Review: ‘Godzilla Minus One’ is the ideal kaiju movie

There has never been a better time to be a Godzilla fan. Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse continues to go strong, thanks to the launch of the critically acclaimed Monarch: Legacy of Monsters and Sunday’s drop of the Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire trailer. Back in Japan, Toho Studios- the home base of the original Godzilla franchise- has been cooking up something special. Rather than doing a sequel to 2016’s fan favorite Shin Godzilla, Toho places its trust in the hands of Japanese Academy Award-winning filmmaker Takashi Yamazaki to once again reboot the world’s most iconic kaiju franchise. Yamazaki comes to the table with Godzilla Minus One, trailed by a monstrous amount of hype. The hype is 100% warranted. Godzilla Minus One serves up destruction and heart in equal measure, returning to the franchise’s core while blowing the majority of 2023’s blockbusters out of the water.

A focus on the trauma that lingers after war

Whereas Legendary’s interpretation of Godzilla and his supporting cast of monsters remains focused on the kaiju smackdowns first, and themes second, Godzilla Minus One returns to the core of Toho’s franchise, established all the way back in 1954. Godzilla is fundamentally about the trauma that lingers in the shadow of war, specifically the fallout of nuclear weapon attacks. Takashi Yamazaki makes the subtext text by setting the film in Tokyo, 1947. Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lives with residual guilt from World War II. Out of fear, he failed to complete his mission as a kamikaze pilot. On return to base at Odo island, he failed to protect his fellow soldiers from a towering prehistoric-like creature nicknamed “Godzilla”.

After the war’s end, Shikishima atones in the only way he knows how. He’s helping to raise a child he and street woman Noriko Ōishi (Minami Hamabe) found orphaned in Tokyo’s devastation. By day, he works on a ship captained by Yōji Akitsu (Kuranosuke Sasaki) and crewed by trainee Shirō Mizushima (Yuki Yamada) and engineer Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka) to deactivate mines left in the ocean during wartime. Just as he starts to move on, a series of nuclear tests on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific hits an unexpected target: Godzilla. Rather than kill the creature, it emboldens him- making him bigger, stronger, and more deadly than before. After Godzilla wreaks havoc on the mainland, Shikisama and the minesweeper crew are tasked with taking him down at all costs. But will Shikisama’s demons prove more powerful than his resolve?

Subverting the meme

At this point, it’s practically a meme that kaiju films have weak human characters. Takashi Yamazaki takes that notion as a challenge, aiming (and succeeding) to bring on some of the strongest human drama any of these films have had. Honor, duty, and residual trauma all run throughout Godzilla Minus OneRyunosuke Kamiki turns in a compelling lead performance as a good man whose perceived lack of fulfilling his duty to his country has branded him a coward. Watching him take on that burden is heartbreaking, as even his neighbor Sumiko Ōta (Sakura Ando) initially looks down on him. Shikisama’s relationship with Noriko and their surrogate daughter provides a tenderness that allows him to start rebuilding his life. If there’s one core theme to Godzilla Minus One, it’s that rebuilding. Not only for Shikisama, but for an entire people ravaged by conflict.

Godzilla Minus One has certain parallels to Jaws, as it mainly centers on a crew trying to hunt down a water-based beast that’s terrorizing their community. Only this time, Godzilla Minus One expands things to a country-wide affair. To defeat Godzilla, the people must band together and heal their old wounds. Yamazaki’s script makes a triumph over Godzilla a triumph of the human spirit. Where this could’ve easily been a nationalistic “Japan perseveres” kind of film, the focus is squarely on how true bravery is finding community and standing up to one’s fears together. Look no further than the relationship between Shikisama and his resentful ex-brother-in-arms, Sōsaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki). Tachibana sees Shikisama as a deserter, until the latter’s actions prove him as a man of real honor, the kind that can’t be proven through allegiance to a country.

Godzilla himself in the new Toho film

It’s beyond refreshing even to have a Godzilla story in the modern era aim to tell a great story, let alone succeed. But what about the big man himself? Any Godzilla movie is as good as it’s, er, Godzilla, and I don’t hesitate to say that this is the best that Godzilla has looked in live-action. Upon his initial reveal, he’s like a wild animal, closer to a dinosaur than an outright monster. Once he is hit with the Bikini Atoll radiation, he becomes something much closer to a classic Godzilla design. Shot primarily during the daylight by Kōzō ShibasakiGodzilla Minus One’s titular creature has the bulky, menacing look of the Heisei era ‘Zilla, the exaggerated spikes of the Millennium era version, and the eye-popping CGI coat of paint that Legendary has brought to the table here in the States.

Godzilla has a real tactile quality to him. Part of this is the incredible visual effects work by both Yamazaki and visual effects director Kiyoko Shibuya. As stated before, much of Godzilla in this film is seen during the daylight, a difficult feat for any monster movie to do and still come off convincing. The light rays bounce off Godzilla’s scales effortlessly. His inner atomic light emits a sinister shimmer of its own. As great as this Godzilla’s design on its own is, it’s best admired in its interaction with the environment. Shibasaki shoots Godzilla from the ground level, a human point of view. Each step he takes causes a shockwave of destruction. Hearing him charge up his atomic breath is like hearing the seven trumpets before the apocalypse. Godzilla is the walking embodiment of a nation’s nuclear anxiety.

Final thoughts on the new Godzilla movie

It feels so uncanny to watch a Godzilla movie in 2023 and be legitimately scared. The first scene where he uses his atomic breath is an exercise in abject terror, and a following shot of ‘Zilla screaming in front of a mushroom cloud belongs in a museum. Take a pitch-perfect Godzilla and weave it with a narrative about those piecing their lives together amidst their greatest fear, and you’ve got the ingredients for an all-timer, provided the landing sticks. Godzilla Minus One is no slouch. Explosive action, spot-on emotional beats, and the classic theme in tow (in a thunderous new arrangement by Naoki Satō) ensures that Minus One ends on a major high.

Godzilla Minus One is the consummate ideal of what a kaiju movie should be. It brings the monster action, but also conveys the human drama on the same level. On a budget equivalent to US $15 million, Minus One feels boundless. It’s the type of movie destined to get a whole new generation of people invested in the ole giant lizard. To that, I say fantastic! In a year of bloated, generic blockbusters, Toho Studios has given audiences the mother of all holiday treats.

Godzilla Minus One is now in theaters

Godzilla Minus One is now in theaters. Read more about the film, including how to get tickets to a local showing, by visiting the official Godzilla Minus One website. 

Have you watched Godzilla Minus One yet? What did you think? Do you have a favorite version of the giant lizard? Join the conversation by leaving a comment on this article, or sending us a message on X @MoviesWeTexted.

What to watch after Godzilla Minus One

There has been so much exciting international cinema to watch this year. For more international releases, check out our international movie reviews category.

If you’re looking for something to scratch that disaster film itch after Godzilla Minus One, check out Ayla Ruby’s review of the Indian Malayalam language film 2018: Everyone is a Hero. 

Aayush Sharma recently reviewed Hirokazu Kore’da’s film Monster and Russell Miller recently reviewed the Italian film The Eight Mountains. 

If you’re not quite in the mood for any of those, James Preston Poole recently reviewed John Woo’s new movie Silent Night.