erik lundegaard


Monday December 18, 2023

Movie Review: Godzilla Minus One (2023)


Japan’s “Godzilla Minus One” is a huge step-up from the recent Hollywood Godzilla movies but that’s not hard; those were all pretty awful. Each one was a soap opera interspersed with attacks by a giant prehistoric lizard. Here, we get a character study … interspersed with attacks by a giant prehistoric lizard. Much better.

Shame about the ending, though.

Godzilla as metaphor
It’s the final days of World War II, and kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lands his plane on the crater-filled runway of Odo Island for repairs. Except head mechanic Sosaku Tachibana (Munetake Aoki) finds nothing wrong with it. Shikishima is quiet, burdened; it’s obvious he couldn’t kill himself for the Japanese empire. As he gazes at the horizon, carrying the weight of his guilt, he notices odd, deep-sea fish surfacing en masse. 

That night, when Odo is attacked by a giant prehistoric lizard the islanders call “Godzilla,” Tachibana orders Shikishima to get into his plane and fire his weapons at the monster. (Why is he so sure this will work? Who knows? Just play along.) Shikishima is actually brave enough to run to the plane but can’t bring himself to fire the weapons, and when he wakes the next morning, everyone but he and Tachibana have been killed. Tachibana hands him photos of the men whose lives his cowardice lost and curses him forever.

Twice coward now, Shikishima returns to a fire-bombed Tokyo, where he finds his childhood home razed and his parents dead. A neighbor lady, Sumiko Ota (Sakura Ando), who lost her own children, sees the kamikaze pilot alive, puts two and two together, and blames him for Japan losing the war. Thanks, lady.

I’d assumed that all of this was prologue, and at some point we’d cut to modern-day Japan, but no, the movie stays post-war. It’s both period piece and a kind of meta explanation for the Godzilla phenomenon. Why, within 10 years of World War II, did Japan make a movie about a giant monster that breathes fire and wreaks havoc from above? Why, indeed? Godzilla is us. Japan woke a sleeping giant, the U.S., that did exactly this. Godzilla could also be the A-bomb—both work as metaphors. To be honest, I never thought much about Godzilla metaphors before, but watching Shikishima and the others struggling to survive in the wreckage, and knowing what’s about to come, well, you can’t help but see the parallels. 

In the rubble, Shikishima meets a woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), with a baby—not hers—and the three wind up living together in a shack. Platonically. He’s way too traumatized for anything else. Then he gets a well-paying job. Both Japan and the U.S. mined the waters around their island nation, and the new government hires men to remove the mines and blow them up. It’s dangerous work but Shikishima seems to want the danger. The man who couldn’t kill himself wants to die.

The movie is more Shikishima than Godzilla. Our questions about him as the movie progresses:

  • Will he fit in with the minesweeping crew? Yes.
  • Will he be able to fire his weapons at the mines? Yes—he’s a good shot.
  • Will he be able to fire his weapons at Godzilla, newly irradiated and enlarged (and enraged) by the A bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll? Yes.
  • Will Tachibana come back to haunt him? Yes, but not to haunt.
  • Will he and Noriko find true love? Why not. 

There’s a nice “What a hunk of junk” bit with the minesweeping boat, which is made of old, creaking wood. Shiki is told by its oft-bemused captain, Yoji Akitsu (Kuranosuke Sasaki), that the U.S. dropped mines that are attracted to metal. So: wood. The other two crewmembers are the affable former naval engineer with the nice hair, Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka); and Shiro Mizushima (Yuki Yamada), who doesn’t realize his good fortune of being too young for war. (I don’t know if Japan went the route of sending teenage boys to war, as the Germans did at the tail end, but I never bought that Shiro was too young to fight. For one thing, the actor playing him is 33.)

Oh, we also get a “Han Solo returns to take out the X-wings” vibe near the end, when Shiro returns at an opportune point to help with the final Godzilla battle. No surprise that, per Wiki, director Takashi Yamazaki was drawn to filmmaking by “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters.”

The film is oddly anti-government. It’s almost libertarian. Governments create problems (see: Bikini Atoll, WWII) but are nowhere on the solutions. This giant irradiated monster is heading toward Japan, and the U.S. is like, “Yeah, we’re busy with Russia now, how about we give you a couple of battleships and you take care of it, thanks.” And it’s not just the U.S. The Japanese government doesn’t want to tell the populace about Godzilla because they don’t want to cause a panic. The fuck? Plus they have no plan. No nothing. They’re not involved. When it’s time to tackle the big guy, it’s a consortium of private citizens.

The big brain of this group is the affable engineer with the nice hair, Kenji, who, because this Godzilla has the power to heal itself like Wolverine, suggests a rapid dunk with freon, then a rapid rise with inflatables, to kill it with decompression. Meanwhile, Shikishima’s got his own plans. During Godzilla’s attack on Ginza, he killed Noriko, so Shikishima plans to do what he couldn’t do during the war: ram a plane loaded with explosives down the throat of the bad guy. Banzai.

Along with “Star Wars” elements, there's a distinct “Jaws” vibe midway through.

33rd and counting
All of that goes down. The decompression weakens Godzilla, then Shikishima does the kamikaze thing and saves the day. Shikishima’s sacrifice is complete; he’s finally at peace.

Wait, what’s this? He ejected at the last minute? With an ejector shown to him by Tachibana? Who wants him to live? And Noriko is alive too? I think even Hollywood execs would blanch at so much happy ending out of nowhere.

Then we’re shown Godzilla regenerating. Because money.

Apparently this is the 33rd (!!!) Godzilla movie from the Toho Co.—i.e., not the Hollywood stuff—and I’ve seen, what, three or four of them? They seem to go in phases—one a year for five years, then nothing for six or nine years. The biggest fall-off in Godzilla production correlated with the Japanese economic miracle: Between 1975 and 1991 there were only two. Was life too good then? Does Godzilla only imperil Japan during moment of crises? 

I did like the quiet of this movie. I liked most of what it was trying to do.

Don't worry: Like James Bond, Godzilla will return in an exciting new adventure!

Posted at 05:58 AM on Monday December 18, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023