I’ve been a fan of the Gojira (Godzilla) movies since the release of the very first of the series back in 1954. Toho Studios had a surprise hit on its hands with the release of the first film and consequently pivoted from a thoughtful and introspective post-war angst monster movie to a sillier, but more popular pantheon of oft-whimsical monsters that either destroy or protect Japan from natural disasters. There are a remarkable 37 films in the Godzilla franchise!
In the original film, Godzilla was a horrific beast awoken from his deep ocean slumber by the detonation of America’s test atom bomb at the Bikini atoll in the Southwestern Pacific Ocean. Still healing and rebuilding from a tremendously destructive World War II experience, the Japanese were understandably traumatized and fearful of the tremendous and uncontrollable power of the a-bomb. Godzilla, the prehistoric beast, is then the embodiment of that fear, coupled with some wishful thinking that nature itself would rebel against the horrific power and destruction of the atom bomb. It’s in a rural fishing village that Gojira first appears before he gets sufficiently angry to head towards the densely populated city of Tokyo. [my review of the original 1954 film]
A few of the Godzilla franchise movies along the way have reexamined the underlying mythos and meaning of the kaiju (monster), most notably the wry and self-deprecating Shin Godzilla from 2016. [my review]. Offering up what almost qualifies as a reboot, the latest installment in the franchise is the somewhat confusingly named Gojira -1.0 (Godzilla Minus One). The “minus one” either refers to its monster being the parent of the popular Godzilla or that it’s yet another challenge that post-war Japan must overcome.
What it does deliver is a powerful and surprisingly moving film about failure and redemption, and it’s just as much about the angst-filled hero’s journey of jet pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) as it is about the monster itself. The film opens with Shikshima landing his Zero fighter jet on the outpost base of Odo Island. He was assigned a kamikaze (suicide) mission but has flown to Odo because of “mechanical difficulties”, which stymies head flight maintenance engineer Sosaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki). If there’s no mechanical problem, is it actually that Shikshima is simply shirking his duty to Japan out of cowardice?
In a scene that captures the ambiguity and madness of just-before-the-war-ended Japan, Tachibana frowns at Shikishima, implying he’s a coward, immediately followed by one of the other flight mechanics saying to Shikishima that “there’s no reason for a kamikaze mission when the war’s about to end”. Then a mighty beast – Godzilla! – emerges from the ocean and proceeds to destroy Odo base, killing everyone on the base other than Shikishima and Tachibana. This sets the emotional tone and tension of the entire film as we return to Ginzu with Shikishima, who finds complete destruction and learns his entire family has been killed.
Was his failure on his last mission the cause of Japan’s loss in the War? His neighbor Sumiko Ota (Sakura Ando) thinks so, and wastes no time in yelling at him and accusing him of being responsible for the death of her children. The film really begins its journey, however, when he bumps into Noriko Oishi (Minami Hamabe), who thrusts a baby into his arms as she runs away from merchants accusing her of stealing food. She and Shikishima end up raising the baby and trying to make the best of rubble-strewn Ginzu. She gradually falls in love with him, but he cannot forgive himself for his cowardice and is haunted by visions of Godzilla and Odo island.
Not to worry, however, Godzilla does finally show up again and he’s not interested in rural fishing villages anymore, he’s a vengeful nature God on a path of destruction. And he’s big and insanely powerful, big enough that he picks up and hurls battleships, chomps trains, and even unleashes his famous atomic fire breath for even more destruction. And so it becomes Japanese citizen ingenuity (because the government can’t be trusted and is loath to act, even in defense of itself) versus Godzilla, even as Shikishima privately wrestles with his own survivor’s guilt and cowardice.
The visual effects are excellent, as would be expected for a modern big-budget release, and there’s a sense of power and wrath that restores Godzilla to his place as the vengeance of nature, not a cute quasi-monster who just wants to play with little children. He commands the screen when he’s on the move, and those scenes are greatly satisfying as the Japanese try to figure out how the heck to stop him from destroying the entire already beaten down and rubble-strewn nation, starting with Tokyo itself.
What surprised me, however, was how much heart writer/director Takashi Yamazaki gave the film. More than one scene will cause you to surreptitiously wipe tears from your eyes; who cries during a Godzilla movie? The happy ending is a bit pat and unsurprising, calling to mind the studio requirement of the 1940s that films have an upbeat conclusion, but it’s still satisfying. I quite enjoyed Godzilla Minus One and am likely to go see it again while it’s on the big screen. Recommended.