It seems like it should be hard to make the 33rd Godzilla movie feel fresh—the 37th if you count the Hollywood versions—but Godzilla Minus One clears that bar with incredible prowess. The latest in Japanese studio Toho’s kaiju series is an unexpectedly fine-tuned action-melodrama, harkening back to the original 1954 classic in terms of style and scope, while remaining in conversation with Godzilla as a concept and cultural icon. And yet, it remains entirely self-contained while transcending some of the series’ most prominent trappings, resulting in one of the year’s most riveting blockbusters.
Despite Minus One’s lack of connection to other films, it’s worth looking at the last few Godzilla entries to understand the zeitgeist into which Minus One emerges. Warner Bros.’ ongoing “MonsterVerse,” which creates an enormous sense of scale around the famous bipedal lizard, takes a page out of Toho’s 1960s sequels and treats him as a noble hero. Meanwhile, the last actual Toho film out of Japan—2016’s Shin Godzilla, the precursor to Shin Ultraman and Shin Kamen Rider—returned the character to its nuclear roots by using it to craft a satire about government bureaucracy and red tape after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Minus One, though more straightforward in tone, takes a similar thematic approach but sets its story even further back in time than the ’54 original, right in the midst of World War II, and it also succeeds in the same way recent Hollywood entries have by making Godzilla feel humongous and completely terrifying.
In splitting this difference, director and VFX artist Yamazaki Takashi harkens back to Honda Ishirō’s iconic first entry, which sought to reckon with the trauma and terrible power of the atomic bomb. However, Minus One also takes a surprisingly holistic and subversive approach to World War II, telling a tale of militant heroism that ends up shockingly anti-war, anti-militarism and anti-nationalism, all while crafting a moving and stunning big-screen experience. Its closest Hollywood companions aren’t any of WB’s recent Godzilla entries, but rather, the Tom Cruise legacy sequel Top Gun: Maverick and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It’s a sweeping naval war drama buoyed by lurking dread on the open seas, and blockbuster filmmaking at its purest and finest.
The film opens on Odo—the fictitious island where Godzilla was first spotted in Honda’s original—as kamikaze pilot Shikishima Kōichi (Kamiki Ryūnosuke) stops to have his warplane repaired at a mechanic station, but the naval technicians, led by Tachibana Sōsaku (Aoki Munetaka), can’t seem to find anything wrong with his machine. Tachibana is convinced Shikishima is a coward for abandoning his post, though another mechanic quietly whispers to him that Japan needs more people willing to turn their backs on the imperial military’s most destructive orders. Even before Godzilla shows up, Minus One offers a surprisingly nuanced look at notions of heroism and nobility, calling into question what these characteristics—so often associated with action movies—truly mean.
Before long, Godzilla’s arrival on the island is portended by the mechanics spotting numerous dead deep-sea fish which have floated to the surface, their insides engorged and turned outward by the lack of air pressure—sickening harbingers of doom. As night falls, the men are attacked by an enormous lizard creature that bears a striking resemblance to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 T-Rex inspired Godzilla, which hunches over and attacks the mechanics, but tosses them into the air rather than eating them. This version of the creature has neither conscience nor predatory need. It’s simply an indiscriminate force of nature, which Yamazaki and cinematographer Shibasaki Kōzō film from a human viewpoint on the ground, making it practically disorienting to look at amidst the chaos. Under Tachibana’s orders, Shikishima has the chance to shoot the fearsome beast with his plane’s 20mm machine guns, but the pilot—having already abandoned the war once before—chokes. He can’t bring himself to pull the trigger before Godzilla kills nearly everyone on the island.
Branded a coward by Tachibana, and given the dead men’s family photographs as a reminder of his inaction, Shikishima returns home to a decimated Tokyo to find his home destroyed, his parents dead, and a neighbor (Ando Sakura) blaming deserters like him for the loss of her children. His waking moments are plagued with survivor’s guilt, but sleep isn’t any better. At night, he dreams of Odo island. However, as his town begins to slowly rebuild, a curious and unexpected situation gives him reason to live: a feisty young woman, Noriko (Hamabe Minami), and the adorable baby girl she cares for, Akiko (Nagatani Sae), practically force their way into his home. Before he knows it, the trio becomes a sweet found-family, if only out of co-dependence amidst the smoldering ruins.
Months and years go by, and Shikishima settles into a domestic rhythm as life slowly begins to return to normal. He even uses his skills as a naval airman to take up a job on a trawling vessel meant to catch stray mines left over from the war, where he joins up with an eclectic group of supporting characters to bring these devices to the surface and shoot them from afar. But of course, further disturbing the sea carries consequences, and the United States' nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll have irradiated the ocean, transforming the dinosaur-like lizard he once encountered into something even more terrifying: a much larger, scalier, spikier creature that stands upright, and more closely resembles the Godzilla we all know, love, and—certainly after its dead-eyed death glares in Minus One—deeply fear.
Over the years, the typical Godzilla sequel has used flimsy human characters as a broad framework to support rollicking kaiju-on-kaiju action centering an idiosyncratic Godzilla with recognizable traits. The new film, therefore, runs completely counter to most Godzilla movies, since its human drama is always front and center while the monster isn’t imbued with any personality beyond rampant destruction, though this approach is arguably truer to the ’54 original than any of its successors, with numerous emotional dilemmas being forced to the surface by stirring power and destruction. Shikishima, who wouldn’t adhere to the imperial army’s strict conception of honor, is forced to find new ways to wage battle on a merciless enemy, alongside other Japanese citizens who are tired of both their government’s calls for self-sacrifice and its bureaucratic secrecy to keep pawns and soldiers in line.
Rather than the abstract idea of “a country,” Shikishima is given something tangible to fight for, in the form of Noriko and Akiko, and he struggles with what form his heroism should take. The army’s militaristic and destructive viewpoint has been drilled into his psyche, yielding potent moral dilemmas that ground the large-scale, pulse-pounding action in deeply human concerns. The answers to these questions are often sappy, but they come wrapped in the sincere idea of people trying to find ways to do better (and be better) in the face of horrific loss—Godzilla’s heat breath, born from nuclear power, has never looked more realistically destructive—making each character decision feel as deeply engrossing as any moment of overwhelming disaster.
With a score that quotes numerous old Godzilla compositions, composer Satō Naoki rides a delicate line between tragedy and triumph, as the movie’s sound design adds palpable weight and impact to every bit of debris tumbling across the screen. It’s a mesmerizing movie that satiates practically every audience instinct often considered base—from the desire to witness disaster, to the need for simple catharsis—all while rejecting the thought that movie heroism ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with jingoistic, fascistic notions. Instead, the film’s imagery (especially in its final act) is geared towards willing cooperation and innovation, a collective spirit, which Yamazaki channels in intensely dramatic fashion recalling great war films of old, Japanese and American alike (among them: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk), but all the while subverting each impetus behind armed conflict, despite borrowing its cinematic appearance.
Few recent productions of this scale have felt so saccharine without tipping over into self-parody—certainly not in Hollywood, where irreverent snark always seems to leak into the frame—and even fewer have been as deft as balancing awe-inspiring spectacle with both paralyzing terror and rousing romantic exuberance. Godzilla Minus One, more than most films this year, is worth watching on the biggest possible screen, and with the biggest possible crowd.
Published on December 1, 2023