A still from "Godzilla Minus One".
CNN  — 

For those of us who want a little more Godzilla with our giant monster fare than, say, “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters,” look no further than the fresh and fierce Japanese import “Godzilla Minus One,” which is a return to form for the city-stomping cultural icon.

The most refreshing aspect of this film is, ironically, its throwback quality. The opening of the movie takes place during the final days of World War II, and for viewers expecting a big jump forward to sleek current times – the way Legendary Entertainment’s entries in their Monsterverse have done both in the aforementioned Apple TV+ series as well as the big budget movies in recent year – it never comes, instead inching forward a year or two at most.

Story-wise, the proceedings are simple enough (another element that’s increasingly hard to come by in today’s ever-expanding and lofty franchises), introducing us to fleeing “failed” kamikaze pilot Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who comes face to face with a fledgling but still terrifying Godzilla on a Japanese island.

A still from "Godzilla Minus One".

When Koichi also fails to pull the trigger during his one chance to defeat the beast – thereby ensuring certain doom for the other soldiers on the island – he returns home downtrodden to the wartorn outskirts of Tokyo. Koichi learns his parents have perished, as has most everyone he knows, but soon he ends up saddled with a runaway woman (Minami Hamabe) and an orphaned baby.

It’s here that the movie takes a somewhat surprising turn, not shying away from a gritty exploration of the immediate aftereffects of the war in Japan, in a more literal sense than the expected metaphorical symbol of Godzilla as punishment for man’s decision to drop the atom bomb. With everyone in the throes of postwar struggle, which is then multiplied exponentially by a giant radioactive dino-lizard wreaking havoc, the almost kabuki-style melodramatic acting feels somewhat appropriate, calling to mind some of the classic Toho Co. Godzilla films from the 1950s.

Another throwback element that surprisingly works is Godzilla (or in Japanese, Gojira) himself. When the monster does finally resurface as a full-size menace, the result is a curious combination of impressive 2023-grade effects showing sweeping destruction, mixed with the ungainly, small-headed, somewhat lumpy-looking title character, who moves around slowly and still almost looks like a guy in a suit (to the movie’s credit, it’s clear that it utilizes a melange of CGI as well as increasingly rare but always appreciated practical effects). But rather than take you out of the spectacle, this homage to Godzilla’s old-school, nostalgic source only adds to the roar of it all.