Ian Thomas Malone



December 2023



Godzilla Minus One is one of the best films of the year

Written by , Posted in Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

There’s a certain formula to most genre films, especially monster movies like those belonging to the Godzilla franchise where the kaiju is the real star of the film. Human characters are essentially along for the ride, able to soak up large chunks of the runtime while serving as useful cannon fodder for the carnage the audience is there to witness. Few filmmakers working in the space dare to treat their human characters as people, cutting corners toward an inevitable destination amongst an ocean of forgettable, watchable B-movies.

Godzilla Minus One, the 37th live-action release in the franchise and 33rd produced by Toho Studios in Japan, a company that owes practically its entire success to the titular sea monster, understands its place as the titan of the kaiju genre. The original 1954 Godzilla still holds tremendous power for its social commentary on a country still reeling from the fallout of nuclear war. There will always be a certain novelty in watching a stunt double in a rubber suit kicking down prop buildings, but the underpinning of this franchise’s success is how bleakly raw its messaging can be when the series takes itself seriously.

Minus One takes the series back to its World War II roots, centering its narrative on Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot who abandoned his duties, instead faking plane difficulties to land on Odo Island in the Pacific toward the end of the war. Shikishima bears witness to Godzilla ravaging the island, horrors only matched by the carnage left on the mainland after the atomic bomb was dropped. Returning home bearing the mark of a coward, Shikishima starts to rebuild his life by taking in a woman Noriko (Minami Hamabe) into his home, along with a small baby she found abandoned in a landscape with few survivors.

Shikishima finds work as a minesweeper, bonding with his crewmates while learning to live with his guilt. A few years later, the military starts to prepare for Godzilla’s inevitable return, keeping the broader public in the dark even under the bleak outlook. Director Takashi Yamazaki peppers the narrative with vital social commentary about the failures of the Japanese government to adequately relay information in the tumultuous 1940s, largely leaving citizens on their own to survive in an environment still reeling from some of the worst cruelties mankind has ever wrought upon itself.

Minus One succeeds through its courage to earnestly invest in exploring the rich complexities of humanity, a gamble few blockbusters dare to make. If that wasn’t enough, Yamazaki also delivers elite practical effects. This is a film that deeply respects the people who came to spend time in its playground. It seems almost foolish to sing such high praises for attributes such as a good script, superb acting, and top-tier visuals, but such elements are often missing from cinema in the year 2023.

Beyond just the sheer caliber of the bread and butter filmmaking, Minus One is a richly optimistic narrative. Too many modern blockbusters rest their laurels on larger-than-life heroes with no grounding in human struggles. Yamazaki puts his film’s entire stock in people, everyday humans with flaws who ultimately stare unimaginable odds dead in the face and fight on anyway. 2023 has been a bleak year amidst a broader sea of hopelessness across our modern landscape.

It really does often feel like it sucks to be alive in this modern era. Cinema isn’t just supposed to provide mindless escapism. The beauty of the big screen lies in its power to transform the mindsets of the people who paid a bit of money to take a seat for a journey to a world with fresh perspectives and new ideas. The beauty of art is to remind us that even if the shining city on a hill is going to be an uphill climb, it is our narrative arc as humanity to break our baser instincts and fight on for a world worth living in.

Though its 125-minute runtime could have used a scene or two shaved off its somewhat bloated third act, Yamazaki has produced one of the best films of the year. We’re living in a precarious time for the industry as so many other mediums vie for consumer’s attention. Godzilla Minus One is a breathtaking tour-de-force for the power of cinema itself, a much-needed reminder of how good it feels to sit in a movie theater when studios actually invest in work that respects the humanity of its audience.