The Dark Herald Recommends: Godzilla Minus One
This film knocks it so far out of the park, the ball lands on the Moon.
It is unquestionably the very best Godzilla movie of all time. Yes, I am including the unbelievably gutsy 1954 original and that is not a statement I would make lightly. In this case, I make it unreservedly.
Something that has been long forgotten about Gojira (1954) is that it was a movie about people. It was a story about a country trying to come to grips with its unique place in the post-war nuclear world and trying to find a new national identity after discovering its previous identity was the lie of empire.
Toho has repeatedly tried to remake the first movie but never managed to get the feel of it right. Godzilla Minus One nails the emotional impact of the original motion picture, while not repeating a single plot point.
Here is the setup. No need for a spoiler warning because you can piece this together yourself from the trailers.
The film starts in the closing days of the war in the Pacific. A Zero held together with little more than bailing wire and optimism, drops its landing gear, touching down at a field expedient island airbase that’s so primitive it looks like the local cargo cult has already moved in. The Zero still has a bomb in its rack.
That late in the war, Zeros were still taking off but they weren’t landing. After giving the plane the once over, the aircrew reports to their hancho that the craft is fine or at least fine as an aircraft with a one-way mission needs to be. The pilot is our protagonist and when he and the hancho briefly chat it is established that they know each other and the pilot is indeed a failed Kamikaze.
That night a gojira attacks the airbase. Now we have our first bit of alternate history. Gojiras at the start of the film are really just aquatic dinosaurs about the size of an Allosaurus. Albeit they are super-rare, in fact, likely to be critically endangered as a species, think of it as a fairly extreme coelacanth. So not a city-destroying threat but more than enough to take out a small garrison armed with just a couple of rifles. Which it does. The hancho blames the Kamikaze, Koichi for their deaths, thus establishing their conflict.
Koichi has to deal with tremendous guilt from failing at his duty as well as crushing survivor’s guilt. The rest of the people in Japan blame him for their tragedies. This is an entire nation in the grip of PTSD. The cities are little more than piles of rubble with streets dividing them. This is a country that has been reduced to level zero.
With his parents dead, Koichi moves into their hovel and soon picks up a couple of strays: a girl, Noriko, and an orphaned infant Akiko. Koichi gets a job on a ship clearing sea mines. The ship is manned by established Japanese stereotypes; Grizzled Veteran, Young Punk, Expendable Guy, and Doctor Scientist. They quickly become a tight little team.
The hovel gets built up into a respectable shack and Noriko clearly wants to make her improvised family’s unofficial status, official. Koichi’s problem with that is he can’t put the war behind him. He feels he has no right to a life because of his failures. It’s a great little human story in and of itself. Very much reminiscent of Yamazaki’s The Fighter Pilot. Just at the point where you are so involved in this fragile little family’s life you are reminded what kind of film you are watching when a newly-irradiated gojira reenters the story as the city destroying Godzilla.
This is the first Godzilla movie where I honestly cared about the human characters. I wanted them to succeed at their humble ambitions of, (what at the end of the day were), just having a normal life again. I was actually worried about them and didn’t want them to get hurt. I’ve never felt that way about characters in a Godzilla flick before.*
You won’t feel that way about Top G in this story. You want him stopped. This is absolutely not the “friendly Godzilla.” This monster goes back to its roots as a personification of war. Fighting this creature isn’t like fighting an animal, this is trying to battle a force of nature.
The writer and director, Takeshi Yamazaki used CG effects to bring the monster to life but unlike recent films, this one remembers the “guy in the rubber suit.” The old Godzilla is cherished as he should be. The first shot you see of the full-size Kaiju is the very first time you hear the original Godzilla theme music. I couldn’t help smiling when I heard a full orchestral version of it. I’ve only ever heard tinny recordings of it coming out of a cheap TV’s monoaural speaker. It’s truthfully quite grand and imposing when heard on a theater’s THX sound system.
The production design was autistically focused on historical accuracy. I couldn’t spot any details they got wrong. Everything about this motion picture was built around the premise that at the end of the War in the Pacific Japan was at level 0. And this irradiated holdover from the cretaceous period starts stomping around and reduces Japan to Minus One.
It is astonishing to me the quality of the film that was delivered for a mere $15 million.** It looks better than anything Marvel has made for years.
Normally a Godzilla movie’s plot is an A story of Top G fighting whatever monster Toho cobbled together in its prop shop and a B story of spies/scientists doing something or whatever just to provide a bumper between monster fights.
However, this film has a story tell. A tale of a people that had fought and largely died for the lie of empire and now has to rise when it has nothing but scraps left to fight with to battle an existential threat to their nation.
It is also a story of one man who was a proven coward finding his way to something worth dying for. I loved the old-fashioned values this story promoted. Or rather it simply demonstrated, rather than promoted them. It’s a film about fatherhood and what that means.
This is the kind of movie you have to see in a theater to truly appreciate everything it’s trying to do for you. It has something for everyone. If you are a woman and you are in the mood for a chick flick, there is something here for you. If you like Asian melodrama, there is something here for you. If you like WWII movies, yes go see it. And especially if you’re old enough to have used a marker and cardboard boxes to build a city with the express intention of stomping it flat while bellowing out your mighty Godzilla roar this is absolutely a don’t miss for you.
The Dark Herald Recommends with Enthusiasm (5/5)
*With the possible exception of Godzilla himself during Saturday afternoon movies on the local UHF station.
**UPDATE: The director has since stated, “I wish my budget had been $15 million.”