Post war Japan is at its lowest point when a new crisis emerges in the form of a giant monster, baptized in the horrific power of the atomic bomb. (from IMDB)
The world's most lovable big guy is turning 70 next year and his popularity seems to be as big as ever. Japan's last homegrown take on the massive kaiju, Godzilla, took place in 2016 with Shin Godzilla, which also saw a significant redesign of the character. Meanwhile, the United States has been borrowing the big lizard for their own "Monsterverse" alongside King Kong, with a sequel to 2021's Godzilla Vs Kong coming out in 2024. But, before that major spectacle hits the big screen, Japan's latest entry, the curiously titled Godzilla Minus One, recently released in their country and has just now crossed the seas to make land in the U.S. What can audiences expect from Minus One? Something rather unexpected.
Campy. Silly. Big. Crazy. Over-the-top. Awesome. These are all words you can use to describe different entries in the Godzilla franchise since its 1954 debut. The word "serious" probably isn't one often thrown around. (Maybe Gareth Edwards' 2014 movie came close? And the 1954 film was also pretty serious.) Godzilla Minus One takes place in Japan in the aftermath of WWII. The story follows a failed kamikaze pilot who, at the beginning of the movie, is among a group of soldiers when a large dinosaur-like, t-rex-sized beast attacks their encampment. Years pass as the pilot, whose name is Koichi Shikishima, struggles to settle into a post-war life. When he'd returned home, he took in a young woman named Noriko and her little baby, Akiko - whom she found orphaned - and the trio continue to piece their lives back together in the wake of disaster. But the atomic bombs that dropped on Japan created something unimaginable: a merciless mutated monster.
Where the U.S. Godzilla is more or less a "friend" to the humans, Godzilla Minus One's monster is anything but. This is the Godzilla we once grew up with: the villainous, destructive force that levels cities and flattens its residents under its expansive feet. This is a Godzilla to fear. But where Godzilla Minus One differs from most Godzilla movies, is that it takes a very dramatic and emotional post-WWII human interest story and mixes in a kaiju attack plot. That doesn't sound like it should work - and to some viewers, I'm sure it won't - but, surprisingly, it really does. While fans gleefully enjoy watching Godzilla do his thing and wreak havoc, he's the villain here, and we're presented with human characters that make us feel and cause the audience to actually care for them. It's a Godzilla movie unlike any other.
While I won't spoil it for any fans planning to see Godzilla Minus One, the big guy does get a couple upgrades in this entry. These upgrades aren't too outside the scope of the creature's familiar design, but they're definitely enhancements. And, especially witnessing these changes on the big screen, it can be jaw-dropping. His otherwise overall design hearkens back to the original design, with obviously a lot more detail. His skin also looks kind of deformed -- like the radiation from the atomic bombs marred his skin over the years. My only gripe about this Godzilla, although minor, is that sometimes his eyes look a little vacant, and his walk is surprisingly stiff and slow (but I think it's meant to mimic the original Godzilla in movement, too).
Have I mentioned the acting? Ryunosuke Kamiki is absolutely fantastic as Koichi. The character is a tortured soul who is being punished for just wanting to live. His arc is also wonderfully portrayed during the course of the film. And it helps that Ryunosuke is surrounded by other fine actors. I've found that, in a lot of foreign films (not to mention American ones, too - especially blockbuster disaster films), there's almost always at least one cartoony character who is painfully goofy and exaggerated. You won't find that here. The human story is rather gritty, and any humor is really only brought out of characters making occasionally amusing remarks, and not going out of their way to be comedic. The story actually makes Godzilla Minus One a pretty heavy movie, thematically, and those going just to see mass destruction will be surprised by how grounded the story actually is. In some ways, Godzilla Minus One does feel like two movies mashed together, but it works... and it's a better movie for it.
Godzilla Minus One does have extended stretches of time where the title monster is absent, which had me wondering where Godzilla is in his own movie. But thankfully he's not used quite as sparingly as Edwards had in the 2014 American Godzilla movie, and when Gojira does make his appearance, it's pretty awesome and very satisfying. And I'd be remiss if I didn't give sincere props to composer Naoki Sato for his work on this movie. He captures some serious Hans Zimmer vibes (especially Dunkirk) with the atmospheric, mood-building he creates, and then masterfully throws in the original Godzilla theme music in a fantastic way.
The content for Godzilla Minus One earns its PG-13 rating, but only for violence. Since this is a Japanese movie, and there is no overdubbed audio track, the movie is almost completely spoken in Japanese, with English subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It keeps the emotion raw and intact, but it is a little distracting to have to "read the movie" when you want to just focus on the visuals and acting. Anyway, with that said, there are only 3 written uses of "h*ll" and 3 of "d*mn" spoken in the movie, and nothing else in regards to profanity. There is no sexual content, as well, although Koichi and Noriko live together. Since Koichi keeps it platonic, I think it's safe to assume they never got physical together and just lived as roommates. When it comes to violence, the Godzilla attacks are pretty intense -- especially when he attacks the city of Ginza. At one point, Koichi is injured and we see lots of blood on his head and down his face. Later he's just shown with his head wrapped up. And while it isn't clear, when Godzilla's gigantic feet squash a group of people underneath, it kind of looks like there may have been some red or pink splatter out the sides of his foot. There are also a few moments of gore when Godzilla is injured but then part of his body regenerates. In the opening sequence, when the t-rex-like Godzilla attacks people, he bites down on them and throws them. We later see a line of dead bodies on the ground with varying amounts of blood on their bodies and clothes.
Honestly, I went into Godzilla Minus One expecting a cheesy monster movie with cool destructive sequences, and I came out in awe of how amazingly well done this movie is. (My dad, who has been a diehard Godzilla fan all his life even said this is definitely the best Godzilla movie to date.) Even if you don't like any Godzilla movie you've seen before, I recommend this very memorable action/drama. It's one of the best movies of 2023.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/3/23)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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