Review | Godzilla Minus One | 2023
Godzilla Minus One, the 33rd film in Toho's legendary Godzilla franchise, kicks off a 70th anniversary celebration honoring the release of the original film in 1954.
Godzilla Minus One is the series' first period piece. Set in the days just after the end of WWII, the film centers around Kōichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a failed kamikaze pilot whose brief encounter with a dinosaur-like monster on a remote island in the Pacific in the waning days of the war saddles him with a lifetime of guilt. As he attempts to rebuild his life in the ashes of Tokyo after the war, he finds himself the guardian of an unusual family - a woman named Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and baby Akiko (Sae Nagatani), an orphan she rescued from the streets. When Godzilla returns to Japan, newly irradiated and more dangerous than ever before, Kōichi sees it as a chance to redeem himself, and ensure a better future for his newfound family.
This time around, the kaiju action takes a back seat to the family drama at the film's center. Kōichi's survivor's guilt makes for potent drama, and its his relationship with his family and his determination to right the wrongs of the past that make the film so compelling. Godzilla is, essentially, simply the catalyst for Kōichi's redemption story. It's also about a nation trying, and often failing, to rebuild in the face of unprecedented destruction. Left to its own devices by a United States preoccupied with its conflict with the Soviet Union, Japan is struggling to piece itself back together, and the new threat posed by Godzilla is left to citizens to solve where their government (and the world superpowers) have failed to act.
It's a surprisingly moving story, a tale of a war survivor struggling to overcome his deep-seated guilt and embrace the newfound love that has found him seemingly out of nowhere. In that regard, Godzilla represents Kōichi's personal demons as much as he does the terror of nuclear destruction - giving the protagonist a deeply intimate challenge to overcome in order to feel truly whole again. It's not about saving Japan as much as it is saving his family and wrestling with the ghosts of his past in order to be the person they need him to be. That personal aspect makes Godzilla Minus One a disarmingly heart wrenching epic, a grand scale adventure with an unexpected heart that puts its American counterparts to shame. This is blockbuster filmmaking at its best - a visually striking and thrilling spectacle that never loses sight of the human story that makes its conflict so compelling. It's a film with real stakes, earned emotional beats, and a true sense of the gravity of Godzilla's destructive powers. Not only is it arguably the best Godzilla film since the 1954 original, it's one of the great blockbusters of the modern era.