Dec 11, 2023
Godzilla: Minus One deftly balances social commentary with eye-popping monster action amid personal trauma, drama, and guilt.
With a dense mythology, many argue the Godzilla franchise has drifted away from its original intent. While entertaining, the new Godzilla movies lack the social commentary that made the 1954 original so iconic. Fans looking for a Godzilla film that deftly balances social commentary with eye-popping monster action need look no further than this year’s Godzilla: Minus One.
Directed by Takashi Yamazaki (Parasyte: Part I and II), Godzilla: Minus One is a back-to-basics approach to Godzilla, taking its cues from the original 1954 Godzilla film, perhaps more than any other Godzilla film to date. Godzilla: Minus One features not only one of the best-looking Godzillas ever, but it also remembers that people are just as essential to these movies as the monsters are. Godzilla: Minus One also dispenses any notions of heroism on Godzilla’s part, instead showing him as a primordial force, one that never relents and can never be killed.
The original Godzilla film is a stone-cold classic, a potent allegory for the devastating effects of atomic radiation on both Japan and the rest of the world. Released in Japan in 1954, Godzilla introduced the movie-going public to the behemoth, and to the concept of “kaiju” as a whole. Godzilla made his way to Western audiences two years later when an Americanized version starring Raymond Burr (Rear Window) was released: Godzilla, King of the Monsters! However, during the transition, studios emptied Godzilla of his anti-atomic bomb context. While King of the Monsters! is a perfectly fun monster film, it lacks the punch and the heft of the Japanese original.
Since 1954, there have been a few different Godzilla franchises, both in Japan and America. Each of these took different approaches: For example, in Godzilla’s Shōwa-era depiction (Japanese political era from 1926-89), he was a champion of humanity; the Heisei era (Japanese political era from 1989-2019) restored his reputation as a destructive force. Then there is also the Millenium era, which identifies films in the Godzilla series released from 1999-2004, as well as two different American reboots—the most recent being 2024’s Godzilla X Kong. That is also to note nothing of the various spin-offs, such as the Mothra films, Rodan, and others.
Godzilla: Minus One is set shortly after the end of World War II and sees Japan largely in ruins. Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki, of The Great Yokai War) is a kamikaze pilot who abandons his post in the war’s final days. Landing on Odo Island, Koichi bears witness to Godzilla’s first attack on humanity. During the ruckus, Koichi has a golden opportunity to end Godzilla’s reign before it starts. However, he freezes up, and Godzilla destroys the base, killing everyone except Koichi and another man named Sosaku (Munetaka Aoki, of Rurouni Kenshin: Final Chapter Part I - The Final). Riddled with survivor’s guilt, Koichi desperately tries to put what he saw behind him. Fate has other plans, though, as Godzilla returns even bigger and more powerful than the first time. Now Koichi must overcome his trauma to help save Japan.
As both the American and Japanese Godzilla films began moving away from the social and cultural commentaries, Godzilla became one of the good guys, often rising up to turn back other monsters, such as King Ghidorah.
This was particularly true during the Shōwa era of Japan. While the Heisei era returned Godzilla to his destructive ways, the most recent American films have, once again, made him a hero. Godzilla: Minus One dispenses any notions of heroism on his part, instead showing him as a primordial force, one that never relents and can never be killed.
With this return to villainy for Godzilla comes the social commentary for which the first movie was known. The 1954 version famously dealt with the fallout of the first atomic bomb tests; two such bombs were dropped, both on Japan. This incident scarred the Japanese psyche, and Godzilla was the result. The 1954 Godzilla was also released as the Cold War was ramping up, and the dangers of atomic radiation were on everyone’s mind. Godzilla tapped into these fears and doubts.
Godzilla’s atomic aspects are baked into the character and are indeed present in Godzilla: Minus One. These issues, however, take a back seat to explorations of trauma and guilt. Koichi very much has PTSD, which holds him back both in his career and his life. He meets Noriko (Minami Hamabe, of Let Me Eat Your Pancreas), a young woman living in the ruins of postwar Japan. Koichi cares very much for her, but his past will not let him love.
Likewise, Koichi’s relationship with Sosaku, the other survivor of Odo Island, is also frayed: Sosaku is angry at Koichi for not opening fire on Godzilla when he had the chance. A key plot point of Godzilla: Minus One is Koichi’s attempts to get Sosaku to join the anti-Godzilla team. Sosaku and Koichi reconcile just in time for the final battle against Godzilla.
In giant monster movies such as Godzilla: Minus One, it can be tricky balancing the monster action with personal drama; sometimes one gets little attention. However, Godzilla: Minus One blends the two well. Godzilla looks as good as he ever has—a remarkable feat given the film’s relatively low budget. The special effects, particularly when Godzilla activates his “atomic breath”, are first-rate. The human drama also sustains Minus One. Koichi’s anti-Godzilla team is perfectly cast, and the viewer is left with the impression they are a genuine family, one brought together not by blood but by shared traumas.
2024 marks 70 years of Godzilla. In that time, he has been many things to many people: hero, villain, and protector. While this has made for some fun movies, it ignores the original subtext that made the first Godzilla film so good: the social commentary. However, Godzilla: Minus One brings the monster back to form, using him to discuss themes of guilt, family, and trauma.
Godzilla: Minus One is currently in theaters. Catch it on the big screen while you can!
Shaun Corley is an East Coast pop culture enthusiast who loves to write about everything entertainment. A big, important Screen Rant writer, Shaun has many leather-bound books, which are far outnumbered by comics and the smell of rich mahogany.