The Japanese film that’s 2023’s best blockbuster

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By Caryn JamesFeatures correspondent

Alamy (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

(Credit: Alamy)

The monster movie is taking the US by storm, with stellar reviews and box office, after reportedly being made for a mere $15m. Does it show where Hollywood is going wrong, asks Caryn James.

Godzilla, the lumbering father of future action movies, has been a staple of cinema for nearly 70 years, the giant lizard stomping on cities around the world and tangling with other monsters in dozens of spinoffs. The new, Japanese-made Godzilla Minus One is being acclaimed as among the best ever, and it is that rare thing, both a critical and box office success. That may be a lesson for Hollywood. Reportedly made for a mere $15m, with a simple plot and a surprisingly complicated, humane hero, its back-to-basics approach has made the film a hit at the very moment that bloated Hollywood superhero franchises are flailing.

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Written, directed and with visual effects by the veteran Japanese director Takashi Yamazaki, Godzilla opened in wide release in the US on 1 December and made $11m over its opening weekend, ranking number three behind Beyoncé’s Renaissance and the latest Hunger Games instalment. That may not sound like a blockbuster number, but it’s huge for a subtitled film. Exhibitor Relations, a company tracking box office receipts, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) “Godzilla Minus One delivered a mighty box office blow”. Worldwide the film has already more than doubled its budget, having made $23m in Japan, with the release in the UK and Ireland still to come, on 15 December.

Alamy Godzilla Minus One sees the giant lizard attack post-war Japan once more (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Godzilla Minus One sees the giant lizard attack post-war Japan once more (Credit: Alamy)

As Godzilla movies go, it is a terrific mix of action and character. Few monster movies, or action blockbusters in general, have received similar acclaim, with a score of 96% from critics and 98% from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. In a review that reflects the consensus, the Daily Beast praised the way it balanced its “human-and-titan-sized concerns”, calling it “just about everything fans could want”.

The story begins at the end of World War Two when kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) realises that Japan is about to lose the war and refuses to kill himself, instead landing his plane on an island where aircraft are repaired. That’s one of Yamazaki’s shrewdest choices: Kōichi’s decision to live makes him sympathetic to a contemporary audience, but he himself feels like a coward. When Godzilla attacks the island, and Kōichi freezes rather than launching a missile at him, almost everyone else on the island dies, and he carries a double burden of guilt through the next few years – when Godzilla re-emerges and attacks mainland Japan itself.

The success of Godzilla Minus One tells us that action-movie viewers want entertainment, not homework.

Yamazaki’s sophisticated characterisation fits easily into the immersive action. The CGI Godzilla often comes directly at the camera, staring at us with a giant open jaw and devilish yellow eyes. Radioactive, it shoots icy-blue rays out of the spikes on its back as it chases terrified crowds through the streets of Tokyo. The effects don’t go much beyond that and a few explosions. Yamazaki’s visuals can’t compete with Hollywood-budgeted action, and he doesn’t try to.

A cinematic sea change

Why should he, when those budgets are clearly not enough to make a movie work? Box office returns for November’s The Marvels, the most recent release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, were the lowest in the franchise’s history. In August, Blue Beetle, the latest in the DC franchise, which includes Superman and the upcoming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, was that franchise’s lowest opening ever. The Hollywood Reporter said that Marvel is now “taking stock” of its future. DC is rebooting its franchise with Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn as the studio’s co-chairman.

Even considering the reboots, it’s not clear that Hollywood producers know what critics and audiences find easy to spot. As the franchises have expanded, the action has overwhelmed the cartoonish characters, and the stories are so overwrought you need a Wikipedia refresher to understand them. The problem goes beyond what is now commonly called superhero fatigue. Which timeline is Thor in now, pre- or post- Snap? Huh? As Owen Gleiberman put it in his Variety review of The Marvels, watching the movies and television spinoffs has become “a bit of an ordeal” as they are “loaded down with MCU baggage”. The success of Godzilla Minus One tells us that action-movie viewers want entertainment, not homework.

Alamy Godzilla Minus One's hero Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is an interestingly tortured hero (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Godzilla Minus One’s hero Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is an interestingly tortured hero (Credit: Alamy)

Hollywood has its own often rocky relation to Godzilla, of course. The 1998 Godzilla with Matthew Broderick was so derided it stands at a pathetic 20% on Rotten Tomatoes. The current Monsterverse franchise, which puts Godzilla and King Kong in the same movies, has done better with critics and audiences. The fourth instalment, Godzilla vs Kong (2021), is considered the best, and was a commercial hit even considering the way that Covid limited the box office. But that franchise is starting to echo Marvel’s overwrought more-is-more approach. In its current Monsterverse television series on Apple TV+, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, John Goodman plays the same character he did in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, and who even remembers that?

Godzilla Minus One doesn’t even have non-stop action. What’s there is big and suitably monstrous, with Godzilla swinging trains and cars in his mouth in homage to the original 1954 movie. But Kōichi’s burden of guilt drives this film. In the rubble of his Tokyo neighbourhood, he takes in a young woman and an orphaned little girl she has saved, but refuses to admit that he loves this makeshift family. There is melodrama here, but there is also reality underneath it all. Yamazaki recently told Vulture that he deliberately simplified the plot, avoiding any monster-on-monster battles, a la Godzilla vs Kong. “The kaiju [monsters] can battle, but the human story needs to be there,” he said. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for its human heart, but (no offense, Loki, Thor and pals) the studios might want to pay attention to this reanimated Godzilla.

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