No other Godzilla film depicted the sheer desperation, the pain, or seething anger of the Japanese people post-WWII as Godzilla Minus One. The period setting – from 1945 to 1947 – puts kamikaze pilot Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) amid Japan’s ruins, his family dead, and its people starving.

Godzilla Minus One doesn’t inherently lean nationalistic, although it’s easy to interpret it as such as a team of war veterans rally their nation to defeat the monster. Rather than rely on a government to save them – the same government that as stated in dilog openly led them to war and ruin – it’s a story of people doing things on their own, sharing sense of survival to return their homeland back to its proper form.

That’s Godzilla Minus One at its core, a survival tale focused on a protagonist who isn’t meant to be alive. Thematically suffocating from his perceived cowardice as a kamikaze who returns home alive, Godzilla Minus One aims less for thrills and action that it does for authentic, painful PTSD or emotional distress. Gone is the mystery of Godzilla’s origins and the scientists attempting to understand him; writer director Takashi Yamazaki knows that’s inessential 30+ movies into the franchise. Eschewing explanation, Godzilla just is, and this allows greater leeway for its human element.

In that, this is the most gut-wrenching film in this franchise, even as it pays tribute to multiple films prior. Still bathed in nuclear fallout, with a direct correlation to the tests at the Bikini Atoll, Godzilla is a manifestation of both American and Japanese wartime hubris, a creature with no soul. Already flush with thematic drama, Godzilla Minus One steers away from depicting the American occupation, choosing instead only references, and wholly isolating the island nation.

Shikishima is a potently written protagonist, depicting the anguish of a veteran who feels as if he failed by being alive. The torment of Japanese propaganda weighs on him, and with Godzilla, he feels personal fault for the calamity that follows. Even without the monster, the emotional weight is enough to carry the film. Godzilla Minus One is brilliant in its characterization, and its violence upends the norm for Godzilla films, showing people directly stepped on and eaten (partially, anyway). This is a nation suffering helplessly without weapons or infrastructure, facing a seemingly invincible enemy.

Where Godzilla Minus One goes wrong is in Godzilla himself, an inconsistently mobile beast that moves with a furious speed that looks wholly illogical in such a dramatized, reality-based production. While capable of achieving world class imagery (in particular, a boat chase that clearly references Jaws), too often the spectacle is cheapened by awkward animation; it’s a wonder if the budget would stretch further with familiar miniatures rather than all-digital cities, giving the title monster additional destructive weight, while further grounding it in reality.

Other than a wild method to dispatch Godzilla, Minus One hews closely to logic, cementing the drama’s authenticity too. But, while Godzilla Minus One has guts in terms of dissecting the post-war Japanese hellscape, it’s also safe in that it doesn’t show the after-effects of Hiroshima or Nagasaki on the people themselves or the American occupying forces, but builds to an audience-satisfying finish that’s thematically rich in showing a full recovery from the wartime mindset.

Godzilla Minus One
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Godzilla Minus One shows the most vicious, violent Godzilla on screen yet, but the monster is the least interesting thing in the movie.

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