Monday, 7 August 2006

Limit of Love: Umizaru 2 (Limit of Love: 海猿) (2006)

This group of 5 either came for an audition for a sentai show or YMCA

Summer disaster movies are largely a disreputable lot. For one, they’re gimmicky, always trying to find a new way to destroy New York City. There are bombs in every mode of transport you can think of! Exploding buildings, tunnels, and vehicles! Is it no wonder then that audiences do get jaded, or that when real life deals you with a real exploding building and bombs in subways, you just want those stupid summer disaster movies to just die off?

Yet there is a single disaster movie that I can respect – Wolfgang Peterson’s The Perfect Storm. On the sea, against the elements, trapped on a single set, the director is forced to ditch the more improbable plot devices, the bells and whistles of CGI armageddon. At the end of the day, water-based disaster movies tend to work better because of their premise is more grounded in reality, and what can happen on a boat is very limited. This is why Poseidon failed, because its director broke these two rules, preferring to rely on tonnes of special effects and mind-numbing explosion counts.

Like it or not, the water-based disaster movie is a strictly genre film, where directors can only make better movies by following the rules and not going out of hand with their fancy creativity. It’s a worksmanlike craft, in other words. Now Umizaru is an example of a well-done film that sticks to the rules of its genre, and yet provides an alternate imagining of the standard (read: Hollywood) disaster flick that audiences here are accustomed to.

We begin by ignoring for the time being the key actors in this drama, and even this drama at all. The feature of this film is a passenger ship the size of a 5-storey high building, sort of like the ones Star Cruise has, but bigger. We’d call it a liner here and name it Superstar Constellation or maybe the Superstar MosesLim, but the quaint Japanese insist that it’s a ferry boat and call it by the cute name of "The Clover". You know, because it’s petite.

Because the show is about the coast guard diving search and rescue team, you know for certain that this ocean liner is fated for some unpleasant end that involves either some explosions in the engine room, a fire spreading to multiple decks of the ship, some flooding compartments, and probably some sinking to top it off. That’s par for the course, but Umizaru 2 has a uniquely Japanese take on the entire disaster movie genre.

Rule #1. Drop the entire shock and awe agenda of CGI, explosions. Umizaru 2 isn’t a cheap movie at all, but it doesn’t spend its huge budget on multiple explosions on the set every few minutes. You have to respect the director’s dedication to a more realistic and gritty type of rescue movie. It is probable that the budget was spent in researching ship layouts, constructing believable sets, and making sure that in real life, you can in fact crawl from the level 3 storeroom to the level 5 stairwell on a Clover class ocean vessel.

Rule #2. Go for the drama feel. There is no horde of screaming passengers doomed to die en masse. That is a ballsy move that only the Japanese would consider for a disaster movie, really. No need to waste precious screen time deposing the unworthy, the whiney, the rich, the stupid and all those social undesirables one by one like a slasher flick. Instead, showcase the national coast guard team in an evacuation that goes completely smoothly (after all, the Japanese are efficient), except there are 2 passengers left on board, and 2 rescue divers who must locate and rescue them and evacuate the ferry before it blows up or sinks. So you have a very compact drama, based on the tension of just 4 people interacting with each other.

Rule #3. Go for more dramatics. Like any Japanese cop movie, rescue team movie and disaster movie, you can never go wrong by introducing additional tension and drama by involving the HQ situation room team, who must find a way to guide the rescue divers and their charges out of the ship. It’s a little like Apollo 13, but the Japanese have been writing scripts involving situation teams for years now, and Umizaru 2 deftly switches between the 2 different types of tension in the rescue operation (will the rescue team get out alive?) and the situation room operation (can they get the rescue team out alive?). Admittedly, if you haven’t been exposed to the real Godzilla movies, the situation room sequences will feel positively boring.

This is the whole point, though: Umizaru 2 works well because it evokes the feeling of macho fraternity, the feel that we are all in it, that subconscious samurai solidarity that people in the front line and the backend of operations believe in. When the film makes you feel that the suited bureaucrats in the situation room are every bit as deserving to be called heroes, then it has succeeded. When the film makes you believe how heroic the rescue team is, without even casting Stallone-class musclemen as the leads, then it has succeeded.

Umizaru 2 is the sequel to Umizaru, which strangely enough, was never shown in cinemas here. You’d probably have not heard of the original movie or the TV series it spawned. It wouldn’t hurt to know that Limit of Love brings back the protagonist Daisuke Senzaki (Ito Hideaki), his buddy Tetsuya Yoshioka (Ruyuta Sato), and fiancé Kana (Ai Sato), who helmed the original movie and the TV series. As a true sequel, Umizaru 2 concludes the growth of all 3 people, from divers in training to full fledged coast guards, from a dating couple to a couple on the verge of marriage. Audiences should be able to follow the plot even without watching the original film or the series as this film can stand on its own legs, but they will miss the fun of seeing Tokito Saburo return in an unexpected position for this sequel.

Umizaru 2 is a decent disaster movie, and sufficiently different from Hollywood fare. Depending on your tolerance for the plot conventions of the typical Japanese television drama and your love of Japanese kitsch, you might either find this just an average film that does everything just right, but only just, or a wildly entertaining film.

First published at incinemas on 10 August 2006

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