Review: Godzilla Minus One Is a Monster Movie with Heart, Direct from Japan
When the new Godzilla movie from its original Japanese production studio, Toho, opens with kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) going through an existential crisis and faking mechanical trouble so he doesn’t have to carry out his suicide mission, I knew something very different was about to unfold. The pilot lands on a remote island occupied primarily by mechanics, there to fix all Japanese fighter planes toward the end of World War II. Kōichi knows that the war is lost and is having issues sacrificing himself for nothing; some of the mechanics understand and even support his crisis, but others see him as the worst kind of coward—an attitude that will haunt Kōichi throughout Godzilla Minus One, a kaiju story of the highest order that takes us back further in time than any other Godzilla movie has into the creature's origins.
For those keeping score, these Japanese productions have no connection to the recent Hollywood “Monsterverse” stories (including the 2021 release Godzilla vs. Kong, next year’s Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, both directed by Adam Wingard, and the current Apple TV+ series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters), but they effectively stand as the OG Godzilla films that began as cautionary tale for the atomic bomb in 1954, less than 10 years after actual atomic bombs leveled Japanese cities. What makes Minus One so unique from so many other Godzilla stories is that it actually bothers creating fully realized human characters who have something to protect and live for—namely, they don’t want another Japanese city (in this case Tokyo) destroyed by an atomic monster.
Directed by Takashi Yamazaki (Space Battleship Yamato, Ghost Book), Minus One opens with Godzilla killing nearly everyone on the small island where Kōichi lands (partly because he landed there when he didn’t need to). After he returns to his hometown of Tokyo, he discovers that his entire family has also been killed, leaving him to rebuild his life, now including a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), who has an infant named Akiko with her. Although Kōichi takes it upon himself to take care of the two, he rebukes the idea of getting romantically entangled with Noriko, mostly due to his shame and guilt at what he did during the war. He even takes on a job as a sea-based minesweeper, which he sees as something akin to a kamikaze pilot.
Eventually, a citizen’s group is formed to keep Godzilla from flattening Tokyo once again, and the minesweepers are essential to the mission. They tie together mines into something like a net, which will hopefully kill Godzilla as he approaches—or at least warn citizens that he’s coming. The plotting of these defense mechanisms is intense, fascinating, and takes up a considerable amount of time in the film, which is not a complaint. Godzilla occupies a lot less of Minus One than you might expect, but that’s fine because the nuclear-powered monster is one of the coolest and most ferocious versions of the character I’ve ever seen. He’s mad at humanity for a myriad of reasons, so every city is something he wants to destroy.
But the real drama that had me on edge was whether Kōichi could fly a bomber into Godzilla’s mouth to kill the creature and redeem himself in his own eyes and the eyes of others. In Godzilla Minus One, it’s the human story that wins the day, and for once, the kaiju is there to support the people in their struggle to overcome wartime trauma. For those hoping for a small army of other monsters here, sorry but it’s only Godzilla, and that’s more than enough. The “heat rays” he shoots out of his mouth are as powerful as any atomic weapon, so I’m not sure how an appearance by Mothra is going to improve upon that level of destructive power. The film’s scale feels massive, the cast is large and impressive from an acting standpoint, and the visual effects are exceptional and quite realistic looking (sorry, no guy in a rubber suit for this one). But most impressive is the writing and the emotional depth of the story being told. This is one of the great genre movies in recent memory, and I hope this team goes on to make more Godzilla movies moving forward.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.