Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Sinking of Japan 日本沈没 (2006)

There was a time when disaster movies meant watching scenes of people running around in rubber suits knocking over scaled-down buildings, cutting to stop-animation sequences of monsters and the demolition of miniature cities. It all looked silly, fake, and cardboard-like, but it was good fun in the 1970s. I guess everyone took a perverse pleasure in seeing their home city or country getting destroyed over and over again, preferably by giant radioactive dinosaurs or by natural disasters.

That was before the disasters got bigger, more improbable, and more ridiculously stupid. A volcano suddenly sprouting up in Los Angeles (Volcano)? An asteroid field on a collision course with Earth (Armageddon, Deep Impact)? Or how about an alien invasion (The Alien Invasion, Independence Day)? One way out is to make a parody of the entire genre (Mars Attacks!), or to go back to the basics, by concentrating on more credible disasters, better CGI, and using less rock music by Aerosmith (The Day After Tomorrow).

In the post-Millennium Godzilla era, Toho goes for broke by taking the second option, remaking the original 1973 disaster film, Sinking of Japan. The remake shares the same title, premise, major characters, and almost identical disasters. What this remake has going for it is simply better, more modern special effects (no more collapsing cardboard miniature model buildings!), and a younger cast to attract a whole new generation of moviegoers.

Of course, you’ll have to indulge in a little suspension of belief as the movie as a chief scientist explains how tectonic movements will result in the complete submersion of the Japanese archipelago within a few years. It’s a little easier to go down, especially after the thrilling earthquake rescue sequence before the opening credits establishes not just the horror following a seismic episode, but also the two bankable and inevitably romantic leads of the movie: SMAP heartthrob Kusanagi Tsuyoshi and Battle Royale’s Shibasaki Kou.

In a way, these first two scenes establish the structure and tight rhythm for the rest of the movie: earthquake scenes ranging from aftershocks to full-blown Richter scale busters intersperse scenes with scientists investigating the earthquake, the situation room drama in the Japanese version of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a typical salt-of-the-earth family trying to survive the quake and the evacuation, and the lead couple’s romance story. Don’t roll your eyes; she’s an emergency rescuer who will be put to use during the emergency evacuations across the whole of Japan, and he’s a submarine operator working for Japan’s top earthquake specialist who discovers that Japan will sink not in a few years, but a few weeks. In other words, there’s a bit of human drama, a romantic subplot, a political comedy of errors much alike the sheer incompetence of FEMA’s response to Katrina, and the situation room thriller that Japanese movies have seem to perfected. And if you get bored by any or all of these, there’s always the carnage of the disasters, from an epidemic of volcano eruptions, zoom outs to show the complete destruction of Japanese cities, massive tsunamis, and collapsing buildings and bridges. All these are well-paced so that the movie feels far less than 2 hours long.

The icing on the cake is the very realistic look of the destruction and earthquakes. These aren’t cardboard miniatures, but very expensive CGI that is reason enough to catch this movie. Higuchi Shinji certainly brings his experience as effects director of Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Gemara monster movie trilogy to great effect in this movie.

I had only 2 issues with Sinking of Japan: the relative youth of its cast, compared to the original, does not make for hyperreal drama, softening the emotional impact of the disaster movie. The second is the mysterious teleportation ability of the hero, who manages to traverse tracts of collapsed hills, abandoned cities, and impassable regions with apparent ease to shuttle between his beloved, his submarine, and his brilliant scientist boss.

First published at incinemas on 26 October 2006

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