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‘Godzilla Minus One’ (review)

Godzilla Minus One sees the titular King of the Monsters simultaneously taken back to basics and pushed forward to reflect the anxiety of contemporary Japan.

It contains thrilling spectacle, as one would expect from the series, but scaled back from the recent American films featuring the character and for once, integrated and in service of compelling human drama.

The film is everything a fan of Godzilla would want from a new entry in the series.

The film follows Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot in the final days of World War II.

Shikishima is awaiting his final mission when the ground crew working on his plane is attacked by a pre-irradiated Godzilla, about the size of a T-Rex.

Shikishima freezes up when he has a chance to kill the monster, and his entire ground crew is killed. Returning home after the war to a bombed out Tokyo, Shikishima harbors the guilt and shame of both his public failure as a living kamikaze pilot, and his secret shame on the island.

When nuclear tests off the Bikini atoll wake Godzilla back up, Shikishima is forced to reckon with the creature one more time in an effort to finally move on with his life.

Director Takashi Yamazaki was, in part, awarded the film for his work on period naval drama The Great War of Archimedes and it shows here. The initial Godzilla scenes have a wonderful verisimilitude and feel suitably epic. The first Godzilla encounter after the irradiation, in particular, is just an amazing sequence in which the ragtag minesweeper crew Shikishima finds himself a part of after the war is desperately trying to buy time for a recommissioned Japanese naval cruiser to take out the monster. We go from awe and terror, to relief when the warship arrives, to the real horror when Godzilla absolutely makes mincemeat of it.

Godzilla Minus One was made on a 15 million dollar budget but maximizes production values for money by keeping Godzilla out at sea and limiting the city-bound carnage to a single memorable sequence. This, as a consequence, makes the film feel livelier and fresher than any kaiju film in recent memory. The battle between the monster and our heroes feels more cat-and-mouse than the protracted wars of attrition we’re used to.

All of this is in service to one of the best human dramas the series has ever had, full stop.

Before I saw this picture I read reviews which bemoaned that the film was “not interested in contemporary events” and that it was “a Japanese propaganda piece.” Wrong on both counts. Any Japanese film that has its moral center say openly “we were wrong for our tactics in the war” is not nationalistic fodder.

And while Godzilla in this film is not an easy stand in for disasters like Fukushima or the A-Bomb, he does absolutely reflect the contemporary challenge of Japan: a nation that was built on martial conquest, that when it failed threw itself into economics as it was war, and now is facing a severe population crisis because it created a culture where the demands of productivity made it impossible for the average Japanese person to raise children.

The final line, the final arc, the rejection of suicide as a tactic is not simply a war time reaction, but a rejection of the bushido code, and the callousness with which it regards life in general. Godzilla Minus One ends by asking Japan, if the war is finally over– not just the conflict that lasted from 1930 until 1945, but the cultural attitude that animated it in the first place. This film belongs alongside the 1954 original and Shin Godzilla as films that use the Big G as potent pop mythology to ask the big questions again.

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