Review: ‘Godzilla Minus One,’ starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki Yamada, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando and Kuranosuke Sasaki

December 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Godzilla in “Godzilla Minus One” (Photo courtesy of Toho International)

“Godzilla Minus One”

“Godzilla Minus One Minus Color”*

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1945 to 1947, the sci-fi/action film “Godzilla Minus One” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former World War II military fighter pilot joins forces with a motley crew to fight the ocean-dwelling monster Godzilla. 

Culture Audience: “Godzilla” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Godzilla” franchise and crowd-pleasing action flicks about giant monsters.

Ryunosuke Kamiki in “Godzilla Minus One” (Photo courtesy of Toho International)

“Godzilla Minus One” is a welcome return to retro Godzilla filmmaking that puts more emphasis on character development, instead of the overblown visual effects and annoying characters than can be found in Hollywood versions of Godzilla movies. And the movie achieved this excellence with only a reported $15 million production budget, which is a small fraction of the budget of a typical Hollywood “Godzilla” movie.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, “Godzilla Minus One” takes place in Japan, from 1945 to 1947. The movie has subtle and not-to-subtle symbolism of the effects that the atomic bomb had on Japan. The monster Godzilla, in its original iteration, was meant to be a symbol of fear of the type of massive destruction that can come from an atomic bomb or other type of nuclear bomb.

“Godzilla Minus One” doesn’t tease viewers or play coy in showing the monster, since Godzilla appears and kills people in the very first scene of the movie, within five minutes of the movie starting. “Godzilla Minus One” begins in 1945 (toward the end of World War II), at the Odo Island Airfield. Before Godzilla appears, a young fighter pilot named Kōichi Shikishima (played by Ryunosuke Kamiki) first notices that something is very wrong, because there’s a lot of dead fish in the ocean.

Everyone at the airfield dies because of Godzilla’s attack, except Kōichi and a Navy Air Service technician named Sōsaku Tachibana (played by Munetaka Aoki), who blames Kōichi for the massacre because Kōichi froze and didn’t shoot at Godzilla from his plane when he had the chance. Sōsaku thinks that Kōichi could have used his pilot skills to fight Godzilla, but it’s somewhat unfair blame because Kōichi had been knocked unconscious during the attack. Still, Kōichi feel guilty for all of the deaths and has post-traumatic stress disorder.

After returning home to Tokyo, Kōichi (who has no siblings) finds out that his parents died in an air raid bombing that killed thousands of people. A neighbor named Sumiko Ōta (played by Sakura Ando) tells him the tragic news. In her grief, Sumiko verbally lashes out at Kōichi (who was a kamikaze pilot), by scolding him for being a disgrace to Japan. Sumiko says that if he had done his kamikaze pilot job properly, he would have died for his country.

Kōichi has a secret that he tells to only a few people: When he was a kamikaze fighter pilot, and he knew that Japan was coming close to being defeated in World War II, he pretended that there was a malfunction in his plane, in order to temporarily get out of fighting in the war. He was at Odo Island Airfield to get his “malfunctioning” plane “fixed” when Godzilla attacked. The war ended shortly after this attack.

There is chaos in the streets of Tokyo, where one day Kōichi sees a woman, who’s about the same age as he is (mid-to-late 20s), frantically running away from some men who are calling her a thief. She’s carrying a baby, whom she quickly hands to Kōichi before running away. A shocked Kōichi spends quite some time looking for the woman, who comes out of hiding in a nearby alley when she sees that he is alone.

The woman says her name is Noriko Ōishi (played by Minami Hamabe), and the baby is a girl named Akiko. Noriko explains that Akiko is not her biological child. The baby was given to Akiko during an air raid attack by a dying female stranger, whom Noriko assumes is Akiko’s mother.

Noriko doesn’t know the woman’s name and has decided to take care of Akiko. Noriko also says that her own parents were killed in the air raid bombings and she has nowhere to live. Kōichi is a kind person and invites Noriko and Akiko to live with him. Noriko has an outspoken and independent streak.

