Jack Murphy looks at iconic cinematic IP revisited in Godzilla Minus One.

Godzilla has forever been misunderstood. Not in the sense that the giant lizard was right to wreak havoc on the people of Japan, but rather that in the transition to Hollywood, many iterations of the character seemed to lose sight of what Ishirō Honda’s 1954 classic stood for in the first place. Naturally, you can’t have a Godzilla film without sequences of mass destruction; buildings effortlessly knocked over as if they were made out of paper, people fleeing for their lives under the feet of a gargantuan beast that threatens their very existence. But the character has always carried with it something more. Honda’s original creation was more akin to an elegy, a haunting film brought about by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; the monster itself is an allegory for the aftermath.

Fast forward a few decades and most people’s understanding of the character is “giant monster fighting other giant monsters”, helped by the ongoing “Monsterverse” from Warner Bros. and Legendary. This didn’t stop Toho (the studio behind every Japanese Godzilla film since 1954) from continuing the legacy they started. The critical and commercial success of Shin Godzilla in 2016 proved there was still a place for the traditional Godzilla film, bringing us up to the release of Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One.

Boasting more in common with Honda’s film than recent iterations like 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong, Minus One brings us back to the franchise’s roots, marked by its post-war Japan setting established in the shocking, almost Spielbergian opening (similarities to that iconic T-rex scene in Jurassic Park are absolutely valid). The focus of the story here is not the titular monster, but rather failed kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima, whose first encounter with the monster leaves him haunted by the ghosts of the attack on a Japanese base on Odo Island. Upon returning home, Japan is at zero. Cities left in ruin, families destroyed, with no hope left for the future. Shikishima begins working as a minesweeper, while helping to support Noriko Ōishi, a young woman whose family died in the war, and the orphaned child she rescued from the rubble. As the years pass, however, it becomes clear that what Shikishima saw of Godzilla was only the beginning.

It’s truly astonishing to see what has been achieved here on simply a surface level. In an age where blockbusters are costing more and more to produce (multiple examples from 2023 alone include new entries in the Indiana Jones and Ant-Man franchises), Yamazaki manages to craft one of the most aesthetically striking blockbusters of the past few years on a budget equivalent to just $15 million. The sense of scale created here cannot be understated: the action sequences are thrilling and monstrously terrifying, with the titular monster portrayed in a way that feels both familiar and totally unlike anything you’ve seen before, thanks to some astounding VFX work. From the nightmarish late-night attack on Odo Island that opens the film, to the unforgettable Ginza set piece that sees trains flung across the city and buildings obliterated in brutal fashion, there’s no shortage of thrilling action to keep you clutching your arm rests.

But what really sets Minus One apart from its American predecessors is the amount of focus it places on its human characters, as opposed to being solely monster focused. Instead of reducing the humans to nothing but cannon fodder, they are all injected with a poignant humanity that elevates an already impressive film. In dealing with the trauma of the Japanese people after World War II, Yamazaki’s film makes for a compelling companion piece not just to the original Godzilla from 1954, but also the more recent Oppenheimer. The character drama is just as striking as the nightmarish sequences of devastation. Shikishima’s inner battle as a disgraced kamikaze pilot dealing with a lifetime of guilt takes centre stage as his revenge against Godzilla becomes the end goal of his redemption; a deeply emotional arc that acts as the beating heart of the film. Oddly enough, however, in bringing the franchise back to its roots, there are many moments throughout Minus One’s runtime that are frankly a little too derivative of Honda’s film, right down to its similar story beats, but never to the point where the immersion is broken, and this just speaks to the sheer quality on display here.

With the excitement towards franchises like the MCU beginning to dwindle, Godzilla Minus One is looking like a ray of hope for the future. It’s an unexpected gem; one of the most exhilarating, pulse-pounding blockbusters to hit the big screen in quite some time, packed with so much genuine heart to make it stand out among the onslaught of generic actioners and cinematic universes that seem to be dominating the multiplexes today. Most importantly, it makes clear the staying power of Godzilla as a franchise, where filmmakers are still finding new ways to bring the monster to the big screen in a way that is both endlessly thrilling and emotionally affecting.

Godzilla Minus One is in cinemas from 15th Dec 2023


Gemma Creagh is a writer, filmmaker and journalist. In 2014 she graduated with a First from NUIG’s MA Writing programme. Gemma’s play Spoiling Sunset was staged in Galway as part of the Jerome Hynes One Act Play series in 2014. Gemma was one of eight playwrights selected for AboutFACE’s 2021 Transatlantic Tales and is presently developing a play with the Axis Theatre and with the support of the Arts Council. She has been commissioned to submit a play by Voyeur Theatre to potentially be performed in Summer 2023 as part of the local arts festival. Gemma was the writer and co-producer of the five-part comedy Rental Boys for RTÉ’s Storyland. She has gone on to write, direct and produce shorts which screened at festivals around the world. She was commissioned to direct the short film, After You, by Filmbase and TBCT. Gemma has penned articles for magazines, industry websites and national newspapers, she’s the assistant editor for Film Ireland and she contributes reviews to RTE Radio One’s Arena on occasion.

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