For much of Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One, Toho Studios’ 33rd film in the beloved kaiju franchise, the iconic monster exists as an abstraction. After a brief, brutal rampage to start, he is kept offscreen, a shadow in the mind of our hero Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki). To a certain extent, this entirely symbolic usage is nothing new: the deeply ingrained allegory for nuclear annihilation that Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original presented has persisted, and often been adapted to fit the times: the most recent Japanese live-action predecessor, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s ferociously incisive Shin Godzilla, tackled the tangled bureaucracy ill-equipped to deal with the Fukushima disaster head-on.
But Yamazaki moves back before the source: his prologue begins at the end of World War II, on an island where Kōichi, a would-be kamikaze pilot, touches down after claiming to have technical issues. That night, a smaller-but-still-fearsome incarnation of Godzilla attacks the encampment; Kōichi is frozen by terror, unable to pull the trigger on his plane turret, and the resulting devastation kills almost everybody else. Upon returning to a firebombed Tokyo, he forms an ad hoc family with a homeless woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), and an orphaned baby, taking a job aboard a small minesweeper clearing the detritus of war. This humble existence is threatened when Godzilla, mutated and greatly enlarged by American nuclear testing, emerges once again.
The weighting of information in the previous paragraph is intentional: Godzilla Minus One, despite its curious title, is effectively a small-scale drama, spending much of its screen time with Kōichi, his found family, and the motley minesweeper crew. Often set among the cramped interiors of Kōichi’s childhood home, the film is locked into his mindset––one doubly tormented by both the knowledge of his survival when so many others lived and his inability to take action, whether at the cost of his own life or not. Duty and honor as instilled by culture and society inevitably tie into this struggle, and it is given a potential, perverse outlet with the rise of a new enemy as destructive as the conquerors who inadvertently reawakened it.
The scenes of actual devastation are concentrated largely into sea battles (the first acts as a very tense Jaws homage) and a single land-based attack on the luxury district of Ginza, which does achieve the horrific level of carnage expected from any self-respecting monster movie. But these stand shoulder-to-shoulder with what emerges as a men-on-a-mission climax, an effort on the part of ex-Navy civilians, led by Kōichi and his minesweeper crew, to kill Godzilla. Such shifts in scale––from grand calamity to intense revelations, from personal trauma to collective resolve––distinguish Godzilla Minus One. It is unabashedly sentimental, even risking a certain ideological simplicity in its groundswell of former troops fighting a new, potentially more worthy conflict on their own terms. But its journey towards this destination is hard-fought, willing to stay in the quiet anguish for uncomfortable lengths of time so that the ultimate release is all the sweeter.
Godzilla Minus One opens on Friday. December 1.