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Godzilla- Minus One.png

There's a Reason 'Godzilla Minus One' Is Dominating the Netflix Movie Chart

By Jason Adams | Film | June 5, 2024 |

By Jason Adams | Film | June 5, 2024 |


Godzilla- Minus One.png

Godzilla movies have a tendency to blend into one another—keeping the longest running film franchise going for seventy whole years (as of next year) will do that! If you grew up watching them on T.V. like I did then your memories doubtlessly consist of an amorphous blob of monster mayhem—Rodans and robots and bubble-burping baby lizards, oh my. Not that that isn’t fun—I love all of that dearly. But every so often, one comes along that stands out from the pack—it happened just seven years ago with the triumphant Shin Godzilla. And Toho can consider themselves officially on a roll because it has happened again this week with their unconnected follow-up, Takashi Yamazaki’s epic and deeply moving (yes I really said deeply moving!) Godzilla Minus One.

The first Godzilla movie to ever make me cry actual tears while watching it, Godzilla Minus One addresses snout-on, with the full force of an atomic blast, the longstanding complaint that Godzilla movies never give us human characters to care about. A post-war melodrama that sometimes feels like an Ozu flick where a giant radioactive mutant has occasionally wandered into the frame, Yamazaki has strived to put the characters and their difficulties first at every opportunity here. Their emotional plights, their relationships and hang-ups, are the battlefield where the real wars are being fought, and within that the monster Godzilla hasn’t felt like this much of a straight-up metaphor since the original film in 1954.

Our ol’ lizard pal was of course famously introduced to us as the terrifying embodiment of atomic destruction in Japan after World War II—a smaller creature that got turned into a much, much bigger one due to radioactivity, he has been for seven decades a warning to never forget that horror. But never quite as explicitly as he is in Godzilla Minus One, which unleashes the big beast only sporadically, and only when its characters seem to be finally getting their shit together. Godzilla here is a flat out refusal to let the people of Japan forget or move on—every time they try he ambles up out of the ocean and wipes their momentum clean again. He’s a real righteous bastard here!

The film opens in the final weeks of World War II, with a prologue set in the Pacific Islands south of Japan where a kamikaze pilot named Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lands at a remote way-station populated with mechanics, telling them he’s having a problem with his plane. This, the mechanics quickly surmise, is phony baloney—with the war over and lost in all but the most official capacity, Kōichi isn’t exactly pumped to have to go and fly his plane into an enemy ship when his death will have no meaning.

Some of the mechanics judge him mercilessly, while some of them understand his behavior perfectly well. But all of that flies out the window when a very large lizard—but notably not quite a gigantic one, yet—lumbers out of the water that night and begins smashing up the beach and all of the people thereon. They beg for Kōichi to rescue them, since he is the only soldier who knows how to properly wield the guns currently sitting unused on his parked plane. But again Kōichi freezes, and after getting bonked on the head he wakes up to find himself lying beside a line of their corpses in the sand.

After a momentary abstract interlude set at Bikini Atoll—the spot in the Pacific Ocean where the U.S. tested their nuclear devices after the war, where we see an atomic blast and a lizardy eyeball suddenly all aflame—we cut to Kōichi’s not-so-triumphant return to Tokyo, where everyone he loved is dead and the city is nothing but rubble. Crippled by survivor’s guilt, Kōichi stands paralyzed in the wreckage of what was his parents home, until his ornery next door neighbor Sumiko (Sakura Ando) ambles over and doubles that down, telling him that his parents and her children are all dead because he didn’t fight hard enough. Good times for all, really.

But as time passes people inevitably begin picking up the pieces—Kōichi takes in a homeless woman named Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and an infant Akiko (Sae Nagatani) that she found among the rubble, thereby forming a tentative family. And he finds work (extremely dangerous work) as a minesweeper in the waters around the island. But rumors begin to swell that something monstrous is lurking out in those waters, and before you know it Kōichi is face to twenty-story-tall face with the creature he didn’t kill when he had the opportunity. And it’s here to fuck up his shit over and over and over again, in that legendary city-stomping fashion we have all come to know and love. (I do have to admit I found myself thinking at times of the legendarily ridiculous Jaws IV, aka the one where the shark follows Sheriff Brody’s wife around like a creepy stalker, so focused does this film make Godzilla’s wrath seem on one poor dude just trying to live his damn life.)

And here it’s imperative that I share with you one of the single most absurd factoids I have ever learned, which is that apparently Godzilla Minus One only cost fifteen million dollars to make. Roughly the amount of money one supposes they spend on mini-bar expenses during the making of one MonsterVerse movie in Hollywood (one does suppose that Alexander Skarsgard really likes his minibar), the scenes of massive destruction, when they do arrive here, are as spectacular as anything its American tent-pole counterparts have managed—hell even more so because director Yamazaki and his actors have legitimately gotten us to care about the people standing there on the ground dodging all of the collapsing buildings.

Hamabe in particular is the film’s stand-out—crafty and kind and always ten steps ahead of the deeply melancholic Kōichi, we come to want all of the good things for her Noriko, and desperately. And when that dagnabbit dinosaur with the white-hot breath keeps mucking that up we find ourselves getting extremely worked up about it!

Eventually, it becomes clear that Godzilla Minus One means to be a treatise on recovery and healing wounds that seem impossibly deep—it has some of the same anti-bureaucratic inclinations that Shin Godzilla did, continually taking the government to task for its secrecy and inaction, and trying to place the hopes of Japan in the hands of its people. There’s a stirring yet somewhat bewildering (given this context) appropriation of the Dunkirk story that begs for an on-the-ground way forward; for people to rise up and force the way.

But for all of its epic stomping around this is still an extremely intimate tale, using Kōichi’s one-man-mission to illustrate what war and violence takes from us, and how the battle to get back to ourselves can feel fully apocalyptic. Godzilla Minus One swings enormous—its emotions are writ as large as that blessed lizard—and it will shake you right where you sit.