Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Godzilla Minus One: The Godzilla Movie We Need

Koichi Shikishima was supposed to be one of the original suicide bombers. Despite his dog-fighting skills, he was ordered to become a kamikaze pilot. Yet, he did not feel like sacrificing his life for an ideology of death. Initially, this is the cause of great disgrace, but the new Japan will need his skills in the battle against the god of all kaiju. For the first time ever, Godzilla stomps Japan in a period production. It is something to behold in director-screenwriter Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One, which is now playing in theaters.

Towards the end of the war, Shikishima feigns engine trouble, detouring from his flight plan into an American battleship to a remote south pacific base. Sosaku Tachibana, the chief mechanic knows Shikishima is faking it, but he is not unsympathetic. That night the monster native call “Godzilla” attacks the base. It turns out Godzilla predates the A-bomb, but he is still about regular dinosaur-size. Bikini Atoll will radiate him into a giant kaiju. Regardless, he is already plenty dangerous. Perhaps Shikishima might have had a chance against him with his plane’s guns, but he freezes. For that, Tachibana vows to never forgive him.

Nevertheless, Shikishima returns to Tokyo, where he has lost everything and everyone. Yet, Shikishima falls into a cohabitating relationship with Noriko Oishi and the abandoned baby girl she informally adopted. They could be a family, if Shikishima could ever get past his guilt. Then Godzilla attacks, but this time he is Godzilla-sized.

Rather archly, Yamazaki uses the Cold War setting to explain why the American Navy is not allowed to mobilize for Japan, lest the Soviets object and respond to the “provocation.” (So, blame Stalin.) Japan is on its own and already reeling. Title explanation: occupied Japan was already at zero, Godzilla took it to “minus one.” However, a core of veterans disillusions by their service in the Imperial military will rise to the occasion. Obviously, this will include Shikishima and his co-workers clearing mines off Japan’s coast, but he suspects he will need Tachibana too.

Let’s not mince words.
Godzilla Minus One does not merely school the recent Monsterverse movies. It humiliates them. It is nearly as good as Shin Godzilla, which was a kaiju masterwork, but it has a deeper, timelier message. Godzilla Minus One is literally about choosing life over death and toxic ideologies. Perversely, we currently see extremists demonstrating in the streets and on college campuses against a tiny democratic nation and in favor of the death cult seeking to destroy it. Shikishima’s experience makes it clear there is nothing heroic in serving as a suicide bomber. Sacrifice only has meaning when it comes in the protection of the innocent and that which makes us civilized.

Over and over, Yamazaki condemns the early Showa era’s death-worshipping nihilism. Yet, he still takes care of the kaiju business.
Minus One features some of the best catastrophic special effects of any Godzilla film to-date. The trains look like trains and the buildings look like buildings, not scale models. However, despite considerable up-grades, there are times when the new CGI Godzilla still resembles his old Suitmation self, which is fitting and rather cool.

Ryunosuke Kamiki probably gives the best performance yet in a Godzilla film as Shikishima. His work is on par with
The Deer Hunter or First Blood and vastly superior to any of the anti-war PTSD dramas that came out in the mid-2000’s. Minabe Hamabe is also deeply poignant as Oishi. Plus, Hidetaka Yoshioka terrific as the understated former military engineer, who devises the plan to stop Godzilla.

In fact, just about every character directly contributes to the theme of redemption, in smart and interesting ways.
Minus One is about sacrifice and renewal, but it never feels heavy-handed. Frankly, it is the perfect Godzilla film for our times. Very highly recommended, Godzilla Minus One is now playing in theaters.