Godzilla Minus One (Toho International, PG-13)

Godzilla has been one of my cinematic fixations since I was a kid. I grew up watching the classic Toho films, and I have been extremely heartened to see the rebirth of everyone’s favorite giant super-powered lizard in some very solid films from both Japan and America in the last decade. I’m not sure exactly where I’d rank director Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One among my favorite Godzilla films, but it definitely earns high marks across the board. Christmas came early for my inner geek this year.

Minus One follows Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a former pilot in postwar Japan whose perceived dereliction of duty haunts him. This haunting often manifests in literal nightmares due to his brief encounter with Godzilla towards the end of the war and his failure to kill the monster. Living in the devastated village of Ginza with a chosen family to support (more on that later), Koichi takes a job as part of a team finding and detonating sea mines left behind by the U.S. Navy and their allies, which puts him directly in the path of Godzilla’s destruction.

Godzilla, as he has so often in various other contexts throughout his seventy years on the big screen, acts as a metaphor for some of the big ideas at play here. In its own thematic way, Minus One is an exploration of the toll of war and the concepts of duty, honor, and redemption. Its action scenes are not solely limited to Godzilla swimming up to cities and stomping on them, a fact which frequently helps the rich thematic material rise to the surface. There are a few plot points and music cues that might come off as cheesy if you’re not in the mood for a film of this type, but the way in which it carefully honors and handles the history it’s mining from makes it much more than just a great Godzilla movie. It’s a great war movie, period.

In terms of creature design, this Godzilla honors those which have come before it while also incorporating some design elements which didn’t come into play until much later. As a Godzilla nerd, these are the types of things I pay attention to, and can you blame me? He just looks so cool when they get him right, and this is no exception. This design’s relative blend of eras is yet another way the film attempts to honor culture and history. It may be a smaller piece of the puzzle than the actual war material, but it’s a brilliantly subtle way to further tie Godzilla thematically to that human side of the film.

The human side is surprising in many ways. It manages to balance its own war-epic dramatic bravado with a bit of a subtler, more down-to-earth drama, almost along the lines of classic films from directors such as Hirokazu Kore-eda or Yasojirō Ozu. Minus One certainly isn’t as incredible as Kore-eda or Ozu’s best work, but it does traffic in that kind of humanistic tone quite frequently, especially in regards to Koichi’s chosen family. After returning from service, Koichi meets an unhoused woman named Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and the child she has rescued, named Akiko (Saki Nagatani). Although he befriends them and takes them in, Koichi’s trauma from wartime keeps him from beginning anything resembling romance with Noriko, an unfulfilled romance which isn’t only the suggestion of friends, but something their tenor would seem to imply. The way this character arc moves and concludes feels quite natural and showcases Kamiki’s terrific range as an actor. This piece also strikes a welcome tonal balance with the other two-thirds of the film: the postwar history and the Godzilla action.

Though there are those fleeting schmaltzy moments I referred to earlier, Godzilla Minus One really is a triumph in pretty much every conceivable way. It ambitiously sets out to honor the heritage of the concept of Godzilla as metaphor while also taking us on a remarkably grand human journey with exceptional action, and it does it all with style and panache. Even if you’re not really a Godzilla fan, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here if you’re at all open to monster movies in general. If you are a Godzilla fan, run out to see this as fast as possible. The final action scene is as climactic and innovative as anything in any of the other most exciting big-budget Godzilla films. | George Napper

In Japanese with English subtitles.

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