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TEN OUT OF TEN FOR EFFORT
Godzilla Minus One (12A)
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Screenplay: Takashi Yamazaki
Starring: Minami Hanabe, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Sakura Ando
Review: David Stephens
Godzilla is basically the James Bond or Batman of the Monster genre. We don’t mean he (and we use that pronoun in light of previous gender confirmation … please don’t be triggered) carries a Walther PPK or picks up bad guys by the lapels and growls “I’m God-Zilla” in their face. We mean in terms of the way that the character evolves and becomes defined by different generations. From the original monster-mash from Toho studios in 1954 (which reflected Japan’s understandable fear of atomic power), to the recent US “MonsterVerse” set-up from Legendary (which is getting increasingly convoluted and bizarre), the big guy has been rebooted more times than Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees combined. From stone-cold killer, to goofy parental superhero, to Earth’s gargantuan protector, he’s been there and bought the t-shirt. And just like the excellent “Saw X” earlier this year, this Toho reboot of the original franchise has found great success by going back to its roots. Although this is Toho's 33rd Godzilla film (!!), chronologically it could very well be the first one and no background knowledge is assumed or needed. Directed and written (and with visual effects) by Takashi Yamazaki, it has been a veritable smash in Japan and the USA. Even the UK’s mainstream critics are bloody loving it. How so? The apocalyptic Shin Godzilla (2016) didn’t get this international response. So take an (atomic) breath and let’s take a closer look.
It starts in 1945, towards the end of WWII. Japanese kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (played by a nicely traumatized Ryunosuke Kamiki) feigns mechanical trouble to avoid a grim and pointless death. As he lands on Odo Island and faces up to reality, the stationed troops are attacked by a dinosaur-like creature, which local fishermen have told tall tales about, naming the T-Rex-sized animal “Godzilla”. The only survivors of the attack are Shikishima and Sōsaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki), a mechanic who blames the pilot for the massacre, as he froze in fear when attempting to shoot it. As Japan recovers from the end of the war, Shikishima returns to the blasted landscape that is now Tokyo, attempting to rebuild his life and self-esteem. He finds himself responsible for an orphan (Sae Nagatani as Akiko) and a young woman who was caring for the youngster (Minami Hamabe as Noriko Ōishi). Already stricken with survivor’s guilt to an excessive degree, Shikishima then has to face Godzilla again. Only this time, he’s grown immense and has godlike powers gained from the United States' nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. The Government’s useless, so unless the common people take action, they face oblivion once again.
If you have taken any notice of the genre community’s response to G -1, then you’ll know that it’s been overwhelmingly positive. From trade magazines, to broadsheets, to websites, there’s been almost universal praise for this movie. Rotten Tomatoes not only has it (at the time of writing) at 98% fresh for reviews but also 98% from the audience score. Exceptionally rare. And you know what? It’s deserved. And that’s because it understands what makes a monster movie really work. US versions of the “Godzilla” franchise have struggled to find a balance between the impact of the human story and the preposterousness of a big lizard smashing cities into dust. The post-WW setting is genius as it provides not only an interesting framework for Big G to get busy in (without the need for yet another long drawn-out origin story) but also narrative layers that serve the plot well. Whilst there is an undoubted national theme of regret and hubris woven into the plot, there are also some telling moments that are as relevant as ever. “The country has valued life far too cheaply,” says one character at a pivotal point, and there’s a lovely arc to Shikishima’s story. Those supporting characters who condemn him for a lack of honour gradually have their opinions reversed by the events that affect them, and this also applies to the lead’s sense of self-belief, along with many other themes involving grief and humanistic qualities. There’s a lot of talk about people still fighting their own war as the years pass in the plot, which comes across as genuinely moving and can also be easily applied to any modern conflict, let alone WWII.
