Something about watching a film in which a giant animal stomps around destroying a city will always light up the pleasure centers in our brains. It’s one of the biggest reasons Godzilla has remained such a durable franchise in the 70 years since the lizard from beyond the depths made his cinematic debut.
To writer/director Takashi Yamazaki’s credit, Godzilla Minus One, the latest entry in the franchise from original purveyor Toho Pictures, gives as much weight to Godzilla’s destruction as it does to the lives of the men and women in danger of getting destroyed. While Godzilla is unquestionably still the star of the film, the care taken with the story of the human characters – as perfectly pitched a wartime melodrama as anything Hollywood put out in the 40s-50s heyday – puts this film into the upper echelon of the franchise.
Out of the Past
When kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lands his plane for servicing, the ground crew finds nothing wrong with it. While the crew sympathizes with him, they’re also skeptical. They don’t have much time to interrogate him, though, because a giant lizard-like beast (Godzilla to the island locals) emerges from the water and begins wreaking havoc on the small island. Shikishima manages to survive, but, paralyzed with fear, finds himself unable to take any action against Godzilla that could potentially save the others, most of whom perish.
When he finally returns to the mainland, he finds his home city mostly reduced to rubble. After a young woman abandons her child to escape the police, he holds onto the child. The mother, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), finds them, and they slowly build a family unit while rebuilding Shikishima’s home. However, their happiness doesn’t last long, as Shikishima gets a job trawling the ocean for land mines, which inadvertently raises Godzilla from his underwater slumber and puts him on a destructive path toward Tokyo. Without any defense force and almost no armaments, how will the Japanese people stop Godzilla and save their homeland?
The opening sequence marks a compelling introduction to this film’s version of Godzilla, who almost seems like a stone giant come to life. While he’s more jagged and rough-looking than other versions of the iconic movie monster, he maintains the lumbering, almost clumsy gait of the original. His eyes are the personification of death, every close-up inspires awe, especially when accompanied by Akira Ifukube’s iconic original Godzilla theme. Every time the big guy causes destruction, Yamazaki deftly displays his ability to build anticipation and deliver on it. With every swipe of his spiked tail that brings down a building, the audience winces with enjoyment, every anticipatory giggle punctuated by destruction so awful the audience can only let out a communal “OOOH!”
A Delicate Balance
As nimbly as he stages the carnage, though, Yamazaki shows just as much skill with the human drama. Shikishima’s arc is particularly effective as he grows from a cowardly kamikaze to a soldier ready to risk everything for the people he loves. Most of the film’s middle section devotes itself to building a portrait of life in post-war Japan, as Shikishima and Noriko get jobs and have their neighbor Sumiko (Sakura Ando) care for Noriko’s young child. The four of them create a family unit, and their bond feels so real that you ache alongside Noriko when Shikishima tells her his job will be working with land mines in the ocean. Their lives are on the brink already, and when the threat of Godzilla rises again, so do the film’s stakes. Now, the whole nation is at risk, and Yamazaki’s screenplay gives the Japanese people as powerful and emotional a voice as it does the lead characters.
When a military leader explains to the citizenry their plan to stop Godzilla dead in his tracks, the presentation does not go as planned: Angry with their government and unsure if they can trust the army to protect them after what just happened in the war, the people take their representatives to task in a way that feels more potent with frustration than usual for this type of film.
Emotions run high throughout Godzilla Minus One, a nod not just to Japanese acting styles but to wartime melodramas of the 40s-50s. The plan reveal scene represents the least intimate version of this, but Shikishima and Noriko’s story remains the film's heart throughout. Kamiki and Hamabe build their relationship carefully, beginning as wary near adversaries and slowly growing more attached. The time the film spends with them reaps rewards by the film’s finale, an action spectacle with real stakes on both individual and communal levels.
The stakes feel urgently real because of the care invested in building the characters and their relationships. Even more minor characters, like Sumiko and Shikishima’s co-workers, get enough screen time to develop their inner lives, and the personality-filled performances endear us to them even more. Kamiki and Hamabe, two of Japan’s biggest superstars, serve as the film’s emotional anchors, and while their charisma obviously helps, the most important thing they bring ends up being their emotional openness. Both actors’ ability to directly communicate their character’s emotional state without going overboard keeps the film from playing too much like an actual 40s-50s melodrama, thus keeping the audience invested instead of putting them at a remove.
Some may find the film’s ending a bit too emotionally manipulative for their tastes. Still, given how strongly the film builds the characters over the course of its two hours, one can forgive this. Considering how weightless and disorienting most grand action scenes coming out of Hollywood look these days, Godzilla Minus One looks even more impressive. While the film seems to have some lapses in internal logic concerning Godzilla’s size (at the very least, it’s unclear whether he is walking or swimming through the water), the legendary lizard always looks fantastic, and when the characters stop and stare in awe, so do we in the audience. The clear character motivations and high stakes create a potent mix, resulting in one of the most genuinely epic cinematic finales in a time when that word has lost nearly all its potency from overuse.
Godzilla Minus One is never anything less than thoroughly entertaining in a way that feels almost old-fashioned these days. The film focuses on getting the audience invested in the characters and their relationships and telling a story that steadily increases its stakes as it goes, instead of just tossing out references to other Godzilla properties for two hours. They may say that they don’t make films like they used to, but with Godzilla Minus One, Takashi Yamazaki has proved that he does.
Rating: 8/10 Specs
Godzilla Minus One opens in cinemas December 1. We've got the latest on movies in theaters now.