Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki
Godzilla Minus One, though stylized in the Japanese title, and hence on the Japanese poster, with the eye-rollingly needless precision of -1.0 in Indo-Arabic numerals, is still a pretty good name for what we're dealing with here: it is by no possible means "a prequel" to 1954's Godzilla, but it does take place several years before it, and hence tells a story on the other side of this franchise's "zero"; and, if they were thinking in terms of English language punnery (they probably weren't, but you never can tell), it certainly has the hallmarks of a "one-off," something to satisfactorily fill the market gap opened up years ago by the enormous domestic success (and not-inconsiderabe international success) of Toho's resurrection of their extremely-long-running kaiju series in 2016's Shin Godzilla. I suppose Minus One could get a direct sequel, though I would consider that a very bad idea (and none seems to be planned as of present), and it feels very much like a lark. Or at least as much of a lark as a film like this—more-or-less objectively the single heaviest entry into its extended franchise since the 1954 film—could be.
So in that respect it's more like just a continuation of what Shin Godzilla was already doing, with some new sociopolitical metaphors plugged in: Shin Godzilla is the kind of thing that's undoubtedly more emotionally punishing for a Japanese audience (it's in conversation with the national trauma of the 2011 Tohoku disaster, and that conversation necessarily loses some of its urgency outside of its cultural context*, considering its plot is not new, another "Godzilla attacks Japan" exercise, and unlike Godzilla '54, it doesn't have anything specific to say to Americans), but regardless of what audience is watching, Shin Godzilla's bureaucratic thriller is easy to recognize as something that takes metaphorical giant monsters quite grimly and seriously, and Minus One is entirely in keeping with that new tradition, with the added bonuses of Godzilla managing to not look stupid at the beginning, and being disposed of in a less stupid way in the end. Also like Shin Godzilla, of the two Godzilla plots available—"Godzilla attacks humanity," "Godzilla fights another monster or monsters, often because of aliens"—it naturally chose the former because that's the one that most readily permits the grimness and seriousness it's after, and that sense of scale that evokes feelings of pitiful insignificance against a seemingly unstoppable force. Minus One likewise goes with the "and they're fighting Godzilla for the very first time!" conceit that the series likes more than is seemly (counting the American branch, this is at least the fourth time it's been the first time, and the Japanese branch does "it's only the second time" more than should be possible). It has the benefit of prompting a nearly-religious terror for characters whose discovery of Godzilla threatens outright madness—a thread more eagerly pursued in Minus One than I think it's ever been in what we'd strictly speaking call Toho's "Godzilla" movies (Rodan is the only Toho kaiju film I can think of that definitively beats it)—albeit at the potential expense of trotting out one more movie that hits the same basic emotional and procedural beats of a 50s radioactive creature-feature, placing significant constraints on the pop creativity that's the only reason Godzilla has a franchise in the first place.
So that's the danger, and it's very unclear to me how long serious Godzilla movies, sans monster fights, will remain a useful approach going forward, but we don't even have to worry our pretty little heads about that here: with caveats, Minus One is tremendously solid work, and for a 33rd movie in a franchise doing largely the same things the 32nd movie already did, it's a little astonishing just how novel it comes across. A big part of that is just resituating it as a period piece, which seems like it ought to be the opposite of novelty, but there's some real joy in going this far back to the series' fundamentals and seeing them realized with some slick modern VFX. And Minus One even goes beneath those fundamentals, operating as a genuine proto-Godzilla, so that while its monster plot certainly fits the Godzilla rubric, it does so deliberately crudely, so that it barely even manages to cobble together a "superweapon" for the finale, and I don't know if you'd want to call it that, given that it repurposes some clever (still very questionable) real science for the effort, which is pretty far away from Toho's immediate tokusatsu follow-ups to Godzilla where the JSDF has tesla coils and war rockets, apparently, and it's at least as far from Shin Godzilla's own climactic nonsense. And here's the crazy part: Minus One will, of course, be "about" the Pacific War, as a movie set in the immediate post-war era would have to be, but as for the way it's about the Pacific War, well, while I guess we'll have to wrestle with it eventually, it kind of blows my mind that it's not about Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In fact, the right-wing undercurrent in it arguably requires it to not be about Hiroshima or Nagasaki, precluding it from even thinking too much about Hiroshima or Nagasaki—the movie blows through its obligatory, nuke-mediated Godzilla origin in no more than thirty seconds—but we'll get to all this portentous stuff later.
