Saturday, December 2, 2023

G Watch: Godzilla - Minus One (2023)

Watched:  11/29/2023
Format:  AMC IMAX
Viewing:  First
Director:  Takashi Yamazaki

Where to start?

Over the years, Godzilla has been many things.  Like Batman, he's been a children's character while also being a thing adults could appreciate.  But he's also been cast as a walking analogy in two very, very good films (Gojira and Shin Godzilla), a villain in others (Godzilla Returns and Raids Again), a dad (Son of Godzilla) a hero (most of the Shōwa era), a goof, a buddy, a ruffian...  

The American-produced Godzilla movies have done well financially, but, to me, struggled with an actual story until Kong vs. Godzilla.  But it would be misleading to say the Toho Studios produced films didn't struggle with same.  The Toho movies responded to the challenge by getting progressively crazier as the need to fill screen time with something other than expensive monster fights (models and custom 7' rubber suits are not cheap) became a clear necessity. 

To fill that run time*, both US and Toho films needed a story for humans - humans that Godzilla likely will not even be aware of during the course of the film  - that is compelling and meaningful.  But, man , have the results been mixed.  You get aliens, faeries, conspiracies, what-have-you.  And some of that is great!  Final Wars is like a party of a movie.  Watch it sometime.

Meanwhile, Toho seems to have taken the licensing of Godzilla to Legendary and the US produced releases since 2014 to take a step outside of themselves and think about what would make a kick-ass Godzilla film.  Heck, what would make a *film* rather than an entertaining outing for the kiddies (and, let's be honest, me).  Thus, a few years ago, we got Shin Godzilla, which was absolutely terrific, in my opinion.  Harkening back to 1954, it was a modern solo Godzilla outing, and more about how the humans on the ground deal with a huge analogy for recent world events (at minimum for the Fukushima disaster and Japan's official response) wandering through their backyard .

Sure, the Godzilla in it seemed like a mindless engine of destruction and looked weird as hell, but that movie just works.  I dug the leads, the story, the analogies, the whole ball of wax.  The human story was compelling and frightening, Godzilla a force of nature.

I figured we'd get a direct sequel, but that isn't what happened.  Instead, Toho took a step back, and said "eh, let's just do it fresh again".  Which - respect, man.  Do whatever you want.  

So, Wednesday, I made The Admiral go to the movies with me, and we saw an IMAX screening of Godzilla Minus One (2023).  

I'd seen good, early reviews, but these were mostly die-hard G-fans, and I didn't particularly expect to get a straight answer.  There's a difference between "a good movie" and "man, I like watching monsters on a screen", and that differentiation isn't always made in the Godzilla-sphere (and, often, the genre-media-sphere in general).

What I can say is that at the end of this year, Godzilla Minus One will be in my top 5 movies seen in 2023.  Which - no shock, Shin Godzilla got similar high marks.  But, it's also true that I'm not sure I didn't like Godzilla Minus One (2023) a slight bit better than Shin Godzilla.  

As trailers would suggest, G-1 is a period piece.  The movie takes place roughly between late 1944 and end of 1947, I think.  The "Minus One" of the name is that, hey, Tokyo is already devastated, or at zero.  And then G shows up, and, well... it just got worse.  We're now at -1.

The movie centers on a Kamikaze pilot who chooses not to fulfill his mission, whether it's fear or a sense this is a waste of his own life here at the end of the war (both, really) he heads into a small island airstrip/ repair hut where he's violently introduced to much smaller version of Godzilla than what we're used to.  This is Godzilla's original, dino-sized form.

As one of two survivors of the incident, and a survivor of the war (and one tapped to explicitly *not* survive and protect Nippon), Shikishima is dealing with PTSD and Survivor's Guilt, mixed with his uncertainty of who he is in this post-war world.  Stumbling across a young (let's be honest, beautiful) woman. Noriko, who has picked up a loose baby in the wreckage of Tokyo, the three form a sort of family unit, building a shack and then home as Shikishima finds work on a boat clearing the sea of mines laid by both Japan and the US.  

Shikishima forms a bond with his boat-mates, and life is beginning to turn around, even if he can't let go of the war and his need for closure.  That trauma is preventing him from pursuing his feelings for Noriko and rejecting the baby as a surrogate daughter.

Meanwhile, unknown to all, Godzilla was hanging out at Bikini Atoll when the US thought to test a bomb, and we get our now Jumbo Sized Godzilla - going from T-Rex size to G 1954 size.  

Anyhoo... Godzilla does show up.  

Like I say, Godzilla has been many things over the years.  Here, he's a raging, atomic-fueled engine of fury, not the hauntingly eye-dead monster of Shin Godzilla.  He's well aware of what he's doing and why you need to get the @#$% out of his way as a large creature claiming new territory and not liking all these little humans who are in his way with their stupid buildings.  It's not personal, but that doesn't mean he has a passive bone in him - this Godzilla is not to be crossed.  

The design is closer to the 1990's style than Shin or Monsterverse Godzilla, and that's a good thing.  There are definitely unique characteristics - plate placement, head size, scaliness - but most noticeable to me was the eyes.  The suit Godzillas began having more expressive eyes in the Hesei and Millenium era, but here, there's a deadliness to his stare  His eyes track the humans or any perceived annoyance or threat, and they are red/ gold eyes of a very pissed off creature.  

