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.

Review: ‘Whisper of the Heart’ (2022), starring Nana Seino, Tôri Matsuzaka, Runa Yasuhara and Tsubasa Nakagawa

February 8, 2023

Nana Seino and Tôri Matsuzaka in “Whisper of the Heart” (Photo courtesy of Capelight Pictures)

“Whisper of the Heart” (2022)

Directed by Yūichirō Hirakawa

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and in Italy, the dramatic film “Whisper of the Heart” features a predominantly Japanese cast of characters (with some white people and a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: When they are 14 years old, Japanese students Shizuku Tsukishima (who dreams of becoming a writer) and Seiji Amasawa (who dreams of becoming a professional cellist) meet and fall in love, but their romance is tested over a 10-year period, during which he moves to Italy and starts a new life as a successful cellist in a neo-classical musical group.

Culture Audience: “Whisper of the Heart” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga series and the 1995 animated movie and on which is movie remake is based, will appeal to viewers who don’t mind watching romantic dramas that sometimes get sappy about long-distance love affairs.

Tsubasa Nakagawa and Runa Yasuhara in “Whisper of the Heart” (Photo courtesy of Capelight Pictures)

“Whisper of the Heart” is a sometimes whimsical, sometimes sentimental drama about the longtime, bittersweet romance between the two main characters. The movie sometimes gets repetitive and tedious, but the overall story is told in an appealing way. “Whisper of the Heart” explores some aspects of the story’s long-distance romance with great emotional tenderness, while other aspects seem very rushed or vague in the movie.

Written and directed by Yūichirō Hirakawa, “Whisper of the Heart” is both a remake and a sequel for the 1995 animated film of the same name. Both movies are based on the 1989 manga series “Whisper of the Heart.” It’s not necessary to read the manga or see the 1995 animated film before seeing the live-action film, but it helps to have this background information if viewers want a point of comparison to see how all three formats tell the story of the main characters.

The animated film “Whisper of the Heart” focuses on the two main characters when they were 14 years old. In the live-action “Whisper of the Heart,” the story goes back and forth between showing the Japanese main characters when they were 14 and when they are 24. The adult version of these characters have the storyline that is much more dramatic but also more frustrating because there was potential for the story to be better developed.

The couple at the center of the story are Shizuku Tsukishima and Seiji Amasawa, who are both artistic in different ways. Shizuku (who is quiet and bashful) wants to be a novelist. Seiji (who is outspoken and confident) wants to be a cellist. (In the animated film, wants to be a violin maker.) In the live-action “Whisper of the Heart,” Nana Seino has the role of 24-year-old Shizuku, and Runa Yasuhara has the role of 14-year-old Shizuku. Tôri Matsuzaka has the role of 24-year-old Seiji, and Tsubasa Nakagawa has the role of 14-year-old Seiji.

At 14 years old, Shizuku and Seiji, who attend the same school in Tokyo, met by chance because she found out that he checked out the same books at a local library. At first, Shizuku had a bad impression of Seiji because he would tease her at school over petty things. Shizuku is a shy student who loves books, and she’s hurt by this type of negative attention by Seiji.

One day, Shizuku sees an orange and white cat on the street and follows it into a trinket shop called Earth Store. Inside the shop, Shizuku is immediately drawn to a cat figurine doll that shows the cat standing up like a human and dressed in a tuxedo. The figure is about 10 to 12 inches tall. The shop owner is a friendly elderly man named Shirō Nishi (played by Masaomi Kondô) introduces himself to Shizuku and tells her that the cat’s name is Baron.

Later (this is not spoiler information), Shizuku finds out that Shirō is Seiji’s grandfather. By chance, Shizuku and Seiji happen to be in the shop on the same day. They start talking and eventually come to like each other when they find out that they have a lot of the same interests. Their friendship gradually turns into love, and they promise to be loyal to each other.

Shirō eventually tells Shizuku the story of Baron and how this cat figurine is a symbol of love that Shirō found and lost during World War II. The orange and white cat that lives in the shop is named Moon. These two cats inspire Shizuku to write her first story, with encouragement from Seiji, who wants to be the first person to read the story, which is called “Baron’s Tale.” Likewise, Seiji has written a song called “Wings to Fly” that he eventually shares with Shizuku.

