Review: Godzilla: Minus One (2023) (ENG)

Back to the index, Movie Reviews in English / a review by Alejandro Franco

5 atómicos: excelenteJapan, 2023: Ryunosuke Kamiki (Koichi Shikishima), Minami Hamabe (Noriko Oishi), Sakura Ando (Sumiko Ota), Kuranosuke Sasaki (Seiji Akitsu)

Director: Takashi Yamazaki – Guitarist: Takashi Yamazaki

Plot: Koichi Shikishima is one of the last kamikaze pilots in the final days of World War II. Japan’s defeat is imminent, and Shikishima fakes a malfunction in his suicide plane to land at the secret airfield on Odo Island, where the last bomb-laden fighters are preparing to carry out their kamikaze missions. Shikishima is terrified of dying and thinks his effort is in vain, although he believes that not accomplishing his mission is a dishonor to the homeland. While staying in Odo, a dinosaur attacks them and kills almost all the personnel. Only a mechanic and Shikishima manage to survive. Now Shikishima has returned to Tokyo and lives in the rubble of the city. He has run into a homeless woman, Noriko, who is carrying a baby whose family was killed in the American bombing of the city. Between the three of them they form a blended family, and although they do not have a romantic relationship, the three need each other in order not to be alone and to survive. Food is scarce, disease abounds and there is little work. Shikishima barely manages to get a dangerous job: to go on an old wooden barge around Tokyo harbor to retrieve (or destroy) the 60,000 sea mines planted by the Japanese and Americans during the war. But on one of those days of work they come across a wrecked American destroyer. The damage is not the result of a wartime skirmish, but appears to have been torn to shreds. Within moments a colossal creature emerges that Shikishima identifies as Godzilla the name the locals of Odo Island gave to the dinosaur that attacked them in 1945 -. But now Godzilla is gigantic and, due to atomic testing, has become a mutant creature with radioactive breath. Surviving a fierce chase, Shikishima and a group of former marines hatch a plan to stop Godzilla, as the attacks on Tokyo are relentless and more destructive than the war itself. With the government completely demilitarized – and with the Americans withdrawing from the conflict, because a greater military presence would only escalate tension with the communist Soviet Union – the Japanese are alone and on their own, and only a civilian force can stop the monster. And it will be the litmus test for Shikishima to suppress the nightmares that haunt him every night and finally have a chance to fulfill the sacred mission of dying for his country.

Review: Godzilla: Minus One (2023) (ENG)

This is the English version of our original movie review – you can read the original review in Spanish at this link

Godzilla: Minus One is the best film of the entire Big G saga since the 1954 original. The film’s title is purely mathematical: if Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla is the Zero Point of the saga, this film – being set in 1945 – is previous and its numeral is negative (or, as they could have called it, Godzilla Year One Before HondaAH – as Before Christ).

Godzilla: Minus One is brilliant for many reasons. The main one is that the story of the people really matters – the people are not mere props that narrate to the audience what the kaiju is doing on screen, or die crushed under one of its massive legs -. Second, this is the first time I’ve seen a Japanese film that questions WWII instead of glorifying it. Every nation has its idiosyncrasies and, for as long as I can remember (and watch Japanese films), I have always wondered why on earth the Japanese do not criticize their involvement in WWII. On the contrary, there are alarming and contradictory signs, from making biopics of Japanese admirals, turning the gigantic battleship Yamato (a useless mammoth, of more symbolic than real importance) into a spaceship, or even having an anime as disruptive as Panzer Girls. I mean: if you lived in Germany and filmed a movie where the hero manned a Panzer Tiger or venerated Rommel’s actions, people would set fire to the cinema and accuse you of being a Nazi. I have always had the impression that the Japanese culture is convinced that they lost the war because they had to stop iton pain of subjecting the whole of Japan to an Atomic Holocaust after Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and not because they were defeated, or because of all the evil they did to all the countries they invaded, subjugated and enslaved according to the expansionist position of the generalship of the time (please see Men Behind the Sun to learn that the Japanese were no slouches behind their German counterparts in terms of cruelty to subjugated countries). For the Japanese in Godzilla: Minus One the war was bad, the kamikazes were the product of a useless and unnecessary decision that only wasted the youth that was needed to rebuild Japan in the face of defeat that was inevitable, and the government just lives by manipulating what the people should say and do. It certainly doesn’t sink the knife as deep as it should, but it is surprising and refreshing to see someone who dares to raise their voice and say that everything that happened was wrong.

Koiji Shikishima is a kamikaze afraid of death. He makes an excuse to land his explosive-saturated plane on the island of Odo (a fictitious island invented for the 1954 film) where there is a small airfield with mechanics willing to solve the problems so that the pilots can commit their noble sacrifice in the name of the fatherland. Shikishima believes that his sacrifice will be futile, he is not ready to leave this world in a blaze of glory. It is then that they come across a dinosaur that kills almost the entire base. He and the chief mechanic survive, and cannot believe their eyes. The locals call it Godzilla, a creature that attacks the local islands and whose origin is unknown. It is only about ten meters long, but it is terrifying and lethal.

When Shikishima returns to the main island, the war is over. He lives in Tokyo, which is a city razed to the ground by the endless American bombing raids. He has barely managed to make a shack out of whatever he could find in the rubble, and there he meets a girl as ragged as he is, who is stealing food because she has a baby to feed. But the baby is not hers; she is an orphan he has rescued from a razed house.