For what this movie is about - the melodrama/ drama of the survivors, fallout of war, and the need to now combat a legitimate threat to all of Japan (this is an oversimplification, but bear with me) - this depiction of Godzilla is perfect.  The monster is a product of the war and man's folly - mutated by the bomb, he reflects some of the 1990's take on Godzilla's WWII origins.  But as a character, he's really a weapon of mass destruction with an agenda, and that agenda does not care about humans.  If he is a "god", he's not concerned with us, and much like bugs living in your house, he's going to get rid of these humans.

The break to the third act occurs after Godzilla's Tokyo debut, reminiscent of the 1954 film and directly referencing it in visual, audial and musical queues.  With modern CGI, it's not a suit actor stepping through sets, it's a living being wandering through Ginza as the locals, truly rampaging rather than clumsily knocking stuff over.

And, his atomic breath in this film may not be the spectacular laser-light show of Shin Godzilla, but it's an extension of his mutation coming from the bomb, and - narratively - an extension of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I won't go into detail here, but it's *scary* when you see G charging up (with a really innovative charge-up sequence) and cut loose.  

He also seems, by all counts, invulnerable.  It's not just his sheer size, but that he seems to heal from wounds with no trouble. So, do all the damage you want, he's going to come back from it and be pissed as hell you even tried.

All of this feeds into the actual plot of the film, which is really about dealing with the loss of WWII and the damage the war (which this movie freely indicates Japan started) to the country and to the people.  Survivors of the war come home to find their homes gone, their relatives dead.  And for what?  

I've spoken with my fellow Godzilla fan, Stuart, who has a better grip on Japan than I do (he resided there for a bit), and his feeling was this was a surprising take - and perhaps a very modern/ recent one.  Centering the film on a "failed" kamikaze was not something he felt Japan would have done 30 years ago, but I think - narratively - it's an amazing choice.  The Imperial dreams of Japan now long in the past, Toho can reframe the story to be about choosing to fight when the fight is a good one, even if seemingly hopeless.  

And, man, when Godzilla is done with Ginza, it sure does feel hopeless, and any plan you put on the table is bound to fail.  

I don't know a ton about Japan's feelings about how its government selectively issues information, or how they feel about the US as an occupational force in the MacArthur or modern era, but the film sidelines both.  The Japanese government seems frozen by the attack, and the US is concerned large-scale naval maneuvers will trigger a war with Russia (not an unreasonable concern).  While a US version might be about bringing all three together to fight Godzilla, this film is about the veterans overcoming their grief and shame to fight again.

Oh, and there's a very real semi-experimental plane that I was vaguely aware of, but thought was a German design, that appears in the back 1/3rd of the film that got my aviation-buff dad to make an audible "wow!" when it showed up.  

Anyway, the movie drew a thunderous round of applause from my audience, which was - I will say - an audience of surefire Godzilla fans and their friends dragged to the movie.  Lots of Godzilla shirts and whatnot.  But it was also the 5:00 PM show on the day of the movie's release. 


Look, sometimes we outsmart ourselves and think we're too clever for the emotional levers that can get pulled in a movie, and if a movie has too much of a feel-good ending, it doesn't feed our desire to feel like film fans who can't be duped by emotional manipulation.  But...  gang, that's emotional manipulation, too.  

I won't say I openly wept during the movie, but I did get choked up a few times.  In a Godzilla movie!  Because it's really about dealing with trauma, so seeing Shikishima deal with his, receive forgiveness and a path to happiness when I was 90% sure this movie was about to show a noble sacrifice... man.  It really says a lot about what the movie-makers wanted to convey.  And stuff that at the end of the day I personally want to believe.


I've watched a *lot* of Godzilla movies - probably all but one or two of the overall output of 30-odd movies over 70 years.  At the end of the day, why I liked Godzilla Minus One this much was simple: story and character.   

Call it melodrama, but the drama of this movie is really taking place inside a tiny house and on a boat, the cast has issues that understandable, is a solid mix, and I cared about everyone on screen.  The performances are heightened a bit, perhaps, but the characters are likable and feel believable.  And, much like Jaws or other movies that work despite the sci-fi, horror or other elements, you can both draw in your audience and sell something wild if the audience is pulling for these people on screen.  And that's something Gojira understood in spades.  As does this movie.

Anyway, this is now my second favorite Godzilla film.  If it's better - to me - than Shin Godzilla, it's that the movie works so well not just as analogy, but as a deep character film while also providing genuine thrills with the Godzilla sequences.  

I've tried to spoil all that as little as possible, because I'd encourage you to go see it.  It's just a solid movie all around.

 EDIT:  We saw the movie a second time in theaters and I recorded some thoughts here.

* we also have to ask the realistic question of "how exciting would it really be to watch two rubber monsters fight for 90 minutes?".

1 comment:

Stuart said...

I’ve seen this twice now, and it’s incredibly moving. Beyond just a great monster movie, it’s a cathartic alternate history of a post-war Japan. A sort of fairy tale of a whole generation crushed and shamed and mired in grief, finally coming together and healing. Like this generation reaching back to their grandparents and saying, it’s okay; we survived, we persevered because of you. You can let it go. It’s wonderful.