Review: ‘Godzilla Minus One’

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Godzilla, a destructive and terrifying, yet long-beloved monster, has returned to the screen once again. The 30th of the Japanese live-action Godzilla movies, Godzilla Minus One (2023) also marks the 70th anniversary of the Godzilla franchise. The movie is set in post-war Japan, an earlier period than the setting of the original 1956 movie, directed by Takashi Yamazaki. This is the first Godzilla movie in seven years by Toho since Shin Godzilla (2016), stirring a lot of anticipation and excitement both domestically and internationally.

The story begins with the Kamikaze pilot Shikishima’s encounter with Godzilla on the Bonin Islands just before the end of the Second World War. As he struggles to overcome his war experience and encounter with the monster, whilst also forming a family-like bond with Noriko and Akiko, Godzilla appears again, this time landing on Tokyo and wrecking the already devastated city. Shikishima joins an informal, civilian-led team to defeat Godzilla once and for all.

The first part of the movie is not particularly engaging as the story is fast-forwarded too many times, rapidly jumping from one scene to another, and rushing to show Godzilla’s landing scene. However, once Godzilla reappears, there isn’t time to take your eyes off the screen. The familiar Godzilla theme instantly reminds you of Godzilla’s absolute power and horror. VFX has done an unusually excellent job in producing a visually striking and terrifying monster, considering the budget of $15 million, which is only about 1/10 of that of the Hollywood Godzilla movies.

Godzilla Minus One is the second Godzilla movie produced by Toho in the last decade. The previous one, Shin Godzilla (2016), focused on the Japanese government’s response to Godzilla and the reaction of other countries. Godzilla Minus One, on the other hand, is character-focused and develops the story on a much smaller scale. It shows individuals who have been affected by the war, and who have different reasons to fight Godzilla. The development of the main character, Shikishima, forms the main storyline in the movie. In the beginning, he is overwhelmed by the guilt of escaping his duty as a Kamikaze pilot and not saving the mechanics from Godzilla on his first encounter, which leads him to be suicidal, especially when he takes on the job of removing naval mines. As the story develops, he begins to face his guilt and fear of Godzilla through interactions with other characters. As much as the movie is about fighting Godzilla, it is about each character fighting their own war that never left from 1945. Godzilla Minus One is not just a monster, action movie – it is a human drama.

Its focus on the characters and the simple, relatable storyline which pays tribute to the original 1956 movie make it enjoyable for both old and new fans

This is one of the reasons why Shin Godzilla and Godzilla Minus One performed differently in the international box office. Shin Godzilla, though being the most-sold movie in 2016 in Japan, barely made a presence in the international market. A satirical depiction of the Japanese government’s inefficiency and inability to make quick decisions in the movie was mostly only appealing to the Japanese audience. Godzilla Minus One, meanwhile, became the best-selling Japanese live-action movie in the US after a week from its release. Its success is owed to the simpler plot which focuses on characters, their development and family love. The lack of the government’s presence contrasts with Shin Godzilla, but at the same time tells a similar message of being unable to respond to Godzilla effectively. The familiar themes appeal to a wider international audience which do not necessarily need to be Godzilla fans in the first place.

Godzilla Minus One also takes an anti-war approach which is similar to that of the original 1956 movie. Kamikaze pilots were one of the most controversial methods used by the Japanese Army during the war. Shikishima runs away from his duty at the beginning of the movie and struggles to reconcile with it later. However, one of the constant themes in the movie is to live, not to be suicidal, which is highlighted strongly in the speech scene before the operation against Godzilla. Godzilla, in this movie, is almost the continuation of the Second World War, which the characters must overcome in their own way. Godzilla Minus One is one of the best Godzilla movies in the 70-year history of the Godzilla franchise. Its focus on the characters and the simple, relatable storyline which pays tribute to the original 1956 movie make it enjoyable for both old and new fans. It is a perfect movie to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Godzilla’s first appearance on the screen and proves that the audience’s favourite monster never fails to excite us.  

Image credit: AVGK04 via DeviantArt

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