By March 1946, the relationship between Kōichi and Noriko has blossomed into romantic love, but they are reluctant to express their true feelings to each other. They have settled into a happy domestic life as an unmarried platonic couple and are raising Akiko (played by Sae Nagatani) together. Their living arrangement is unusual, but not unexpected in an area devastated by war and where many people have formed familial bonds with people who aren’t biologically related to them, after their own biological family members died in the war.

Kōichi works as a minesweeper, while Noriko has an office job. Noriko is worried about the dangerous nature of Kōichi’s job, but he assures her that he probably won’t get killed from being a minesweeper. Their neighbor Sumiko, who is no longer angry at Kōichi, sometimes helps take care of Akiko. Kōichi is kind to Akiko, but when she becomes old enough to speak, he doesn’t want her to call him “daddy” or “father.” He repeatedly tells Akiko that he’s not her father, and she looks sad every time he says that, because Kōichi is the only father she has ever known.

In his minesweeper job, Kōichi works with three other men on a ramshackle wooden boat called Shinsei Maru. The three other men are a former Navy engineer named Kenji Noda (played by Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is logical and even-tempered; boat captain Yōji Akitsu (played by Kuranosuke Sasaki), who is commanding and has a somewhat stubborn personality; and junior crew member Shirō Mizushima (played by Yuki Yamada), who has an eager-to-learn personality and wants the respect of his more experienced colleagues.

Since this is a Godzilla movie, it’s only a matter of time before Godzilla makes another appearance to attack. Without going into too many details, it’s enough to say that by 1947, Kōichi finds himself in the Pacific Ocean fighting Godzilla with his colleagues, as already shown in the movie’s trailer. Kenji has come up with a plan to destroy Godzilla. But will this plan work?

A former Navy air service technician named Sōsaku Tachibana (played by Munetaka Aoki) has a pivotal role in the fighter planes that are used in the intense battles against Godzilla. It should come as no surprise that Kōichi would eventually use his fighter pilot skills instead of being stuck on a boat firing cannons. The action in the movie is easy to predict but still thrilling to watch.

“Godzilla Minus One” also makes the most of its relatively small budget with convincing visual effects and sound design. In addition to writing and directing “Godzilla Minus One,” Yamazaki co-led the movie’s visual effects department with Kiyoko Shibuya. This is a Godzilla movie where viewers can feel as terrified as the characters in the movie. The pacing and editing of the movie in the battle scenes also add to the suspense.

Visual effects and action scenes are empty without engaging characters. No one is going to win any major awards for acting in “Godzilla Minus One,” but the movie does a very good job at showing the emotional stakes that the principal characters have in the story. Like many of the characters in the movie, Kōichi and Noriko lost their families to a massacre. Kōichi and Noriko have created a unique family of their own that viewers will be rooting for to survive and stay together. Godzilla is the namesake and star attraction for this franchise, but the best Godzilla movies are the one that have human characters whom viewers care about the most.

*January 26, 2024 Update: Review of “Godzilla Minus One Minus Color”

“Godzilla Minus One Minus Color” is the same movie as “Godzilla Minus One,” but in black and white instead of color. On the plus side, the black-and-white imagery makes the movie look more like the 1940s time period in which the story takes place. However, iconic hue images, such as Godzilla’s glowing blue spine, aren’t there. The heart of the story remains, which is why it’s still an impressive monster movie. But the color version is a more immersive experience that makes Godzilla slightly more terrifying.

Seeing the movie in black and white makes it look like a time capsule, almost like a documentary. The psychological effect on viewers is that Godzilla looks like a monster stuck in a past century. Seeing the movie in color makes it look more convincing that Godzilla is a monster that could live for centuries and could be part of the present day. And that’s why the ending is more effective when seeing the movie is color.

Toho International released “Godzilla Minus One” in U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023, with a sneak preview on November 29, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on October 18, 2023. A black-and-white version of “Godzilla Minus One,” titled “Godzilla Minus One Minus Color,” will be released in Japan on January 12, 2024, and in the U.S. on January 26, 2024.

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