Godzilla Minus One: the 70 year old titan of terror returns for some spectacular city-stomping

Yamazaki Takashi’s period blockbuster acts as a companion piece to the 1954 film where Godzilla made his debut, giving space to human stories and national politics while letting its seventy-year-old icon wreak impressive havoc on land and sea.

21 November 2023

By Kim Newman

Godzilla Minus One (2023) © ©2023 TOHO CO., LTD. All rights reserved.
Sight and Sound

Honda Ishiro’s film Gojira (1954) – for decades represented outside Japan in a partially reshot English-language version named Godzilla, King of Monsters (1956) – was Toho Studios’s answer to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Conceived by producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, Honda’s film – which boasts significant, style-setting contributions from effects man Tsuburaya Eiji and composer Ifukube Akira – was Japan’s major entry in a cycle of nuclear-themed paranoid science fiction films. Its sombre tone is distinct from the radioactive Hollywood terrors of Them! (1954) or The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) as befitting the product of a country which had atom bombs dropped on its cities rather than of the country which developed and deployed the weapons.  

Released on the cusp of Gojira’s 70th anniversary, Yamazaki Takashi’s Godzilla Minus One is the first of Toho Studio’s many sequels (the series has been rebooted more often than Spider-Man) to be set entirely in period. It’s not a remake, but fits its story between the scenes of Honda’s movie. One sequence delivers an astonishing new take on one of Honda’s strongest images, the giant monster chewing on train carriages as it assaults Tokyo’s Ginza district – in the original film, the endangered passengers are extras; here, a major character is aboard and undergoes a Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning-style ordeal dangling from a wrecked carriage. 

As was established in 1990s films, Godzilla, or ‘Gojira’ was originally a dinosaur but mutated into an atomic-powered daikaiju thanks to a Pacific bomb test – which is the case here too. However, taking the series in a new direction, Godzilla Minus One downplays its nuclear aspect to concentrate on Japan’s post-war crisis of national identity, represented by kamikaze pilot Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who pretends to have engine trouble to avoid sacrificing his life in the dying months of World War II and has a moment of cowardice during an encounter with a pre-mutated Godzilla which leaves eight mechanics dead, overloading him with guilt.

In the aftermath of war, Koichi finds a family – a rubble-grubbing girl and an orphan baby – as Tokyo is rebuilt, taking a high-risk job disposing of leftover mines with a crew of similarly war-haunted survivors. On the pattern of Shin Godzilla (2016), the film concentrates on human characters and national politics – Koichi’s agonised search for redemption and Japan’s struggle to find a new mode of non-martial existence – with the monster intruding to wreak impressive havoc at sea and on land.

Yamazaki holds back on the series essentials so they have more force when deployed: only after a complicated character drama does the fully-formed Godzilla wade into frame to become the central focus of the film, triumphing in naval battles then striding like a colossus through Tokyo. Ifukube’s key themes for the monster and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces are held in reserve for the most spectacular sequences, which have a grandeur often missing from city-stomping titan movies. Along with its 1950s setting, the film embraces 1950s populist storytelling conventions – seesawing from tear-jerking self-sacrifice to heroic survival, all the while treating its star with the respect due a seventy-year-old icon.

 ► Godzilla Minus One arrives in UK cinemas on 15 December.

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