The far more substantial part of its novelty, anyway, is that I don't believe a single Godzilla film, in all seven decades of this franchise's existence, has ever invested this much energy in its human story, and, lo, it's good. So: in the waning days of 1945—I didn't catch if it's already after August 6th, 1945, for maximum irony—we find IJNAF Special Attack Unit pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), en route to his target. Harboring grave enough reservations about the utility of his mission that he sees fit to at least try to delay his rendezvous with, realistically-speaking, an anti-aircraft gun, he lands on an auxiliary airstrip somewhere on a Japanese-occupied Pacific isle, complaining of imaginary defects in his plane. The head mechanic Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) isn't even that mad at him, but he will be, for that night a monster makes landfall on the island, a creature of local legend called, you guessed, Gojira, and Tachibana reevaluates Koichi as nothing but a coward when the latter quails at blasting it with his aircraft's 20mm cannon, leaving it to the technicians to attempt fighting it off with small arms (though in a touch of really rewarding ambiguity, that is also a backdoor for finding our way out of the film's ideology if we wanted to take it, it's deeply unclear if shooting rifles at Godzilla didn't just provoke it to violence, and even more unclear if Koichi's heavier weapons would have had any greater effect).
Only Koichi and Tachibana survive, and, eventually, they're picked up by the IJN and unceremoniously shipped back to Japan, where Koichi finds his parents have been killed and his neighbor (Sakura Ando) thinks he's garbage for not going through with his kamikaze mission. Koichi also finds himself saddled with a new responsibility, in the form of the refugee woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), who effectively invites herself into his family's ruined home to live, with her infant (eventually toddler Sae Nagatani) in tow. Koichi isn't that put out about this, however, and it's good to have the company, and they build a family unit of sorts, carefully kept separate from any romantic concerns in ways that don't actually seem to be entirely satisfying to either partner; but Koichi has his shame and guilt and grief to get over first. Koichi supports them by taking a job clearing sea mines, making his spiritual suspension between life and death all the more literal, and months pass. Soon, it's 1947, and then Koichi's death drive comes back in a big way: out on the ocean with his crewmates Akitsu (Kuranosuke Sasaki), Mizushima (Yuki Yamada), and Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka), they find Godzilla, a lot bigger and angrier and more radioactive than he used to be. He's heading for Japan, but the American occupation force has other priorities in mainland Asia, and the Japanese government wants to avoid a panic, so there's not even an evacuation plan in place when Godzilla lands in Tokyo. Even afterward, there are only blithe reassurances—so it's up to Koichi and his civilian comrades to come together and fight Godzilla.
Or, if you want to be blunt about it, symbolically re-fight World War II, on the counter-factual basis of actually defending their homeland, rather than attacking seven separate countries and wondering why bombs are falling out of the sky now. It's honestly quite a curious object, and I think to some extent it's been designed, in best popcorn movie fashion, to let you take from it what you brought in with you. However, I have seen more than one person point to writer-director Takashi Yamazaki's earlier film, Fighter Pilot, as its Rosetta Stone, with Godzilla Minus One basically being Fighter Pilot (based on the rather more provocatively-titled war novel, The Eternal Zero), if you mashed Godzilla into it and also had to at least momentarily consider international audiences. On the one hand, this is somewhat aggravating just on a literal level: Koichi and his pals eventually build an anti-Godzilla militia that boasts a navy and an air force (well, just the one plane, though the single moment that caused my eyebrows to raise the most is when they take the tarp off that prototype J7W Shinden, gushing about the capabilities they've made up for it because it looks so retro-future rad, and then practically openly bemoan that it never got the chance to shoot down a B-29**); I'll humbly suggest all this might have been difficult to accomplish in the shadow of American military occupation. (I would likewise suggest "America doesn't care about Godzilla, who probably just killed hundreds of American servicemen in Tokyo," is downright insulting, but at this point I'd be engaging with the movie as if "Godzilla attacks" constituted a real geopolitical issue.) It is also a little aggravating, politically, and while the movie is "anti-war" it's "anti-war" in the way much Japanese media attests to, in which they continually process the war through the, let's say, rather limited lens of something that happened to Japan, which is more palatable in the context of a mecha anime set in the year After Colony 195 where it's all very evocative but not particularly allegorical, and a little abrasive when it's set in Anno Domini 1947 and it dumps most of the polite metaphors.
On the other hand, I don't know what you think the 1954 film is about, but it could be reasonably summed up, "Robert Oppenheimer, we hope you kill yourself," and so this is not so far out of the franchise's traditional boundaries. And it has the decency to be interesting and complicated about it, with enough tilt in the other direction that one isn't dead certain what you're looking at actually is weird lost cause mythmaking. Now, its criticisms of Japanese fascism have a tendency to be centered on Imperial Japan's suboptimal warfighting doctrine—a "kamikazes? absurd, we shouldn't die for our country, we should make the other bastard die for his" sort of thing—rather than the fascism itself, and the thought will occur to you multiple times, "You know, I think it's actually illegal for Germans to make movies like this." Yet what we wind up with is also concerned at least as much with the final destruction of Japanese militarism at the hands of a radiation-spewing monster (so it is about Hiroshima and Nagasaki a little bit), and how this cleared the way, through great suffering, for change, and for the kind of patriotism that's undertaken as a free citizen in a democracy and not as a slave soldier sent to die for no reason; and it prosecutes this through—I think I mentioned this had an actual story, not just a fucking allegorical scheme, didn't I?—a wonderfully sincere melodrama that seeks to take its subject as it finds him in his setting, which is part of that whole "taking it seriously" ethos.
