Like Star Wars or superheroes, Godzilla, as an entity, is more than just pulp fantasy; its appeal and resonance have crossed over into the world of modern myth. These pop icons are often written off as throwaway entertainment when, in reality, their value and stature in our collective imagination have all but surpassed tales of gods and fairy stories of the past. These are the new archetypes, our way of communicating ideas, for better or worse, in the most universal and loudest way possible. These “new myths” have never been more popular in our current era of mass fandom and exploitation of “intellectual property”. Despite this, the ability to take these myths seriously seems to have been lost. 

Godzilla Minus One does not apologize for its “ludicrous” premise about a 20th-century dinosaur with radioactive breath. That’s just the thing; the film does not find its premise ludicrous in the least. It is made by someone who loves the character, just like millions of fans have for 70 years, and rightfully, this filmmaker has the utmost confidence in bringing the creature back to the theaters. While it is a reboot that requires no background knowledge of the king of monsters’ extensive filmography, Godzilla Minus One’s director, writer, and special effects supervisor, Takashi Yamasaki, does not seem to feel the need to go out of his way to make a case for a Godzilla movie in 2023, the film is confident and assured. In this way, Godzilla Minus One is a triumph of sincerity. 

More recent American action blockbusters, which seem to rule many international markets, often seem filled with a meta self-awareness that more or less points to trying to get as many people in seats as possible, often filling “nerd movies” with borderline apologies for being “nerdy”. There is little to no humor to be found in Godzilla Minus One, no Marvel-esque moments where the filmmakers feel a neurotic need to speak directly to the more cynical audience members who think this is all stupid and silly (why are they there in the theater in the first place?). In this way, Godzilla Minus One feels refreshing, as it silences the need for every serious moment to be undercut with a comedy relief character saying some postmodern quip like: “A Dinosaur? What is this Jurassic Park?”

While far from being the first reboot of the franchise, Godzilla Minus One is the first retelling to bring the story back to the post-World War II era when the monster first debuted. Godzilla as an entity indeed became a big silly dinosaur and sometimes borderline superhero lizard (see 1973’s Godzilla Vs. Megalon) in the decades that followed, but when the monster’s first film emerged from the depths in 1954, there was nothing silly to be found in a story of a nation still reeling and barely rebuilt from the horrors of the atomic bomb. This is, of course, what the title “Minus One” refers to – a crushed nation suddenly being pushed further into hopelessness.

Every character in Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One, however briefly they are developed, is easy to empathize with because they all have this shared baggage and desperation in a seemingly hopeless world. The main protagonist, Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), is a pilot who deals with survivor guilt, first from “failing’ to die as a kamikaze pilot in World War II, and then from being one of the only survivors of the first attack by a “strange Dinosaur-like creature”, which serves as the films first major action sequence that only teases at the actual destruction that is to come.

The “human story” that inevitably makes up a good portion of any Godzilla installment can help to make or break the experience. Quite often, these aspects of the films become the weak points for fans, offering little more than phoned-in romance and endless board meetings full of same-looking military characters muttering about what they are going to do about this big lizard. There is indeed a lot of human drama in Godzilla Minus One, but rather than feeling like a chore, it feels essential and gives weight to the monstrous spectacle. In this way, it is similar to the original 1954 classic, making its metaphors and ideas flesh and blood through the emphasis on these broken characters who desperately wish for redemption and healing. 

In the first few years after the War, our ex-Kamikaze pilot Kōichi stumbles into becoming a part of a “found family” amongst the rubble of a slowly recovering Tokyo. He reluctantly joins Noriko (Minami Hamabe), a woman living on the streets. Despite having an uneasy relationship, the two come together to take in an orphaned infant. Self-hating and haunted to the point of delusion, Kōichi attempts to support Noriko and the child by joining the crew of a ship that ultimately runs into The King Of Monsters once more.

A high-speed boat chase straight out of the best kind of Spielberg action movie ensues and serves as our first look at this film’s iteration of Godzilla in his true, much larger, and now atomic bomb-spewing form. While die-hard fans of the old rubber suit films and critics of CGI might long for practical effects, the computer-generated Godzilla we see here is something to behold. Unlike the more recent American iterations, he looks less like some video game boss battle monster and more like a living, breathing mountain of scales and spikes. Every shot Godzilla enters gives our eyes a feast of details to observe. Yamazaki’s monster is true to the original conception, a beast to be in awe of, as well as a thing that clearly should not exist, a thing that when you look in its large eyes seems to know it shouldn’t exist, almost as if it’s rampage is causing it pain rather than malevolent delight. 

When it is finally time for the beast to emerge slowly from the depths and begin to destroy Tokyo, it feels earned, fresh, and exhilarating rather than a simple rehash of a tried and true classic action sequence. Even amongst the explosive spectacle of the monster’s sunset raid on Tokyo (more visual metaphor), where we see buildings destroyed by atomic breath and trains munched by enormous jaws, Godzilla Minus One continues to stay true to its focus, which is almost always on the human cost that comes with the chaos. How this monstrous spectacle devastates the main cast of wartime survivors sustains the film and resonates with the following struggles. 

It slowly becomes apparent that rather than simply being salt in the wound of an already war-ravaged Japan, this conflict is seen by these survivors as a chance to prove themselves and a way of avenging past failures. Together, through the struggle against this new foe, they must collectively find a way to victory. In many cases, this involves getting over the shame of defeat and learning that victory does not come through individual self-sacrifice but through collective action aimed at surviving and thriving.  

While Ishirô Honda’s original Godzilla and Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s wonderful 2016 remake, Shin Godzilla, present darker and more intellectual takes on the concept, Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One stands out for being an uplifting approach to this age-old story. If we might see the Godzilla franchise as a body (And why not? These films have always thrived on metaphors) Godzilla Minus One would be the franchise’s pounding heart, serving as an allegory not just for the struggles that come with tragedy and defeat but for the hope and chance for rebirth that can be possible even in the aftermath of the unthinkable.

Seth Troyer

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