Act One: Toho Got It Right (after a couple tries)
Any Godzilla is good Godzilla. Yes, even Roland Emmerich’s complete miss in 1998 is still Godzilla, and still good Godzilla. There is an entirely separate conversation to have about why Roland missed the mark, but that is for another day. It was a Godzilla movie, canonized by Final Wars, so you just have to accept that.
The reason I lead with this, is because Toto got it right with the divergence of Godzilla rights to Legendary/Warner Brothers, allowing Legendary and Warner Brothers to create a separate series of Godzilla films. Quite frankly, it freed Toho from the pressure to make frequent Godzilla movies that eventually degraded (see the end of the Shōwa era, and the end of the Heisei era).
In allowing Sony (back to Emmerich) the opportunity to make a Godzilla movie, I suspect Toho was trying to do then what they ended up doing in the Reiwa (current) era. Sony, in my opinion, just misunderstood the assignment, and let the wrong director (Emmerich) take the shot.
And what was the assignment, you ask? The separation of Godzilla, as art from Godzilla, as entertainment.
The 1954 film was art. Remove the Americanized elements added (or removed) before the film was released in the states, you truly have a cinema masterpiece on par with any of the sci-fi release in the 1950’s heyday. It was a long, and sometimes cringy, slide to get to Terror of Mechagodzilla, where Toho realized it had lost its way, and simply ran out of gas.
Act Two: G-1 is Art Freed from the Obligation of Entertainment
By letting Legendary and Warner lift the obligation & pressure of providing entertainment from Toho, it has created two things.
Kaiju fans get the massive stomping fights and huge effects of the later Showa era and Heisei era movies. It’s Big. It’s Fun. It’s Entertainment. It’s also expensive, and Toho has never been a big budget enterprise. For their part, Legendary has tread this path far better than Sony did, staying closer to a more plausible universe Godzilla than Sony did (although I still think Legendary’s Godzilla emulates like that really messed up relative at the family reunion- you know of whom I speak). Make no mistake, I have enjoyed the Godzilla entries in the Monsterverse universe, and I look forward to more.
Secondly, it has allowed Toho to take Godzilla where it wants, as opposed to where popular pressure dictates. An amazing anime interpretation, deep diving on “non-traditional” Godzilla themes and expanding on Godzilla’s place in nature. And, in my humble opinion, two of the better films in the franchise- Shin Godzilla and Godzilla Minus One. Films crafted for art’s sake. Films that matter in the culture that created them.
Act Three: What If You Make Art, and It Becomes Popular?
It was no coincidence that Legendary (hurriedly) released info for Godzilla V Kong: The New Empire as soon as it was apparent that Godzilla Minus One had struck a vein in 2023, the same year that brought us Barbenheimer.
As much as Shin Godzilla was an intellectual dissection of contemporary Japanese culture, Minus One is a deep dive on the state of Japanese culture immediately after World War Two. In both films, Godzilla exists, and is terrorizing and destructive, but not necessarily central. Godzilla is “what” but he is not “why”, or “How” or even “Who” in these films. Each Filmmaker (Hideaki Anno/Shinji Higuchi credited on Shin Godzilla and Takashi Yamazaki credited on Godzilla Minus One) absolutely crushes that fine balance between “this is a human story” and “let’s monster some shit up”.
Side Note: I would argue that this was a balance understood by JJ Abrams when he made Cloverfield, but was just (very) poorly executed. But again, a bigger discussion for another post.
Minus One is a cinema masterpiece, Godzilla aside, for its great performances (by everyone but the kid, I’ll be honest, that was a cringer to watch). It was great to see the monster design seem heavily influenced by the Heisei design with some of the sharp Millennial design elements put in for good measure.
I’ve read plenty of blogs, American blogs if that factors in, that postulate whether Toho will make a direct sequel to Minus One because of its popularity. My money is that they won’t- I’ll expect them to approach another hot and upcoming Japanese director (but unknown in the west) that would want to tell their own Godzilla story. I also read that Toto worked through dozens of script ideas to get to Minus One. That bodes well, it means that they are focused on creating fewer in quantity, but more impactful cinema (Are you reading this, Disney?).
Legendary and Warner’s big budget extravaganzas give Toho the artistic freedom to do that. To take their time to make the RIGHT movie. The 7 years between Shin Godzilla and Minus One is no random occurrence. Getting caught up in the machine of delivering a constant stream of movies eventually breaks you down, and it did that to Toto twice, once following Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975) and again following Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). They literally just shut Godzilla down for a decade just to clean the palate and start over.
The Legendary monsterverse will run out of steam at some point. I for one. will enjoy it while I can. That being said, if that run gives me 2 or more Toho Kaiju movies that on the same level of artistry as Minus One, I will enjoy that even more.