What the live-action “Whisper of the Heart” movie shows in the adult lives of Shizuku and Seiji is how they are dealing with a long-distance romance. There is a 10-year leap between the connected storylines with hardly any information on what happened in between those 10 years. All viewers know is that at 24 years old, Shizuku still lives in Tokyo, while Seiji is now a working as a professional cellist who has moved to Italy, where he has been living in Rome for at least three years. Seiji is the leader of a neo-classical music group.

Shizuku’s career plans aren’t going as smoothly. She has given up on being a novelist and has become a book editor. A conversation shown early in the movie reveals that Shizuku left a large publishing company (where her former boss wants to hire her back) and is now working at a small publishing company whose specialty is children’s books. And the job is mostly miserable for Shizuku.

For starters, she has a demanding boss (played by Takuma Otoo), who doesn’t hesitate to yell at Shizuku and belittle her, often in front of her co-workers. His biggest gripe is that Shizuku hands in manuscripts that he thinks are lackluster, but Shizuku can never seem to do anything that will please him. Meanwhile, Shizuku is also dealing with a difficult author named Mr. Sonomuro (played by Kei Tanaka), who is one of the company’s most famous writers. Mr. Sonomuro’s complaint about Shizuku is she’s not authentic enough when communicating with him and making editing suggestions.

These criticisms might be valid, but Shizuku’s boss in particular seems to take pleasure n humiliating her. Shizuku is constantly in fear that she is about to be fired, so she is nervous and on edge when she’s at her job. And this insecurity makes her even more likely to mess up and get shouted at by her boss all over again.

Shizuku’s only emotional comforts in life come from her romance with Sheiji, as well as her close friendship with her two housemates: Yūko Harada (played by Rio Uchida) and Tatsuya Sugimura (played by Yuki Yamada), who are a couple. Shizuku, Yūko and Tatsuya have known each other since they all went to the same school together as teenagers. Back then (as shown in flashbacks), there was a love triangle going on that threatened to ruin the friendship between Shizuku and Yūko, but it all got sorted out, as Shizuku and Yūko ended up with the guys they wanted. Sara Sumitomo has the role of teenage Yūko, and Towa Araki has the role of teenage Tatsuya.

But lately, Shizuku’s relationship with Seiji isn’t making her as happy as it used to make her. She wonders if this relationship will last if it keeps going the way it’s been going, which is that the relationship hasn’t progressed to a commitment, such as a co-habitation, an engagement and/or marriage. Yūko and Tatsuya listen to Shizuku lament that she’s been in the relationship with Seiji for 10 years, “and I’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Seiji seems happy in Italy, and he has told Shizuku that he doesn’t want to move back to Japan because his career (which requires a lot of traveling) is going well. Meanwhile, Shizuku wants to stay in Japan. Will this couple take things to the next level, will they continue the way they that’ve been going, or will they break up? “Whisper of the Heart” shows this dilemma in a sort of wandering way, interrupted by more flashbacks.

The cast members’ performances in the movie are good, but not spectacular. The least interesting parts of the movie have to do with Shizuku at her job. In this job setting, viewers will soon grow tired of seeing repeats of similar scenarios, where Shizuku feels underappreciated and misunderstood. She has a sympathetic male co-worker (played by Keisuke Nakata), but Shizuku looks muted and emotionally disconnected in most of these workplace scenes. And it becomes boring to watch.

The flashbacks to the teenage Shizuku and teenage Seiji are cute but just give background information and offer a frame of reference when certain locations are revisited years later. The real heart of the story has to do with the adult Shizuku and the adult Seiji. Some of it is treated like a soap opera, but the movie is also has great messages about being true to oneself and not letting self-doubt get in the way of pursuing dreams.

“Whisper of the Heart” also realistically shows how true love and trust can exist in a relationship, but the timing of the relationship and what each person wants out of the relationship have to be compatible if the relationship is going to last. It’s a hard lesson to learn for the couple at the center of “Whisper of the Heart.” Each person in the relationship has to decide individual priorities and whether or not those priorities are a good match for the desired partner.

The couple in this version of the story has the benefit of more maturity than they would have had if the story remained in the couple’s teenage years. This maturity ultimately give viewers a better idea of what will happen to Shizuku and Seiji, since they are making decisions as adults, not as teenagers who are still living with their parents. However, “Whisper of the Heart” also shows in no uncertain terms that growing up doesn’t mean growing out of the need to be loved.

Capelight Pictures released “Whisper of the Heart” in select U.S. cinemas on February 3, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on October 14, 2022.

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