What’s this? Powerful messages and good acting in a Godzilla film? Yup. Actors Kamiki and Aoki do some genuine emoting and you definitely care about them. Can’t say the same about most of the cast in the US MonsterVerse films. There are even some nice little moments of humour mixed in. Wait for Shiro Mizushima’s “Okay, never mind” after the big guy shoots out of the water. Priceless delivery … even if it is subtitled. The main point here though is that enough attention is given to the personal experience and storytelling from a human level, rather than wasting time on building up non-essential lore about the supernormal. Godzilla’s link to Bikini Atoll is established in a five-second sequence and the reason for his existence is never wholly explained. But why should it be? He’s just there. He smashes shit up and he’s a complete bastard.
There’s no attempt to humanise or validate Godzilla’s behaviour in the movie. He’s an animal with fearful powers (gained from humankind) and he just wants to destroy anything in his “territory” … which is unfortunately extended to Tokyo. It’s the main reason for all the shock and awe sequences in the movie. This is the most primal and genuinely scary interpretation of the iconic Kaiju since … probably the first film actually. Mean-eyed and without an inch of empathy for the populace, it’s what we’ve all been waiting for in a modern interpretation of the Big Beastie, which is ironic for a film set in the 1940s. The CGI is just great. Whilst not being immaculate, it emulates the guy-in-the-suit physicality to an incredible degree, especially given the relatively low budget (reportedly just £15m). As a result, Godzilla has never looked more threatening and physically hefty than when he pounds through the streets of Ginza. People are crushed underfoot, sent flying by shockwaves and debris, and collateral damage sees a news crew tumble from a building. With the possible exception of “Cloverfield”, it feels like it’s the first time that the true horror of being caught in a giant monster attack has been captured realistically. Not only that, but the other confrontation scenes capture the intensity and gravitas that should come with the situation. There’s a “Jaws”-like chase at sea between a trawler and Godzilla, where he glares vindictively at the crew as he skins along the surface of the ocean. The FX captures some real primal rage in the titular character that just mesmerises, especially when he gives a death stare. Death rays from the mouth might destroy, but if looks could kill… *Brrr*
Along with the SFX, the narrative, and the cast, massive kudos must also go to the sound design and music score. Not only do we get the original “Godzilla March” music from Akira Ifukube (you’ll know it when you hear it), but there’s a thoroughly excellent score from Japanese composer Naoki Satō, which is all subtle mood-building and emotional power-housing during critical moments. Great general use of sound as well. Listen to … err … experience the moment of silence at the climax which is perfectly timed. Along with the thunderous (classic) roar, atomic explosions, and stomping footsteps, this is an experience that deserves to be seen on a big screen with a good sound system. We’d also like to give a mini-award to the canniness of the subtitle writers. It seems very unlikely that a Japanese official is actually saying that a massive Kaiju is a “persistent bugger”, but we’ll take that and some of the other UK/Western colloquialisms that are used. Good work guys.
For fans of Easter Eggs, along with the original music, there are some nods to the past versions, with the crunch down on a train carriage and use of “oxygen” as a weapon harking back to the 1954 film. All in all, it's pretty much perfect. If you have to be critical about it, sometimes the melodrama becomes a little too histrionic and some people are always going to moan that Godzilla doesn’t get enough screen time. Even in the context and seriousness of the plot, some lines like “a big dinosaur attacked us” and “Large sea creature approaching Tokyo. Get to the bunkers” are still going to occasionally elicit a snigger. But we’re really grasping here. Otherwise, we wholeheartedly recommend this international hit and agree with those who have championed it. It’s a great movie to smash the end of the year with and we hope that all future monster movies take this as the benchmark of excellence. Although, judging by the trailer for “Godzilla X Kong. The New Empire”, we don’t have high hopes for Hollywood in that respect.
Sometimes it’s alright to follow the (critical) pack. This is bloody brilliant and easily the best Kaiju movie in many, many years. The SFX are excellent, the acting is surprisingly good, and the plot is well-drawn. Despite limited city-smashing time, G -1 nails what it would feel like to be under the feet of a giant and show courage in the face of inevitable doom. Someone tell Hollywood that THIS is the way to do a monster movie.
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