Takashi Yamazaki's Godzilla Minus One is basically what you'd get if you made a Godzilla movie based on an actual script-- y'know, with a narrative arc populated by real characters having human interactions. Not a completely radical concept-- Ishiro Honda's Godzilla (1954) featured a love triangle between an embittered scientist, his fiancée, and a salvage ship captain-- but for perhaps the first time (or at least one of the rare times) since the original we have a storyline more compelling than just 'oversized radioactive reptile stomps Tokyo.'
This time Godzilla's rampage plays out against a background of recent trauma, not just of the Hiroshima bombing but of Japan's defeat in the war. Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) nurses his ailing kamikaze plane to Odo Island; mechanic Sosaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) gently suggests that there's nothing wrong with the plane, to which Shikishima quickly bristles. "Just what are you implying?" he demands of Tachibana.
The matter is dropped, and soon (if not permanently) forgotten; a mysterious dinosaur has stepped out of the sea and is busy snatching up or stomping down the island's mechanics. At one point Shikishima has the creature-- dubbed 'Godzilla' by island natives-- in his plane's gunsights but freezes; if he has survivor's guilt before for failing to fulfill his kamikaze mission, he's a double failure now.
And so it goes. This 'less kaiju, more character' mantra works well, thanks to Yamazaki's thoughtful script and the cast's intense acting. Like the implicit message, a pushback on the Japanese tendency to sacrifice one's life for a greater cause-- the film doesn't spell out that this is what got them into the war in the first place, but it does make some pointed statements. Not a big fan of the ending-- too much of a good thing in my view, though admittedly it goes with the theme of valuing life and trying to have everything, cake and eating and all-- could probably think up of an ending that can uphold said theme and still have one specific sacrifice remain a sacrifice... but why bother? It's a feelgood moment, let the audience feel good about it.
Add details like Godzilla's paunch being back and bigger than ever-- either he's sporting an enormous beer belly or he's at least two years pregnant. And the suggestion midway through that the Americans are responsible for Godzilla mutating to his present size and given regenerative powers (all the more reason for Shikishima to feel guilty for what he failed to do). The CGI effects are remarkably detailed, and feel they have heft-- I'm guessing they actually filmed miniatures for some of the destruction sequences, and enhanced or integrated them digitally. Reportedly they didn't recreate or revise Godzilla's roar-- that's his actual roar from the 1954 film, played out on loudspeakers. The music to my inexpert ears sounds like a total lift from the 1954-- that's not a slam; I love the driving energy of the film's march.
Also love the appearance of the Kyuzu J7W Shigen with its distinct canard wings and pusher engine-- modern Japanese can talk all they want about pacifism but some can't help being proud of some the technological innovations accomplished (including one noted animation director) and I'm betting they feel a nerd tingle running up their spine at the idea that this bit of late war tech finally got to see some action in battle. The landing wheels look disturbingly long-- it's like a goose with flamingo legs-- but once it takes to air it's as agile and lyrical as any bird in flight.
Would love to say the eponymous star is back to being a man in a rubber suit but that's probably a more sophisticated software using motion capture with a subroutine dictating how Godzilla's scaly skin will move and stretch. Motion capture is a help-- they've opted not to make the big guy move like a T Rex or animal but exactly like a guy in a rubber suit, and the anthropomorphism is appreciated-- Godzilla like Kong aren't real animals, but fantasies of our imagination, a dark marriage of the animal and the human, and should be rendered as such.
I do miss the relentless pace of Honda's original (just the facts ma'am), the coy grandeur of Edwards' 2014 interpretation, and the awful splendor (not to mention government satire) of Hideako Anno's Shin Godzilla, but for a creature feature with a surprisingly poignant story, this will do nicely till the next one comes along.