Godzilla Minus One: Up from the depths comes the best action film of 2023

This commentary on American imperialism, postwar malaise, survivor guilt and weaponised atomic power has historical depth and exciting set pieces

Godzilla Munis One
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Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Cert: 12A
Genre: Action
Starring: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki Yamada, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando, Kuranosuke Sasaki
Running Time: 2 hrs 5 mins

Hollywood continues to trash the kaiju-eiga genre with such wildly expensive but so-so monster flicks as Godzilla x Kong. Toho Studios, which codified the form in 1953 with Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (then arguably ruined it with 28 monster sequels and odd licensing arrangements) has, of late, been determined to do justice to its biggest star. This is not merely a rubber monster suit or its CGI equivalent. Godzilla Minus One not only matches the potent regeneration of the worldwide 2016 hit Shin Godzilla, its innovative, meaningful engagement with the big scaly monster of the title is jollied along by historical depth and exciting set pieces.

The enduring quality of the 1953 original is rooted in its engagement with the twin atomic disasters of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This prequel, similarly, yokes American imperialism, postwar malaise, survivor guilt and weaponised atomic power to produce the best action film of the year.

Godzilla opens on a remote South Pacific island where a young kamikaze pilot, Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), sensing defeat, pretends his engine is malfunctioning. He is already racked with guilt, and the sudden and murderous appearance of the titular lizard leaves him with an emotional weight he ferries back to a ruined Tokyo, where he forms a makeshift if emotionally distant family with an orphaned young woman (Minami Hamabe) and a baby she found in the rubble.

It’s a poignant vignette that is soon enlivened by entertaining counterfactuals. Godzilla, now powered by the Bikini Atoll tests, rises from the deep to do untold damage to recovering Tokyo in 1953. Shikishima, now a scavenger with a band of scientists and seafarers, must reckon with the scaly beast. As with Honda’s original, CGI is eclipsed by clever cinema grammar: a flick of the tail here, bang goes the neighbourhood there. Takashi Yamazaki’s urgent script – written against a backdrop of Covid-related governmental distrust – adds gravitas to the thrills and spills.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic