‘Godzilla Minus One’ Review: A Kaiju Feature as Emotionally Involving as It Is Scary

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By Joshephira Honey

Let’s face it, Godzilla was never much of a looker.

But 70 years and dozens of films later, Japan’s favorite kaiju is roaring louder than ever in his latest big-screen incarnation, which may be one of the best Godzilla films ever. Arriving seven years after Shin Godzilla, the Japanese-made Godzilla Minus One puts the American efforts of recent years to shame (I’m looking at you, 1998’s Godzilla) with its combination of spectacular monster movie thrills and genuine emotion. This may be the only Godzilla movie that will make you feel verklempt by the time it concludes.

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Godzilla Minus One

The Bottom Line A roaring comeback.

Release date: Friday, Dec. 1
Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki Yamada, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando
Director-screenwriter: Takashi Yamazaki
Rated PG-13, 2 hours 5 minutes

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who’s also credited with the visual effects, the film essentially serves as a reboot. The story begins in the final days of World War II, when kamikaze pilot Koichi (Ryunokuke Kamiki, terrific) makes the decision not to die for his country but rather to feign engine trouble and land on an island military base. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong moment, since not long after he arrives Godzilla shows up and lays waste to everyone there, the only survivors being Koichi and a mechanic (Munetaka Aoki).

Months later, Koichi returns to Tokyo only to discover that his parents were killed and their home is in ruins. He befriends a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), who has taken in an orphaned infant girl, and the three form a makeshift family, with a friendly neighbor (Sakura Ando of Monster and Shoplifters) providing moral and babysitting support. Despite the happiness of his new relationships, Koichi is tormented by guilt, both for abandoning his kamikaze mission and surviving the massacre on the island.

Meanwhile, thanks to the U.S. military’s nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, Godzilla proves stronger and more indestructible than ever, with the ability to project deadly heat beams added to his already formidable giant lizard arsenal. He soon invades the mainland, laying waste to Tokyo’s Ginza district and, in the process, seemingly killing Noriko, leaving the little girl without a mother yet again. Koichi becomes determined to help get rid of Godzilla once and for all, providing his aviation skills to a team of scientists who come up with the idea of surrounding the creature with a bubble membrane and sinking it to the bottom of the sea (it sounds perfectly credible when they describe it).

Godzilla has long been seen as a symbolic representation of the nuclear devastation that Japan suffered, and that theme is evident here as well. But Godzilla Minus One adds a more personal dimension in the form of Koichi’s lingering trauma, since the only way he thinks he’ll be able to expiate his guilt is by destroying the monster. To that end, he’s even willing to engage in the sort of suicide mission from which he previously bailed.

In addition to the human drama that distinguishes this effort, there’s no shortage of spectacular set pieces, including a thrilling sequence in which Godzilla chases a boat with the determined ferocity of the shark from Jaws. Despite a reported budget of a mere $15 million, the scenes in which Godzilla goes on the rampage are superbly executed, making one think that the major Hollywood studios, which think nothing of spending ten times that amount for similar efforts, should immediately head to Japan and take some lessons.

The dialogue, at least as translated, doesn’t prove elegant, with lines like “Godzilla looks really ticked off!” being a typical example. But there are also clever touches throughout, such as Godzilla’s impending arrivals being signaled by masses of dead fish rising to the surface. And writer-director Yamazaki has fully succeeded in delivering a Godzilla movie that’s as emotionally involving as it is genuinely scary, which is something I never thought I’d write. With this kind of tender loving care, Godzilla may be rampaging through Tokyo for yet another 70 years.

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