Chances are that at some point in your youth a Godzilla film scared the hell out of you. From the first Godzilla film in 1954, and in numerous films after that, the fire breathing mutant dinosaur has been a symbol of Japan’s post-war despair while exploring themes of masculinity, guilt and shame. At its best, Godzilla was a monster with something more on its mind than wreaking havoc.
And now at a time when the world is falling apart anew, “Godzilla Minus One,” written and directed by Japanese effects whiz Takashi Yamazaki, arrives as a thoughtful, stylish and entertaining addition to the canon. Although it serves essentially as a reboot of the original 1954 film, and is grounded in the traditions of the series, it stands on its own as a meticulously crafted piece of filmmaking. In fact, one need not care a whit about the history of Godzilla to enjoy this roller coaster ride.
What makes the film so successful is not only the fireworks surrounding the monster but the care paid to the script and construction of characters. The emphasis on interpersonal relationships cleverly heightens the tension and impending danger. The film toggles back and forth between the mayhem of Godzilla’s attacks and the story of a family and community trying to recover from years of psychic and physical devastation.
Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a young kamikaze pilot in the closing days of the war who doesn’t want to die for a lost cause. After faking engine trouble and landing his fighter jet on a remote island for repairs, he spends the rest of the film battling not only the fire-breathing dragon but his own personal demons.
Since everyone knows what Godzilla looks like, Yamazaki is not coy about revealing the width and breathe of his creation. Starting with a brief flash of light from an Atomic bomb test in the Atolls, the monster emerges as some kind of deep-sea prehistoric dinosaur, a walking nuclear device. In the first few minutes of the film, the monster comes out of the water breathing fire and kills most of the population of the island where Koichi has landed. Instead of escaping the war, he has brought it with him. Faced with a chance to gun down Godzilla, Koichi chokes again and does nothing.
Back in an already ravaged Tokyo, Koichi learns that his parents have perished as the city prepares for the arrival of Godzilla. Wide-eyed, panic-stricken people flee the onslaught in well-staged crowd scenes of chaos and destruction. Tokyo is no match for a 164-foot monster of unbridled rage. Godzilla picks up subway cars and sends them flying as if they were toy trains (which they probably were). But the wild action never seems hokey, befitting Yamazaki’s standing as one of Japan’s top special effects artists. Accompanied by the dramatic strings and pulsating rhythms of Naoki Satô’s score, spikes pop out of Godzilla’s spine as it shoots blue rays of fire that explode in mushroom clouds.
After the pandemonium, Yamazaki adeptly ratchets down the tension and switches gears to a domestic story. Koichi becomes the de facto guardian of a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), and an infant girl she has inherited from her dying mother. The trio comes together in a makeshift family, but despite his affection for Noriko and the baby girl, Koichi is too wracked with humiliation and PTSD to embrace the relationship. He has other matters to settle first; his war is not yet over.
How can a society that has been crushed from its wartime experience rouse itself to fight again against Godzilla? An official government response or help from Japan’s allies is out of the question because of the cold war complexity of American-Soviet relations. Yamazaki clearly doesn’t have much faith in official channels. If there is a solution, it must come from a grassroots effort of citizens banning together to fight for their survival.
Just as Kochi must find himself after the war, Japan as a nation must reclaim its identity to defeat Godzilla. So a rag-tag collection of resourceful army veterans, including a reluctant Kochi, comes together to save the day since no one else will do it for them. By default, it’s “the useless to the rescue.” Then in a rousing finale on the open sea, Kochi has to literally fly into the belly of the beast to finally purge his dishonor.
“Godzilla Minus One” manages to function on a number of levels. It’s a cautionary tale and social commentary on nuclear weapons and other natural disasters threatening the future of the world. At the same time, this iteration of Godzilla is a masterful popcorn movie with heart. What is perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the film was made for the miniscule budget, by Hollywood standards, of $15 million. As producers like to boast in Hollywood, every penny is up on the screen. And in this case, it actually is.