So the three of them go to live together, eating rations and scavenging. It’s 1946 and things haven’t improved much. There are no streets, people are starving, there are hardly any jobs and reconstruction work is going very slowly. Shikishima, the girl and the baby form a blended family. There is no romantic interest between them, only loneliness and the need to survive. But time goes by, Shikishima gets a small motorbike and gets a job at the port – an undesirable one, by the way: clearing Tokyo Bay of the 60,000 sea mines laid by Americans and Japanese in the heat of the war -. Meanwhile Noriko, the girl, got a post in the nearby town of Gainza. The bombing has not treated Gainza so cruelly, it was not a strategic target, so most of the town is in one piece. Meanwhile the babe is left with a nosy neighbor who has lost her family in the war, and who claims to Shikishima the cowardice of not having fulfilled his mission as kamikaze.

Certainly the first half hour of Godzilla: Minus One has moments that make you gnash your teeth. It’s the stuff of Japanese dramas, where people scream and exaggerate to the brink of ridiculousness. Shikishima isn’t the most empathetic character in the world either. He lives tormented by not having died in combat, and by visions of Godzilla’s massacre on Odo Island. He cries in the corners, clutches his head, denies his past. When he climbs aboard the wooden boat with which they are going to clear the mines – it cannot have a metal hull because the magnetized mines would stick to the boat in two seconds and blow it up – he manages to form a group of friends. Their leader is a great character, a guy who acts as the voice of the director and who speaks his truth at every moment. That going to blow up mines with a barge is crazy, that the war was a disaster, that the government is an inveterate liar and has no more credibility. So they take the barge out to sea, armed with a machine gun and a crane. With an anchor they unhook the mines tied to the bottom of the sea and then dismantle them or blow them up with bullets.

One of the best things about Godzilla: Minus One is how incredibly tied to reality the story and characters are. They don’t do stupid things, they find logical solutions, and when they have to do something risky, it’s backed up by a lot of reasonable explanations. In the crew there is an expert who was from the navy, who is the one who gives the scientific explanations of the case. With the history book in hand, director Takashi Yamazaki explains to you why what happens in post-war ravaged Japan happens. There is no military, air force or navy. There’s an American military guardianship that doesn’t want to dip its toes too far into the plate because the Soviets are crossing the channel and watching what the Americans are doing on Japanese soil. And when they run into Godzilla, the story is too unbelievable for the Soviets to swallow and not think about Japan rearming or the U.S. building up naval forces turkey in the area, something that would escalate things in the nascent Cold War.

It is at that moment when Godzilla appears. The one we all know. The one with the modern look, cat-like face and huge as a skyscraper. If you were complaining that Gareth Edwards gave you 20 minutes of Godzilla in the 2014 film, wait until you see Minus One. It doesn’t even get to 11 minutes of the Big G on screen. But, what I can assure you with one hand on the Bible, is that they are memorable scenes. How many Godzilla films have left indelible memories in your mind?. The lucky ones who saw the 1954 version?. Well Minus One is sort of like the 1954 2.0 version and reloaded on steroids. There are basically four scenes of Godzilla: at the beginning, attacking the Odo airfield. Then, when Shikishima’s barge encounters the kaiju (after finding a wrecked American destroyer), which reminds me a lot of Jaws, when Robert Shaw and his associates had to fight their way out of the huge shark that was chasing them to kill them. Here, Godzilla is a serial killer, his eyes are insane and, when he sees a target, he doesn’t let up for a second until he destroys it. The barge scene is pure tension with a phenomenal ending. And then there is the attack on Gainza. It’s riddled with homages to the 1954 version, from Godzilla with a train in his mouth to knocking down a tower where journalists are broadcasting the attack live. And, best of all, this Godzilla is alive. He’s no longer a guy in a rubber suit or the static digital behemoth of Shin Godzilla. It’s an agile, gigantic, devastating animal that roars with life and soul and destroys everything in the most spectacular way possible. It crushes people, throws buildings at them. It’s the best kaiju attack since the days of Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera, a palpable influence in every scene. When Godzilla exhales breath, it is atomic, not simply energy or fire. The puff explodes like a small nuclear bomb. In one of the film’s most pause-worthy moments is Godzilla roaring in the middle of the razed city with an atomic mushroom behind him. It’s as iconic as Indiana Jones surviving the nuclear test in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and gathering his fedora in front of the nuclear mushroom in the Nevada desert.

And finally there’s the hunt. Since there are no military forces, it’s a group of civilian volunteers, mostly ex-marines, who hop into rickety cruisers and go net Godzilla. There are no science fiction solutions, but they invent something that scientifically looks more realistic than the classic Oxygen Destroyer of the 1954 version. And if there’s no Super X-type super ship, at least there’s a prototype fighter that Shikishima uses to offer himself as human bait to lure Godzilla into the trap zone. The film is riddled with reinterpretations of themes, scenes and clichés from the saga, from a much more realistic and fresh point of view.

Godzilla: Minus One is a formidable film. It is on par, or maybe even superior to the 1954 classic. It definitely associates Godzilla with the atomic holocaust. But above all, it seems to embody the spirit of war and death, which haunts Shikishima to fulfill his ultimate destiny, to give his life for his homeland. It is like revenge for the Japanese; the desire to defeat that which threatens their future and their complicated dreams of rebuilding as a nation. For Japan to be reborn, Godzilla must die. The question is, will the bravery of a people be enough to kill a God the size of a skyscraper?

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