After a decade of entries in the Godzilla and King Kong shared film universe from Warner Brothers and Legendary, audiences finally get a thoughtful, emotional, and character-driven take on the world’s most famous fire-breathing Kaiju with Godzilla Minus One.

Unlike the WB franchise entries, which rely on endless (and poorly executed) CGI creatures amassing city-wide destruction, Godzilla Minus One is a thoughtful work of art shepherded by writer, director and VFX supervisor Takashi Yamazaki.

Yamazaki put his heart and soul into this genre film, filling it with rich characters that make the stakes of the film’s finale feel far superior to nearly all blockbusters released in recent years (excluding Avengers: End Game).

The setting of the film is the end of World War II with Japan facing defeat and thus, shifting strategy to utilizing Kamikaze pilots to. This was a genius choice by Takashi Yamazaki, as it humanizes the pilot lead character of Kōichi Shikishima (played by Ryunosuke Kamiki) as Kōichi lands at the Japanese base on Odo Island for his “malfunctioning” plane.

To have his plane inspected, Kōichi is aborting an ordered Kamikazi (suicide) mission that his platoon is currently executing. Once Kōichi lands and his plane is inspected, it’s clear that the mechanics can’t find anything wrong with the plane… Kōichi had pulled out of his suicide mission from his very understandable, and human, fear of death.

The lead mechanic on the island, Sosaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki), surmises the truth about Kōichi and that he has dishonored himself by lying about the plane’s malfunction to avoid certain death.

Before the mechanics can address Kōichi’s betrayal, the creature known as Godzilla rises from the Ocean and destroys the base — killing everyone except for Kōichi and Tachibana who is severely wounded. Tachibana feels that Kōichi had a chance to kill Godzilla by firing on the creature from his parked plane, but — once again — Kōichi froze in the moment for fear of his own survival.

From the rubble of the Odo Island base, Kōichi and Tachibana are transported back to Japan with the conclusion of the war (Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers). Tachibana hands Kōichi a stack of photos of Tachibana’s platoon, fellow soldiers and friends who are dead because Kōichi’s fear prevented him attacking Godzilla on the island.

At this point in the film, Kōichi and Godzilla’s fates are seemingly linked… Godzilla is a looming shadow that hovers over Kōichi’s along with the metaphorical monster of his shame. Upon his return to Japan, Kōichi finds his Tokyo neighborhood in ruins, with the sole surviving neighbor chastising Kōichi (knowing that he had a kamikaze pilot assignment) as a coward.

Kōichi, having lost his family like 99% of his village, builds a shelter in his mostly demolished home and tries to survive with minimal resources. Kōichi reluctantly befriends a young woman who cares for an orphaned child which is not her own. The revelation that she is not a shamed mother out of wedlock, but a hero to this orphan, softens Kōichi’s heart. This trio of survivors forms a makeshift family while Kōichi tries to escape his past… Kōichi’s self-loathing prevents him from fully committing to his new life as a surrogate father and husband.

Kōichi takes on a well-paying (but dangerous) job of detonating unexploded mines in the waters around Japan post war. It is dangerous work, but necessary to provide for his new family. He serves on a small wooden boat and former navy technical officer Kenji Noda (a key hero in the film’s finale) explains that the wooden ship prevents the triggering of American magnetic mines.

During this time of rebuilding, Godzilla reemerges stronger and larger than his first sighting. It’s 1947, and ships are secretly dispatched to find Godzilla (the government doesn’t want the public to know of its existence). Like clockwork, Godzilla appears shortly after hundreds of lifeless deep sea fish rise to the ocean’s surface.

Kōichi and his shipmates flee the creature after coming face to face with Godzilla. They try to use mines to defend themselves but the mines do little damage. At least, until one mine fails to detonate and Kōichi uses a machine gun to explode the mine inside Godzilla’s mouth. Though the creature regenerates its flesh like Marvel’s Wolverine character, the mine did significant damage to the creature.

Not long after the sea sighting, Godzilla comes ashore in Japan with thousands of fleeing civilians who are now witnesses… the Japanese government can no longer hide the creature’s existence. Godzilla decimates an entire city before unleashing a blue atomic energy mouth-blast that flattens everything in its path.

Kōichi, who came to town to find his longtime partner and co-partner, is shoved to safety by his longtime companion just as Godzilla’s blast sends her flying in the air (she is assumed dead). Godzilla once again torments a haunted Kōichi. Kōichi knows what he must do… eliminate this creature or die trying.

Kōichi attends a military meeting where they plot to kill Godzilla. The plan is to lure Godzilla to the deepest part of the ocean and trigger Freon gas canisters to expel gas and lower Godzilla in the ocean at an incredible speed. Hoping that the pressure change will implode the creature. And if not, they will drag the creature back to the surface and try to use the rapid pressure change to kill the creature once again.

