still, it isn’t all just giant monster attacks. The main thing that differentiates Minus One is its strong focus on character. As fun as Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Godzilla Vs Kong (2021) were, the human characters were never as interesting as they should be, with them mostly being surplus to requirements, merely used to fill time until the next Kaiju beatdown. Having also written the screenplay, Yamazaki shows the importance of focusing on more than just the monsters, and that the human drama should be just as compelling.
Here, we actually care about the human side of the story, with it including themes around guilt, courage and honor. Like Shin Godzilla before it, Minus One also focuses on Japan’s Government and its ineffectiveness, although not to the same extent. Even so, the film clearly shows its disgust for the unreliability of the government and its support for the true heroes of Japan, those who are willing to go out and fight for their country even if it results in their death.
Ryunosuke Kamiki gives a commanding performance, playing a character filled with regret and despair, who through the tragedy of Godzilla’s attack realizes a way to redeem himself. Occasionally Kamiki does teeter on the edge of going too far with his character but director Yamazaki is able to restrain him, with Kamiki creating a wholly relatable character that is far removed from your typical action lead.
He is more than matched by his supporting cast, all of whom give winning performances, even those with limited screen time. Minami Hamabe is able to give real heart to a role that could have easily devolved into a forgettable love interest. The forming of her relationship with Kamiki’s Shikishima is the real driving force of the film and is what drives Kamiki’s character to become the hero that is needed.
The likes of Yuki Yamada, Hidetaka Yoshioka and Kuranosuke Sasaki also impress, with their characters almost making up something of a family unit with Shikishima. They all perfectly convey normal people thrown into extraordinary circumstances, with all of them willing to do whatever it takes to defeat Godzilla. Yamada is a particular standout, with his youthful enthusiasm becoming infectious.
Then there’s the most important cast member, Godzilla himself. He is given a slightly altered look here, looking closer to how he appeared in Shusuke Kaneko’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), which not coincidentally featured a more violent and evil take on the character. It is clear that Yamazaki wanted his Godzilla to be terrifying, with this being the scariest and most deadly iteration of the character. It is truly a sight to behold when he finally unleashes his heat ray, with it decimating everything in its wake.
As well as the cast, another extremely important element of the film is the score courtesy of composer Naoki Sato. In the film’s quieter moments, Sato’s score reminded me of the likes of Philip Glass’ score for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) or Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work on Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) before ramping things up for the film’s action scenes, with him incorporating Akira Ifukube’s iconic theme wonderfully.
The inclusion of Ifkube’s music actually had the audience cheering in the theater I attended. This may seem the norm to some, but in Scotland this isn’t something that normally happens. The fact that there was then a round of applause as soon as the credits began is further testament to just how good Godzilla Minus One actually is.
Godzilla Minus One isn’t just a terrific Godzilla film, it’s just a terrific film full stop. The filmmakers don’t set a foot wrong and really show Hollywood how it’s done. If nothing else you will be left wondering how another country can make an expensive looking film on a fraction of the budget of any Hollywood blockbuster.
Yamazaki has already spoken about the possibility of a sequel which would be welcome, although part of me would like this to be a standalone feature, without the possibility of a sequel diluting its impact.
Godzilla fans still have the upcoming Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (2024) to look forward to. As much fun as I expect that film to be, it will really have its work cut out for it to even be half way as memorable as Minus One.
Plot: 5/5 Acting: 5/5 Action: 5/5 Overall: 5/5