It can be easy for audiences adoringly saturating themselves in Legendary’s MonsterVerse to forget all about Toho Studios’ ongoing age of Godzilla movies. Which is a shame, because the latest offering, Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One, is something to savour. The 33rd Godzilla film, and the 5th of the franchise’s Reiwa era, is beyond doubt the best Godzilla movie since Ishirō Honda’s seminal first almost 70 years ago. With Minus One explicitly celebrating Godzilla’s anniversary, it is a fitting a tribute to one of the biggest movie icons in the world. 

At the end of World War Two, kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) returns back to his family home in Tokyo only to find that it has been destroyed and his parents have been killed. Given that he is a kamikaze pilot however, returning home was never part of the mission plan, and he is chastised by those around him for not following through on his wartime duty. Along with his found family of Noriko Ōishi (Minami Hamabe) and the rescued child Akiko (Sae Nagatani), Shikishima tries to rebuild his life while grappling with survivor’s guilt. This is interrupted by Godzilla, who Shikishima had also confronted two years earlier in the creature’s infancy. Godzilla decides to devastate Tokyo just as the city has put the ravages of war behind it. Shikishima then joins a crew of private citizens who plan to destroy Godzilla once and for all.

Courtesy of Anime Ltd

Minus One is a Godzilla movie first and foremost, but it is also an emotionally charged look at the morals of war, failure, and the value of individual life. While Honda’s Godzilla has been read as a statement about Japanese collective trauma, Minus One channels its ethical exploration mostly through one character – Shikishima, who feels responsible for the death of others as well as thinking that he does not deserve to live. 

Godzilla is more than a harbinger of death; he is the very symbol of Shikishima’s perceived failure and shortcomings. You genuinely believe that he has it out for this big lizard without it feeling needlessly silly or unmerited. This personal struggle lends itself to an incredibly tense finale where Shikishima’s ultimate intentions are unclear, while also proving that sticking a massive radioactive monster in your film is no excuse to litter it with shallow human characters. Kamiki’s performance as the former pilot deserves a lot of praise; he wears the pain, guilt, and devastation at all times to help you become intimately enveloped in his struggle. 

A drama about a kamikaze pilot’s survivor’s guilt would likely make for a solid drama in and of itself, but as already mentioned this is a Godzilla movie through and through. And the big man has rarely looked so good, with different eras of the character seemingly combining into one monstrous wonder. Yamazaki lingers on Godzilla’s devastation and powers as an unstoppable force of nature, evoking wartime and apocalyptic imagery to make this one of the truly terrifying incarnations of the creature. 

Courtesy of Anime Ltd

Such is the detail put into his design and the atmosphere of dread he creates just by existing, he feels frighteningly real. A lot has been said online about the quality of the visual effects given the remarkably low budget (even if Japanese labour laws explain a large part of this). Yamazaki, who is also in charge of the film’s VFX, makes the most of what he can offer with some breathtaking set pieces. Godzilla’s rampage through Ginza is especially immersive, the camera almost never pulling back to wide shots so that you feel endlessly caught up in the unspeakable destruction. 

Minus One strikes a remarkable balance between sombre and epic, with just a pinch of preposterousness to hark back to the cult favourites of the late 20th century. The storyline deliberately evokes some of the original 1954 film’s elements, concreting the sense that Yamazaki’s triumph is more than worthy of the name. Few kaiju movies seem capable of giving you gargantuan thrills while ensuring that there is a deeply affecting, political, and human core to the story. Godzilla Minus One is a welcome lesson on how to do exactly that.

Godzilla Minus One is out in UK cinemas now.