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Godzilla Minus One (2023) Review

Almost seven decades have passed since Ishirō Honda’s radioactive dinosaur first graced screens across the world. Since then, it’s had some great sequels, and some not-so-great sequels, but has always remained a beloved gem of filmic culture. That being said, even the best of ideas can run stale after a while, and with 36 movies preceding it, Takashi Yamazaki was facing an uphill battle to make the newest addition to the Godzilla canon worth watching. Maybe that’s what makes his success with this film so impressive; the trailer promises a ton of thrills, which we get, alongside a compelling character-centered melodrama engaged with themes of nuclear apocalypse, redemption, and mortality. More than the great acting, the booming score and fantastic visual effects, Yamazaki’s ability to somehow hit every beat we want in a disaster-monster-movie while also subverting every trope in the franchise makes for one of the most entertaining watches hitting theaters this week!

The film’s central tension is focused around Kōichi Shikishima, a failed kamikaze pilot who lives with constant survivor’s guilt. Having failed to crash his plane before failing to defend his garrison against a younger Godzilla, Shikishima has resigned himself to a life where he’s more dead than alive—until he meets Noriko, a woman who’s desperate to survive Post-WW2 Japan and secure a future for her adopted daughter, Akiko. It’s in Shikishima’s character that Yamazaki’s able to question ideas of heroism and nationalism, two concepts almost endemic to the action movie genre. Even when the perfect family falls into his lap, Kōichi is too haunted to take advantage, at one point even saying ‘my war isn’t over.’ He's still unable to fully accept the consequences of his participation in a system that had such little regard for human life—something that is acknowledged and combated in a later scene as the navy plans its assault on Godzilla. Focusing so much of the movie on the question of whether or not he’ll overcome these demons and get the proverbial happily ever after is where I saw Yamazaki take a sharp turn away from the direction most Godzilla movies take. Instead of using flimsy characters as slapdash scaffolding for VFX fun, here the exterior journey is just as important as the interior. Big scenes feel bigger because viewers are so much more in touch with the gravity of the stakes at hand. Because the characters’ development is so closely tied with the visual language of the film, I’m glad this movie looks as good as it does.

There are some scenes in here that simply have to be at least partially done with practical effects. The water, the rubble and Godzilla himself each have a tactile quality that helps create an immediacy which keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. Music by Naoki Satō adds to this effect, referencing past scores while building epic brass sections into a crescendo that makes our hearts stop when Kōichi sees Godzilla again years after their first encounter, now with radioactive powers thanks to US nuclear experiments in Bikini Atoll. In this way, the monster continues to be a way of exploring not only the legacy of nuclear arms in Japan, but also how the small island nation can find a sense of identity beyond war and nationalism. As Shikishima’s bond with Akiko and Noriko grows stronger, he finds his guilt being replaced with a warmth that makes him finally admit “I would like to try to live again.” It’s a fantastic moment that shows how one works through legacies of fascism and hardship to ultimately rediscover a sense of purpose in life. This point is driven further home by some phenomenal acting.

Melodramas seem like such a hard genre to work in because it can be easy for such big emotions to seem inauthentic; but Ryunosuke Kamiki does a phenomenal job as Kōichi. Capturing the arc from haunted veteran to dedicated family man, Kamiki displays a great range that provides the movie a fulcrum around which all its blockbuster action can be arranged to gain deeper meaning. His character counterbalances nicely with Minami Hamabe’s stellar performance as Noriko. Effusing a gentle sense of care in each movement she makes, whether cooking for Akiko or flinging Kōichi out the way of falling buildings, her character adds a much-needed softness to the screen. These actors have a solid chemistry and are made that much better by a great supporting cast. From their comedic timing to the commitment each brought to their role, these actors are perhaps the gold standard for this franchise moving forward.

I really enjoyed so much about this movie; it’s easy to write Godzilla off as a mere monster film, and I definitely do think they could have used the monster more creatively (especially considering the commentary on nationalism in a film set in Post WW2 Japan), but it’s a heartfelt shot of adrenaline with some fantastic visuals. The camera movements are always purposeful, the sound mix is loud but balanced enough for you to hear each brick fall as skyscrapers tumble to the ground, and the color grading is gorgeous, dialed so that Godzilla really glows with radiation before shooting a heat ray from his mouth. I hope you find time to watch Godzilla Minus One in theaters this weekend; it’s a unique viewing that’s sure to pull on the heartstrings. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!


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