Back in 1954, just nine years out from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese filmmaker Ishirō Honda and special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya dreamed up a giant dinosaur-like creature named Godzilla.
The "kaiju" (monster) was a metaphor for Japanese atomic trauma, and the film, produced and distributed by Toho, was a hit, spawning the longest-running film franchise of all time.
Some 70 years later, the 33rd Toho Godzilla film (the 37th in the franchise), "Godzilla Minus One," written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, brings Godzilla back to its Japanese and World War II roots. Taking place in the immediate postwar period in 1945, the film reckons with more than just the metaphorically monstrous nuclear fallout of the war, but also the devastatingly human emotional effects.
When this monster surfaces, glowing neon blue from the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, it unearths all of the repressed shame and trauma of Japanese veterans, specifically a failed kamikaze pilot, Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki).
Shikishima has already encountered Godzilla by the time the monster stomps its way into Tokyo. During his failed kamikaze flight, he stopped on Odo Island for assistance, where the mythical creature came ashore to wreak havoc. Having already fled his mission, Shikishima freezes in the face of this monster, failing to shoot it and unable to assist his new friends, the airplane mechanics, who perish in the attack.
Two years later, Godzilla rears its head again from the ocean depths off Japan, mad as hell. Shikishima has now formed an unlikely family unit with Noriko (Minami Hamabe), and a young child, Akiko (Saki Nagatani) who was orphaned in the bombing of Tokyo. He's been working with a crew to clear mines from the ocean floor, and they are conscripted into tangling with Godzilla, who has been chomping through heavy cruisers and blasting them with atomic heat rays, before heading to shore to wreck its way through a Tokyo still struggling to get back on its feet.
The scrappy crew aboard this wooden boat will remind audiences of "Jaws," as will the Japanese government's unwillingness to warn citizens about the impending threat.
It's a group of private naval vets who end up taking on Godzilla — not the government — while Shikishima struggles with his own shame around failing as a kamikaze pilot, and failing to stop the monster back on Odo. It's not until he can fulfill his mission that he can be free of this shame, and it takes Godzilla's destructive arrival to bring that into focus for him.
Yamazaki's take on Godzilla is classical, utilizing the giant kaiju as a metaphor for social commentary, and his aesthetic take is classical as well, combining a retro 1940s style with cutting-edge visual effects for one of the most striking Godzilla monsters we've seen in years. The way its craggy fins break the surface of the ocean is almost photo-realistic, and when Godzilla's atomic-powered glowing spine bursts with power, it's breathtakingly beautiful.
While some of the emotional beats are a bit pat, the way Yamazaki grapples with some of the wider nuances of wartime trauma feels fresh and innovative, if not radical, proving that even after seven decades of wreckage, this iconic kaiju still has plenty of gas in the tank.
'Godzilla Minus One'
3 stars out of 4
Rated: PG-13 for creature violence and action.
Where: In theaters Friday.