It's been many a year since we were graced with a Toho Godzilla film fresh from Japan - seven years in fact when Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla stomped into Tokyo. In the meantime we've had two entries into the Western "Monsterverse" and a trailer for a third (which sadly seems to be just doubling down on the monkeys rather than doing anything new or interesting). But now Minus One has landed in cinemas it's time to see if the Japanese can make their homegrown star outshine the Legendary version of their beloved fire-breathing nuclear lizard.
As the second World War comes to a close, kamikaze pilot Kōichi fails to implement his suicide run and diverts his plane to land on a small Pacific island for ‘repairs’. Whilst there, the small base comes under attack from a large reptilian creature which destroys everything in sight as Kōichi watches, too afraid to fire the weapons that could stop the massacre. Later, as he returns home and starts to participate in the rebuilding of the devastated Tokyo, American nuclear testing causes the beast to mutate and grow… and advance on Tokyo.
Let's get one thing out of the way right now; Godzilla Minus One is a brilliant film. It takes everything that the Americans have ever done with the character and stomps on them and then does the same with every disaster movie from the last couple of decades for good measure. Whilst the King of Monsters is used sparingly in the film, whenever he's on screen he proves a powerful presence - a full on force of nature. No benevolence, no other monsters, no ‘let them fight’, just a titanic force of war and destruction as he was in his original appearance all those years ago. The sheer power of his breath weapon in particular is shocking, hearkening straight back to the atomic bomb which birthed him in a manner both terrifying and awe-inspiring.
Visually the film is spectacular - I've never seen a Japanese film that's felt like it's had this kind of SFX budget behind it before and it shows. In fact the visuals on the titular kaiju himself are so good that they easily trump what the American films have been doing with, (if my maths is correct) 15 TIMES the budget on their last effort. Apart from Godzilla, post war Japan looks dark, gritty and real - a true reflection on what it must have been like in those early months. This combines so well with the story to create a tale which is fairly haunting - make no mistake, this is a powerful, emotional movie rather than a generic action flick.
If I have to level criticism at Minus One (and I sort of do), then the family which Kōichi ends up with aren't really all that interesting and it feels like some scenes which fleshed the relationships out a bit might have hit the cutting room floor. The amount of plot armour the characters have is ludicrous to a degree which really damages the emotional potential of the story, particularly in one case. In terms of plot twists….Minus One doesn't really have any. It wants to but it doesn't so much signal that there's going to be one as it does repeatedly hit you over the head with them to make absolutely sure you've worked out what's going to happen well in advance. Gozdzilla himself is more subtle and discreet...
Overall though this is an utter must-see at the cinema. Whilst its story may make it less of a film you want to watch over and over again, the sheer power of its themes and the effectiveness with which it presents them makes this easily the greatest film Godzilla has ever starred in and one of the best films of the year. The makers of Godzilla x Kong the New Empire decided to put their trailer in front of this at my screening. Hopefully they're feeling a little shamed-faced as Toho have really put them in their place and showed the world how to make a real Godzilla film!