And as for that melodrama, it's strong, though it takes some time to recalibrate to the acting styles at play here, and if I was prompted to think of Minus One in terms of "mecha anime," this is actually probably the biggest reason why, with the film being very keen on delivering, especially through Kamiki and Hamabe, the kind of really over-the-top bombastic declarations of emotion that I associate a whole lot more with animation in Japan than live-action filmmaking in any country. (Meanwhile, if Kamiki and Hamabe didn't seal it with their evocation of "anime leads bubbling over with repressed feelings," Sasaki would in his role of "anime comic relief," specifically the crochety middle-ager who readily expresses his anger physically; and Yoshioka, bestowed with a wondrous floppy-haired wig, is really terrific, as the figure marked out from the first time we lay eyes on him as the mad scientist of this Godzilla, even though convenience has placed him aboard this minesweeping boat he's designed, as just one more post-war loser.)
But anyway, the performances arrive with enough discipline and vigor to wind up being one of the film's finer qualities, after all; the final frames put Kamiki in a position where the only possibility remaining to him for pitching it even higher is to practically give his character an on-camera stroke, and, whether by luck or design, this turned out to be the exactly correct choice. These folks carry us through a story that, heavy as it undeniably is, is never unfun, and Yamazaki does a swell job of squaring that circle, not least by just having such a likeable cast of types, but also by openly owning his influences, which include Godzilla movies and Kinoshita movies but might include more Spielberg movies. Jurassic Park shows up to kick things off while Godzilla is still, nominally, a dinosaur; the movie has no interest in hiding its heavy debt to the setting, structure, and character dynamics of Jaws.
They really need a bigger boat.
I have discussed Godzilla very little in this Godzilla movie review, which feels right in a sense: Godzilla is more instrumental here than usual, perhaps, and part of that Jaws influence is very much that Godzilla is withheld for maximum impact. And what an impact he makes: Yamazaki oversaw the VFX and while you can assume, unfortunately, that any Japanese movie that cost this little and looks this polished probably involved labor standards you would find disagreeable, it does look good. The monster himself is great, building off of the Shin Godzilla "guy in a rubber suit in principle, but CGI, with the flexibility that entails," and while I'd not like to commit to it, this might be the single meanest, crustiest Godzilla design I've seen. (Or maybe just the meanest-feeling: there's a strategy of ensuring that Godzilla is often onscreen with the dot-like humans fleeing him, who die out of his sheer contemptuous indifference before he even gets to the really cruel stuff.) I do have some complaints about some design elements: the overripeness of Godzilla's atomic breath is, probably, just so nobody feels like the threat has been downgraded too far from the apocalyptic force of Shin Godzilla (and if you've got a free pass to exploit mushroom cloud imagery, I guess you take it); the major objection, though, is the extendable back spines that pop out, with an actual sound effect, as Godzilla prepares his vomitous assault, and I fucking despise this, now "mecha anime" in the most pejorative sense, more than anything else in the whole movie, including the semi-fascist undertones.
But it's well-built destruction. It's not an especially handsome movie, formally—desaturated in ways that might be going for "period," but it doesn't get anywhere particularly close to a real aesthetic, and it's pretty remorseless in its digital colorlessness. Yamazaki is very good, however, about pacing out his unusually long Godzilla, which is another aspect of the Jaws of it: it's 125 minutes, and doesn't feel it, and it manages a pretty flawless rhythm of horror, relaxation, dread, and horror again, between a series of setpieces that continually escalate in their emotional stakes, if not always in spectacle—the centerpiece of the spectacle is Godzilla's attack on the Ginza district of Tokyo, and the centerpiece of the centerpiece is Godzilla's curiosity about a train, whereupon Minus One seeks to capture the power of the kaiju from a very specific human's perspective in visceral, overwhelming ways that have just not usually been that much of a part of the Japanese branch of the franchise's vocabulary, without ever making it "about" that human from the monster's perspective, which is the danger the American branch often runs afoul of. The "Godzilla plot," which winds up remarkably unified to our human plot without feeling like it cheats—though it certainly does cheat, and the movie cheats even harder in its denouement, which should not work, but I'm afraid it does—is ultimately as much a remake of Varan the Unbelievable as Godzilla '54, to the extent that I guess I should probably redact that for spoilers, though it's a movie about one thousandth as many people have seen as Godzilla, and honestly Minus One calls its shot pretty clearly in the movie itself so that, not necessarily in a bad way, you will know in general terms how the film ends from about the forty minute mark. The real question, the one that its drama turns on, is who survives—more to the point, who even wants to survive—and the movie doesn't let you know that until it's over.
*Though it's pretty urgent when Makoto Shinkai does it.
**He also wrote and directed The War of Archimedes, a political thriller about the construction of the Yamato, so whatever else about Yamazaki, the dude loves him some WWII hardware, which I can relate to.