Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Godzilla Minus One’ Balances the Human and the Kaiju

Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Writer: Takashi Yamazaki
Stars: Minami Hamabe, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Sakura Ando

Synopsis: Post war Japan is at its lowest point when a new crisis emerges in the form of a giant monster, baptized in the horrific power of the atomic bomb.

Godzilla Minus One may have Godzilla in the title, but it’s more human than most Kaiju movies released today.  Director, screenwriter, and visual effects supervisor Takashi Yamazaki has created a film about finding something to live for. The film’s budget is estimated to be less than $15 million USD, and yet it manages to feel like the biggest blockbuster of the year.

Godzilla Minus One follows the story of Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a failed kamikaze pilot who fakes technical failures and lands his plane on Odo Island. That night, the Odo army base encounters Godzilla – and Shikishima freezes up behind the 30 mm guns on his plane, leading to the deaths of everyone at the base, aside from the lead mechanic, Sosaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki). This is the first encounter Shikishima has with Godzilla, who will haunt Tokyo and Shikishima for the next 3 years after Shikishima physically returns from the war.

The majority of the film takes place over those three years – three years of Japan attempting to rebuild itself after nuclear devastation. In these years, Shikishima must find something to live for, and wrestles with his decision to flee combat and return to a home without any family. In that way, Godzilla Minus One reminds me of Cowboy Bebop – it’s acutely about reconciling with your past and the people who come alongside you for that journey.

This isn’t to say that Godzilla is solely the catalyst of the film – the kaiju is a constant presence in the film – a reminder that Shikishima’s war isn’t over yet; the physical manifestation of the guilt he carries in living each day. When Godzilla reappears, it carries a looming threat of destruction unlike any other movie – because you care about the humans at the core of this film.

Shikashima’s found family of co-workers and strays who never left makes this monster movie mean everything. Godzilla Minus One has the appearance of a blockbuster and yet it manages to punch far above its weight class because of its very human emotions and stakes.

I’ve spoken at length about our protagonist, Shikishima, who is brought to life by Ryunosuke Kamiki. Ryunosuke leans into the weary, conflicted side of Shikishima, in both his vocal and physical performance. The physical performance is occasionally purposefully stilted – closed off, as is our protagonist – and yet, it is at odds with what Shikishima says and does. It adds depth to his character, accentuating the conflict within, and creates a powerful third act when Shikishima is given the opportunity to choose who he wants to be. And when that closed off, carefully composed side of Ryunosuke’s performance breaks, it makes the vulnerability feel even more real.

Adding more emotional weight is Minami Hamabe, in the role of Noriko Oishi. Noriko is another orphan of the war, and has short-sightedly taken in an infant, Akiko, whose mother has passed away. Fate allows Noriko and Shikishima paths to cross, and they begin to form a found family centered on taking care of Akiko. Minami’s performance is fundamental to the film, as her body language speaks to the yearning for a deeper relationship with Shikishima, despite the dialogue that keeps things professional and distanced.

The entire supporting cast adds to this film expertly. The young Shirō Mizushima (Yuki Yamada) may have been too young for the war, but his youthful energy and patriotic spirit is enamored with fighting for his country. Yuki brings that energy to every part of the dialogue, and it contrasts the older, more poignant work of Hidetaka Yoshioka (as Kenji Noda) and Kuranosuke Sasaki (as Seiji Akitsu, captain of the Shinsei Maru). Hidetaka is uplifting as the optimistic Kenji, a formal naval weapons engineer who now works as a minesweeper. That optimism lends itself well to a Godzilla movie – Kenji is astonished by Godzilla, despite its terrific power. As for Captain Seiji, Kuranosuke leans into the mentor role, and pushes our timid protagonist to move forward in life despite the weight Shikishima carries. 

Of course, when speaking of Godzilla movies, it is expected to discuss the quality of the visual effects and the role of the leading kaiju. Symbolically, Godzilla is at his prime in this film – much like Vicious in Cowboy Bebop, Godzilla is the perfect haunt for our conflicted Shikishima. However, Godzilla’s utility extends beyond the metaphor – Godzilla is massive and destructive and threatens to destroy what little was left of Japan in the wake of World War II. It’s the name of the film after all. Godzilla Minus One has some of the best visual effects work of the year, and these were handled by the Japanese Visual Effects Studio Shirogumi. Every part of Godzilla is made with a passion for the character – whether it’s the lizard-adjacent model for the Kaiju or the ways Godzilla interacts with the world around him. When Godzilla steps into Tokyo, buildings are knocked over by his tail, streets are crushed under his weight, leading to a larger than life monster who doesn’t feel like computer magic. Add in a finale that takes place at sea, and these dynamic, simulated environments feel more real than the kaiju itself. For a film of this budget, it’s astonishing work that deserves to be celebrated more than ever before. The entire visual effects team, led by VFX supervisor Takashi Yamazaki, CG supervisor Masaki Takahashi, and Modeling Supervisor Eiji Kitada, have created something phenomenal that will be remembered.

All of these visual effects are accompanied by stellar sound design from an equally small team: foley artist Natsuko Inoue and sound recordist Hisafumi Takeuchi give Godzilla the auditory scale it deserves. A kaiju is only as fearsome as the roars it bellows, and Godzilla’s roars are deservedly uncanny and terrifying. Amidst the industrial sounds of trains, canons, gunfire and air raid sirens, Godzilla is sonically primordial.

This is furthered by Naoki Satô’s score for the film. Much like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score for The Killer, Naoki uses the score of Godzilla Minus One to imbue each scene with its environmental sound stage. Only when Godzilla appears does the orchestra fully take the front stage – before then, the horns section feels subdued to make way for the haunting strings that set the scene.

Godzilla Minus One is a tremendous success from Takashi Yamazaki – and it’s more than worthy of the big screen. It’s delightfully human, and both its heart and its setpieces are massive. Its message of finding something to live for is uplifting, and from a technical level, Godzilla Minus One punches far above its weight class.

Grade: A

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