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Godzilla Minus One: A Major Plus

With Godzilla Minus One, the long-running movie series takes a huge step forward by going back—all the way back to its beginnings. The result is one of the very best Godzilla films ever made, and an excellent film in general.

Godzilla Minus One, which opened in the United States on December 1, marks the 34th live-action film featuring the radiation-spewing behemoth (30 have been produced by the Japanese movie studio, Toho, since the series’ inception in 1954, while four have been produced in the U.S. between 1998 and 2023). But the new film is not a sequel to any of the previous ones. In fact, it overwrites all of its predecessors, including the classic, groundbreaking 1954 original that introduced Godzilla and established his origin, his powers, and his capacity for mass destruction. For all intents and purposes, Godzilla Minus One presents the creature’s first appearance and establishes an entirely new continuity track.

That’s nothing new—Toho has restarted the series several times, most notably in The Return of Godzilla (1984), Godzilla 2000 (1999), Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), and Shin Godzilla (2016), all of which ignored significant chunks or the entirety of the fictional history set up in the previous films. But it can be argued that none of those efforts did it as effectively, and with as much well-deserved confidence, as Godzilla Minus One, the first film to return fully to the dead-serious, even disturbing approach last seen in the 1954 original. Produced less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the original Godzilla (or Gojira, as it was known in Japan), directed by Ishiro Honda, was an allegory for the horrors of nuclear weapons, coming from the only nation on Earth to have experienced that kind of unfettered power firsthand. As such, the film was a stark, black-and-white, nightmarish work that emphasized unrelenting devastation, widespread loss of life, and lingering after-effects including radiation poisoning. But with its great success came sequels that quickly drifted further and further away from those themes, instead emphasizing science-fiction spectacle, kid-appropriate adventure, and even comedy. Only rarely did the series ever attempt to return to more serious, substantial, and mature subject matter, and it had never been done to the extent seen in Godzilla Minus One.

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Structurally, the film owes much to the original movie, in that it introduces the threat of Godzilla, culminating in the creature’s extended attack on Japan and a group of people, including an eccentric scientist, coming together to find a way to destroy him. And like the original film, Godzilla Minus One manages to avoid the problem that has plagued the series for most of its existence: This movie’s human characters are well-written, compelling, relatable, and likable, and they drive a storyline that enriches the overall viewing experience instead of detracting from it. Their travails would be interesting even if Godzilla was not the central problem. The main character, a failed World War II kamikaze pilot named Koichi Shikishima (played by Ryunosuke Kamiki), is a deeply flawed and haunted individual on a journey of personal growth and self-discovery shaped by profound tragedy and loss—much of which Shikishima blames on himself. Through his journey, the film explores a variety of themes, including post-traumatic stress disorder, cowardice, honor, duty, and what constitutes a family, and does it in a way that never seems superficial or gratuitous.

The film ties itself even closer to World War II than the original had, as it is set both during the closing days of the global conflict and then shortly after its conclusion, with the people of Japan struggling to recover from their defeat and living literally amongst the ruins of their civilization. Just as they are starting to rebuild from the war, Godzilla emerges, forcing them to face shattering horror all over again. To that end, the film does not avoid or downplay the vast destruction and the staggering death toll resulting from Godzilla’s actions.

And those actions are truly vicious. Other than in the original film, Godzilla has never been so aggressive, so mean, so malevolent—the ultimate doom-bringer. If this movie doesn’t fully expunge the memories of Godzilla tag-team wrestling, flying, doing a victory dance, and speaking, nothing will.

Toho Productions, Inc.

But some things about him haven’t changed. He still has that distinctive, booming roar, which was created for the original film by rubbing a leather glove coated in pine-tar resin against the string of a double bass. And he’s still accompanied by that evocative theme music created decades ago by composer Akira Ifukube, whose work is used here in spots to supplement a new and highly effective soundtrack composed by Naoki Satō.

There are other elements that make the film feel both familiar and new—in particular, the ways in which Godzilla’s powers and abilities are presented, with the advances in visual effects enabling the filmmakers to do things that would have been impossible, unconvincing, or simply too expensive in the old days. One plot point involving the creature’s origin comes from 1991’s Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah. There’s even a plot point or two apparently inspired by Jaws, and another possibly by, of all things, The Dark Knight Rises. And it all works.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who also supervised the visual effects, Godzilla Minus One represents a full embrace of what Godzilla originally represented—indeed, of what prompted the creation of the character in the first place—and is told in a manner that is both classic and contemporary. It is an impressive achievement, and with a reported budget of only $15 million, it should have American studio executives taking notice and asking why they’ve been spending up to $300 million on their blockbusters lately, often seeing very disappointing returns on those investments.

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Godzilla giving Hollywood a wakeup call—that would be his greatest victory yet.

 

 

Glenn Greenberg is an award-winning editor, journalist, pop-culture historian, and author with an MFA in Creative Writing. His work spans both fiction and nonfiction and has been published by a variety of top companies including Simon & Schuster, Time Inc., NBC Universal, A360, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, IDW Publishing, TwoMorrows Publishing, and Scholastic Inc.

 

 

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