“Everyone who survived the war is meant to live.”
Like the protagonist of Godzilla Minus One, I once made a decision that haunts me. I didn’t go see Shin Godzilla in theaters when I had the chance. I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t like it, that I didn’t need what I believed it was selling. It was only much later, when I finally caught it on Blu-ray, that I realized how wrong I was.
For my money, Shin Godzilla is a masterpiece. Not merely one of the best movies to ever bear the Godzilla name, but one of the best movies of the 21st century so far. Its darkly comic, almost Verhoevian satire of bureaucracy is completely different from any other Godzilla film, and it succeeds in transforming the title character into something genuinely horrifying for probably the first time since 1954.
So, when the opportunity came around to watch Godzilla Minus One on the big screen, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake. I was there day one and, while everyone else in the world seems to have loved it, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.
Minus One is the first feature-length Godzilla film to come from Toho in almost a decade, and the first one since Shin Godzilla. Therefore, it is somewhat inevitable to compare the two, even though it’s also mostly not very profitable. Still, while Minus One is good, it was nowhere near the revelation that Shin Godzilla was for me, or the transcendent experience that it seems to have been for most everyone else.
While Toho hasn’t been making new live-action Godzilla features, it isn’t as if the big G has been absent from screens. We’ve had the Warner Bros. MonsterVerse titles to contend with, not to mention animated Godzilla flicks, short films, and so on. Still, there’s no denying that, like Shin before it, Minus One is a homecoming.
As with Shin Godzilla, this is an attempt to return to Godzilla’s roots as a purely destructive force. There is no way in which this Godzilla is a “good guy,” even as roundaboutly as the one from the MonsterVerse films. The makers of Minus One also take this assignment much more literally than their predecessors, setting the film immediately after the events of World War II. And it is in this postwar setting that Minus One finds its greatest strength.
Ultimately, this is another example of a Godzilla film in which Godzilla is barely present. Those who were angrily measuring minutes of screentime in Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot may find themselves having the same problem here, although the human drama in Minus One is much more engaging.
Our protagonist this time around is a kamikaze pilot named Koichi, who feigns technical issues with his plane near the end of the war in order to avoid his fatal duty. This is emphatically his story, not Godzilla’s, and as their paths continuously and coincidentally overlap, Koichi’s trauma and survivor’s guilt gradually forge him, in that way that only happens in movies, into the only weapon that can defeat Godzilla.
Though Ryunosuke Kamiki’s performance sells the damage that the war has done to Koichi and, through him, to the psyche of an entire generation, the real strength of Godzilla Minus One comes not directly from his plot, but from the metaphor that surrounds it. Godzilla may still owe their genesis to the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll this time around, but the big lizard is no longer a stand-in merely for nuclear holocaust, but for the devastation of war in general. And around all the moments of melodrama, Minus One is a film about learning how to fight, as one character puts it, “a battle to live for the future.”
Godzilla, by contrast, is relegated to a few set pieces, most notably an unforgettable attack on Ginza, which serves as the centerpiece for the entire production. And it is breathtaking. It doesn’t hurt that a variation on Akira Ifukube’s iconic score rolls out of the speakers, even as Godzilla takes a train car in their mouth in an evocation of one of the most infamous stills from the original 1954 film.
There are also a few innovations made to Godzilla’s origins and methodology, some of which work better than others. This Godzilla is much more recognizable than the one in Shin, even while it is every bit as vicious. The thing where Godzilla’s dorsal fins cock like gun hammers was weird for me, but the explanation that Godzilla couldn’t use their heat ray very often because it literally damaged them and they had to regenerate between each use was a clever touch.
The CGI that brings Godzilla to life here is a mixed bag. The Ginza sequence looks phenomenal, but in other moments the giant beast feels less fully realized. Of course, Minus One also only cost around $15 million to make. In comparison, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version cost fully ten times that amount, while the latest installment in the MonsterVerse saga may have cost as much as $200 million – and the CGI there doesn’t really look much better.
If we are honest with ourselves, most Godzilla movies are not precisely good, at least not by the same rubric that we would use to measure another kind of film. Most of the films in the long-running franchise are essentially big, derpy cartoons that are operating in a totally different register than a typical movie. The fun of a Godzilla picture is the fun of playing with toys, not the fun of cinema.
As such, it’s not really fair to hold a movie like Shin Godzilla or the 1954 original up against most of the rest of the series. They are different beasts, doing very different things. And Minus One is certainly ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with those other franchise outliers. It takes the beats of a standard disaster movie and repurposes them to tell a story about how we move forward after collective trauma, selling melodrama and even absurd coincidence through heartfelt earnestness.
Does it work? Not all of the time, at least not for me, but it succeeds more often than it fails, and there’s a good chance that it will grow on me. Maybe more importantly, it’s Godzilla back home on the big screen where they belong, and that’s never a bad thing.
Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, game designer, and amateur film scholar who loves to write about monsters, movies, and monster movies. He’s the author of several spooky books, including How to See Ghosts & Other Figments. You can find him online at orringrey.com.