Seeking out the

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Godzilla Minus One
Gojira Mainasu Wan
Gojira 1.0

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki
Produced by Minami Ichikawa, Kazuaki Kishida, Keiichiro Moriya, and Kenji Yamada
Written by Takashi Yamazaki
With: Minami Hamabe, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Sakura Andô, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Munetaka Aoki, Yuki Yamada, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Michael Arias, Yûya Endô, Kisuke Iida, Miou Tanaka, Ozuno Nakamura, and Sae Nagatani
Cinematography: Kôzô Shibasaki
Editing: Ryûji Miyajima
Music: Naoki Satô
Runtime: 124 min
Release Date: 01 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color: Color

For the (almost) 70th anniversary of the longest continuously running franchise in cinema history, Toho Studios has produced a prequel to their genre-defining kaiju creature feature classic Godzilla (directed by Ishiro Honda and released in 1954). At the helm of Gojira Mainasu Wan is writer, director, and visual effects supervisor Takashi Yamazaki (Always: Sunset on Third Street, Space Battleship Yamato, The Eternal Zero). It's notable that Yamazaki serves in all three key roles here because the film's strengths are spread across multiple disciplines. What's great about this movie, first and foremost, is the depiction of the iconic giant monster himself, rendered via CGI yet still looking a lot like a guy in a giant, awkward rubber suit. This film provides us with everything we want from a Godzilla picture (at least everything I want, which does not include the monster fighting other giant monsters - yawn!).

We get to see the legendary lizard attacking people on land and sea, causing panic and mayhem, wiping out an entire city just by lumbering through it while terrified citizens flee through the streets pell-mell. We also get an engaging melodramatic story centered on an untraditional family. Ryunosuke Kamiki plays a failed kamikaze pilot whose lack of courage prevents him from killing a pre-nuclear Godzilla in the film's opening sequence. When he returns to bombed-out Tokyo, he befriends a street waif (Minami Hamabe) caring for an orphaned child. Sakura Ando plays the wise older neighbor looking after these three once they set up house together.

This "family" is created by the fallout of WWII as much as Godzilla is. And when our passive hero, plagued by survivor's guilt, takes on the risky job of clearing unexploded ocean mines off the shores of Japan, the family grows to include his shipmates. Soon, the odd assortment of characters who populate the small but mighty minesweeping boat are tasked with stopping the now post-nuclear Godzilla as he makes his way to the Japanese mainland. Yamazaki's unironic and unapologetic treatment of the sentimentally sincere human story at the center of Godzilla Minus One makes this film special every bit as much as the way he handles the action sequences.

This quality is the inverse of how the American Godzilla pictures tediously construct skeletal narratives with unconvincing modern themes to be played out by movie stars looking uncomfortable in front of green screens. From Matthew Broderick to Juliette Binoche to Millie Bobby Brown to even Ken Watanabe, the stars in the American Godzilla movies always end up feeling even less convincing or credible than Raymond Burr did in the footage inserted into the original Godzilla for its heavily altered American release. And the meticulously detailed CGI effects in the modern American Godzilla pictures do not feel as authentically menacing as the blank-faced version we get in this movie. Yamazaki's Godzilla has a mug that looks almost like a rubber mask, rendering him all the more inhuman, unnatural, and creepy. Yet, he still fits perfectly into the context of the modern blockbuster that this movie is, with its comically digital images of warships at sea and 1940s plains flying around.

Nothing in Godzilla Minus One looks as photorealistic as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park—thirty years old this year and still the gold standard for this type of effects movie—but it feels like a worthy successor to that ground-breaking picture as much as to the original Godzilla. I've sat through more than my share of giant monster movies from both Japan and the US, though I can't say I'm an expert on them because it's not a genre I have a lot of genuine affection for. But I think I can safely agree with the emerging consensus that Godzilla Minus One is the best Godzilla movie since the original. To say it's better than the original, as many seem to be claiming, is an insane statement. This is a clever homage, a refreshing throwback, and a fun night out at the movies, but it's not especially deep, complex, or inventive.

Twitter Capsule:

Takashi Yamazaki's Godzilla prequel gives us a monster fitting both the '50s original and the world of modern CGI blockbusters, cleverly centering the story on a "family" created as much by WWII fallout as is the titular creature.