Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Once upon a time, monster movies were the genre where filmmakers experimented with metaphors. Films such as Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), King Kong (1933) and The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) may have been B-movie material, yet they still managed to deliver relevant social and political commentary. The most famous example (and the most famous movie monster) is of course the Japanese classic, Godzilla (1954). Not only was it a phenomenally enjoyable monster movie, but was also a nuanced analysis of the country’s trauma following the atomic bombings. The downside is that it’s very difficult to bring these monsters back in new films, as their specific point is tied to the era they were created. This isn’t for lack of trying, as there have been over 30 Godzilla films made in Japan, and four in the United States. Godzilla Minus One (2023) is the latest offering out of Japan’s Toho Studios. This leads one to ask: do we finally have a Godzilla film which recaptures the magic of the original?
The story begins at the tail end of WWII, as we are introduced to kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki). Instead of fulfilling his duty, Kōichi couldn’t bring himself to do the job, thus being considered a coward, and is shamed by his peers and the wider community. Before he manages to return home, Kōichi witnesses the horrifying massacre of his fellow soldiers. However, this destruction wasn’t caused by the enemy, but rather a giant, dinosaur-like creature: Godzilla. After surviving the encounter, Kōichi meets a homeless woman named Norito (Minami Hamabe) and a baby girl named Akiko (Sae Nagatani). Norito and the baby aren’t a traditional mother-daughter pairing, as Akiko’s real mother was killed in the Tokyo air raids, and made Norito promise to look after her. Kōichi, Norito and Akiko try to rebuild their lives and recover from the horrors of the war (along with the rest of Japan). Sadly, their hope for a new beginning is dashed when the monstrous Godzilla returns, wreaking havoc on Tokyo in a manner eerily reminiscent of the recent conflict.
Over the last 70 years, Godzilla films have come in many shapes and sizes. There have been giant moths, dragons, robots, and even team-ups with giant monkeys. While all of these films have their place and are certainly a lot of fun to watch, it’s hard to say that any of them have successfully maintained the initial atomic horror and anti-war messaging of the original. This is because those heavy themes were inextricably tied to Japan’s specific post-war trauma, so it’s not easy to make them feel relevant beyond that period. The fact that Godzilla Minus One easily manages to bring those ideas back to the screen, speaks to its achievement. Yes, it has all the hallmarks of a typical Godzilla movie (from the massive city destruction to the screaming civilians) yet the visual framing, narrative context and character motivations never lose focus on the terrifying parallels to warfare.
This goes far beyond visual shorthand, as the post-war trauma is baked into the storytelling. This isn’t a film about a monster tearing up buildings, but rather a film about a country and its people grappling with shared pain, and trying to hold onto hope for a brighter future. In this case, the monster is an incredibly unsubtle representation of the existential horror the war brought to Japan, as well as the lingering effects of it. The film makes that connection clear for the audience as well as characters, resulting in all our heroes being fully aware that their war won’t be over, and that they won’t be able to heal, as long as this creature is still around. This makes Godzilla Minus One the first monster movie since Jaws (1975) which makes the viewer care more about the characters than the action.
As far as the action is concerned, Godzilla Minus One is as exciting as it is terrifying. Spectacular sequences with computer generated monsters are always fun to watch, but they are very rarely filled with chill inducing thrills, or even nail-biting tension. That’s not the case here, as Godzilla Minus One manages to elicit genuine fear from the viewer. It’s not a horror film, but it does make the action sequences all the more exciting, as the viewer feels like they are experiencing the danger along with the heroes. This is especially impressive considering the film’s minuscule budget when compared to big Hollywood blockbusters. The fact that the team behind Godzilla Minus One created a grander, more exciting, and more spectacular film than their American peers (but with only a fraction of the price tag) makes one wonder where all that Hollywood money goes. There are some minor kinks in the computer effects, but it doesn’t distract from the overall experience.
Budget isn’t the only avenue where Godzilla Minus One eclipses its American competitors. With a big Hollywood blockbuster, the most memorable moments are the visual effects, the punch-ups, chase scenes, and explosions. Godzilla Minus One certainly has its fair share of unforgettable action sequences, but they aren’t necessarily the main thing viewers take with them. Many of the most unique, creative and memorable scenes revolve entirely around character interactions, emotional upheavals and psychological analysis. This is the most surprising element of the film, given that you’d usually expect the set-pieces to be the best sequences. What makes these quieter and more dramatic moments particularly strong, is that they are directed, performed and staged with complete sincerity. What’s happening on screen may be over the top, but it’s tragic for these characters, and the film treats everything as such.
Rather unexpectedly, Godzilla Minus One may end up being one of the biggest and best blockbusters to come out of 2023. Many western audiences will probably be hesitant to watch a Japanese monster film (or they may even be burnt out by America’s less than stellar Godzilla films), but Godzilla Minus One is worth the trip. Not only is it the best Godzilla film ever made, but it has the potential to become a classic film in general.
Best way to watch it: See this instead of Aquaman 2. Please.