At the same time, Kōichi plans to take to the skies and use his fully armed plane to distract Godzilla during the mission. Hopefully, Kōichi will deliver damage to this creature that has haunted him for so long. The plane that Kōichi wants to use needs repairs, so he seeks out the services of Tachibana.

After an initial confrontation that sees Tachibana unleashing his rage on Kōichi, Tachibana agrees to help Kōichi kill Godzilla.

The military mission is enacted, and initially, the plan seems to go well. Godzilla is distracted by gunfire and encircled by the Freon gas tanks. They tanks are triggers and they drag Godzilla to the depths of the ocean. Godzilla is partially pulled to the surface by inflating balloons, but the creature tears through them.

In response, a fleet of tugboats help a destroyer class ship pull the Godzilla back to the surface. When Godzilla surfaces, his scaly skin is heavily mutilated, having taken severe damage from decompression, but remaining alive.

As Godzilla prepared to unleash his heat ray upon the defenseless ships, Kōichi flies his plane towards the creature — a Kamikaze mission which will bring his character full cricle. Kōichi aims for Godzilla’s mouth and makes his attack run with a determined look in his eyes.

Kōichi’s plane impacts with Godzilla’s mouth and explodes. We learn, in this moment, that Tachibana installed an ejection feature into Kōichi’s plane so that he may survive. Kōichi ejected from the plane just before impact with Godzilla, and he parachutes to safety.

Kōichi is given one last miracle in that his co-parent and surrogate wife survived Godzilla’s city attack, and she is recovering in the hospital. Their family of three is reunited as we learn that a chunk of Godzilla is regenerating in the ocean… possibly for the creature to return stronger than ever.

The script, which spans decades, impressively balances a huge cast of characters while giving each of them a unique personality and perspective amid their place in Japanese society following a costly war against America and the Allied Forces.

No better example of the character craftsmanship is through the eyes of the young man on the crew of the wooden ship, which performs the post war mine detonations. The young man wishes that he could’ve experienced action in the war, and the kid’s naivete angers Kōichi.

As the writer, Yamazaki doesn’t have Kōichi go into exposition of his time in the war, it’s a short beat that allows the actor to show the pain of war through his lead actor. The entire cast is pitch perfect in bringing Yamazaki’s vision to life.

Godzilla Minus One composer Naoki Sato delivers an impressive original score, while wisely weaving in classic Godzilla cues from Akira Ifukube’s work decades prior. The sound design and score provide perfect accompaniment to the film’s epic moments while connecting to the underlying emotion and pain in the subtle, character-driven beats that give the film its heart.

The visual effects are also several tier higher than recent studio films featuring Godzilla, a texture is created for Yamazaki’s Godzilla and this artist’s fingerprints are on every frame of the film.

Like the Beatles, Yamazaki is poised to have a huge breakthrough with American audiences, and deservedly so with this meticulously crafted genre film that reaches incredible peaks with its emotion and action. Not since X-Men First Class (2011) has a genre film utilized well-known historical events with such effectiveness, mining emotion and character through the past in magnificent ways.

Letter Grade: A+

About The Author

Founder, Awards Editor

Byron Burton is the Awards Editor and Chief Critic at Awards Focus and a National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award winning journalist for his work at The Hollywood Reporter.

Byron is a voting member of the Television Academy, Critics Choice Association, and the Society of Composers & Lyricists (the SCL) for his work on Marvel's X-Men Apocalypse (2016). Working as a journalist and moderator, Byron hosts Emmy and Oscar panels for the major studios, featuring their Below The Line and Above The Line nominees (in partnership with their respective guilds).

Moderating highlights include Ingle Dodd's "Behind the Slate" Screening Series and their "Spotlight Live" event at the American Legion in Hollywood. Byron covered the six person panel for Universal's "NOPE" as well as panels for Hulu's "Pam & Tommy Lee" and "Welcome to Chippendales" and HBO Max's "Barry" and "Euphoria."

For songwriters and composers, Byron is a frequent moderator for panels with the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) as well as The ArcLight's Hitting the High Note Oscar series.

Byron's panels range from FX's Fargo to Netflix's The Crown, The Queen's Gambit, The Witcher & Bridgerton; HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, Hacks, Succession, Insecure, & Lovecraft Country; Amazon Studios' The Legend of Vox Machina, Wild Cat, & Annette; and Apple TV+s Ted Lasso, Bad Sisters, and 5 Days at Memorial.

In February of 2020, Byron organized and hosted the Aiding Australia Initiative; launched to assist in the restoration and rehabilitation of Australia's wildlife (an estimated 3 billion animals killed or maimed and a landmass the size of Syria decimated).

Participating talent for Aiding Australia includes Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jeremy Renner, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Josh Brolin, Bryan Cranston, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, JK Simmons, Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Danny Elfman, Tim Burton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Tim Allen, Colin Hay, Drew Struzan, and Michael Rosenbaum.

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