It’s a great time to be a Godzilla fan. Monarch is currently streaming on Apple TV+, a sequel to 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong is coming next April, and best of all, a new Godzilla film is coming to American shores. Directed by Takashi Yamazaki (Lupin III: The First, Space Battleship Yamato, Returner), Godzilla Minus One is set in post-WWII Japan. As the nation attempts to rebuild after the war, it suddenly finds itself beset by a new challenge: one with some devastating atomic breath.
Although many Godzilla films are delightfully campy, Ishirō Honda’s original Godzilla (1954) is quite grim, as befitting a film inspired by the trauma of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (read my review). Yamazaki’s film looks to be in the same spirit as the Honda’s film. But how does Godzilla Minus One stack up to the rest of the franchise, which holds a Guinness World Record for the “longest continuously running film franchise”? Read on for a collection of critics’ reactions and reviews.
The first live-action Japanese Godzilla film in seven years since 2016’s Shin Godzilla, it easily clears the American “MonsterVerse” movies. Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, whose resume is equally split between World War II dramas and popular anime franchises, Minus One returns the King of the Monsters to Ishirō Honda’s original intention, representing the horrors of war and the atomic bomb. And unlike in a lot of weaker kaiju films, the human elements work just as well as the monster scenes.
Yamazaki’s latest movie is as dark as that sounds, but it’s also a stunning portrait of bravery and resilience against overwhelming odds. It suggests that puny people can be as strong as a monster when we fight together for the right reasons, and it does so while being so many things at once: an emotionally charged family drama, a war epic, a Jaws homage, and a gruesome monster horror. Regardless of what shape Minus One takes over its runtime, it remains a well-directed feature about giving oneself permission to keep on living at any cost.
While 1954 Godzilla’s stance on the horror of nuclear weapons has been well-documented, it is just as much about the general hurt of a devastated post-war Japan. As Tokyo burns for the second time in a decade, a survivor clenches their fist and curses Godzilla, who serves as a clear stand-in for the unhealed wounds delivered by American B-29s. The latest in the franchise, Godzilla Minus One, has a great deal in common with this first entry, a comparison that very much works in its favor. Between its thoughtful approach to its post-war setting, human focus and ability to communicate widespread calamity, it’s a well-considered reboot that stands near the top of this lineage.
As the dust settles on Godzilla’s latest rampage we can marvel yet again at how a kaiju king who’s flattened Tokyo umpteen times and threatened humankind’s very existence is also able to enjoy the status of beloved cultural icon and official tourism ambassador for Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward. Though usually causing destruction and collateral damage on a gargantuan scale, this most malleable of monsters has also played the hero a few times and saved the world from dreaded foes, such as the smog monster in Godzilla vs Hedorah (1972). Whether viewed as simply a mighty marauding movie monster or a metaphor for fears and traumas of the times in which it awakens, Godzilla’s enduring appeal as hero or villain is a true wonder of the movies.
What makes Godzilla Minus One exceptional is that if the director removed Godzilla from the film, the human story still holds up, making it one of the best human stories in a Godzilla film by far. The setting of post-war Japan gives the filmmakers a chance to explore the Japanese psyche of what it means to help out their fellow countrymen without the aid of the government. In a time that is focused on dying for your country, what happens when you live for your country? Since this is a Godzilla film, whenever the angry giant appears on the screen, he is a force to be reckoned with. There are parts in the film where I was torn between rooting for Godzilla and rooting for the humans. It’s a testament to the writing and directing of Takashi Yamazaki.
Godzilla films provide filmmakers a precious opportunity to tell political stories not just about individuals, but about communities, or even entire nations. And because Godzilla movies will always feature a kaiju destroying famous cities and landmarks like a toddler let loose in a Lego museum, people will show up. It’s a fantastic entertainment vessel for big ideas. For years now, Godzilla has been giving us plenty of sugar. But considering the state of the world, I’m glad he’s once again showing up with a bit of medicine, too.
As with many Godzilla movies, there could be more Godzilla in Minus One. Instead, the focus is on character development — namely, Shikishima’s arc from wartime coward to kaiju-fighting hero and family man. The film only sags a bit in the middle, between Godzilla-driven set pieces, and overall the mood is much more hopeful than in the cynical Shin Godzilla. There’s more swell, in the score and on the heart strings; there’s less terror and more pride, even (or perhaps especially) while evoking a vulnerable period in Japan’s history. This is a film designed to make audiences stand up and cheer — and when Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla theme kicks in, it’s difficult not to comply.
Here, Godzilla is portrayed as an animal, a force of nature, and the embodiment of Japan’s despair, lending a sense of dignity to its ferocity and presence, even as it kills people and destroys buildings. It bites but doesn’t eat its victims, tossing them away like old toys; it marches at a steady and almost funerary pace through the city, agitated by weaponry; its smashing of buildings and landmarks comes across as pure animal instinct and retaliation as opposed to destruction for destruction’s sake — which makes its deployment of its atomic breath, and its slow buildup, all the more shocking to watch. As a villain and antagonist, this Godzilla is perhaps one of the most remarkable iterations.
Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, Godzilla Minus One is simultaneously classical and experimental. Set between the tail-end and immediate aftermath of World War II, the film finds common threads between the past and present, harnessing Godzilla’s allegorical might for a story about survivor guilt, COVID-era political disillusionment, and, ultimately, human triumph. It’s also the rare Godzilla film where the humans are as compelling as its star.
The film is markedly different from the American Monsterverse movies. In America, Godzilla is frequently the hero, fighting to restore balance to the world by killing Kaiju who threatens the natural order. But this film reminds the audience that he is a metaphor for nuclear power, which does not discriminate between right and wrong or balance any natural order. The film notes how the Americans mutate Godzilla and then abandon Japan to deal with the fallout of their actions. It’s an unfortunate but eternally poignant note on how U.S. foreign policy has a history of picking fights and then leaving innocents with the consequences of our actions.
Yamazaki’s conception of Godzilla is especially inspired, most notably in full profile shots where the beast moves eerily between the man-in-suit herky-jerkiness of Honda Ishirô’s 1954 classic Godzilla and a more modern motion-captured smoothness — a Brobdingnagian superstar cast from the molds of multiple eras. The human drama may pale in comparison to the titan roaring calamitously overhead, but the audience’s collective lizard brain will still be more than satiated.
Godzilla, and Godzilla movies, has been many things over the past 69 years — the King of All Monsters has changed in character as often as he’s changed in design, from horrifying force of nature to heroic defender of the Earth. It’s fitting then, that his latest incarnation refocuses on Godzilla in some ways, and his human foils in others, to create a throwback that feels invigoratingly fresh.
Godzilla Minus One arrives in theaters on December 1, 2023. Watch the trailer below.