Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) — movie review
Posted on May 12, 2007 by Chris Nelson
There’s no denying that film-goers around the world love disaster pictures. Sure, they may grow stale and unpopular following an actual disaster, but they always return. There’s just something about seeing destruction on a grand scale that captures the imagination, and the hard earned dollars, of a theater going audience. And really, how much grander can you get than an entire country fracturing and sinking into the ocean?
First: a bit of background. Nihon Chinbotsu is a remake of an earlier film, Nippon Chinbotsu, adapted from the novel, by Sakyo Komatsu (Matango). The film came about during the disaster hungry 1970’s, roughly around the time westerners were enjoying The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, and is widely seen today as one of the best Tokusatsu (Japanese special effects) pictures. Nihon Chinbotsu does it’s best to live up to the legacy of its predecessor, while modernizing both the effects and storyline. As far as remakes are concerned, it’s quite impressive.
The basic storyline of Nihon Chinbotsu concerns the shifting and collision of tectonic plates around Japan. You see, Japan sits in the middle of the Nigata-Kobe tectonic zone, its islands covering not one, but four tectonic plates. In the story, a collision of two of these plates results in an overlapping and dragging downward of a plate in accordance with tectonic currents. The strain placed on the plate is enough to shatter the actual landmass, sending it completely under the water. This strain is noticed by a team of scientists who make an initial prediction that the interaction will cause a full fledged sinking of Japan over the course of 40 years. Alas, bad math was involved, and the actual timeframe proves a mere 338 days. As earthquakes and floods rock Japan, it’s up to a team of submariners and scientists to perforate the earth’s crust through a series of drillings and strategically placed hydrogen bombs, in hopes of loosing Japan from its tectonic grip. The bulk of the film’s story revolves around Toshio (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), a heroic submarine pilot, and Reiko (Kou Shibasaki), a rescue worker and their experiences in the disaster wrought landscape.
What the Japanese special effects wizards do differently from their American counterparts is an intricate layering of special effects mediums. The tight budgetary constraints of the Japanese film (yes, even the tokusatsu film) industry mean that the sharp, expensive, completely computerized sequences of American blockbuster are often out of the question for the Japanese filmmaker. Instead they must employ a potpourri of effects, interleaving photographic, matte, miniature, composite, and computerized elements to create and sell a signature visual. Although it sounds like a workaround, this technique actually allows a finer grain of control for the effects artists. Even the most ardent CG enthusiast will admit that physical effects elements abide by physical laws more readily than their purely human animated counterparts. Likewise a matte painting can often hold up better over the years than a single CG cityscape. The integrating and overlapping of such effects ensures a difficult time for those seeking to pick apart the various artificial elements of the scene. In Nihon Chinbotsu the result of this technique is nothing short of stunning. Hands down, the film features some of the best special effects creations to date in Japanese cinema. Tsunamis topple buildings, roadways crack and fissure, flames engulf airplanes, Japanese landmarks are obliterated, huge ships are tossed around like so much paper – all in a thoroughly convincing fashion. At points you almost forget about the effects work, and watch in shock as people – good people — are wiped out by massive landslides and other acts of nature. For, if there’s one thing Nihon Chinbotsu does differently than its Western disaster counterparts it’s that everyone, including the innocent, faces the prospect of an untimely death.
However, as good as the effects are, there are some glaring issues with the film. First and foremost would be the issue of casting. While deathly imposing as Battle Royale’s Mitsuko, Kou Shibasaki comes across as fragile and weak as Nihon Chinbotsu’s Reiko Abe. From the opening sequence when she swings in through a fireball on a helicopter tow rope to save Tsuyoshi Kusanagi’s Toshio, something just feels off. It’s not bad acting — really, she’s perfectly competent. She delivers her overly dramatic lines with conviction and provides a nice bit of scenery. However, given the way she moves and carries herself you never feel her Reiko could save a small puppy from drowning — much less hold a regular job as a rescue worker. Secondly, there’s the issue of music. The film’s score seems lifted from a television do-rama (utterly forgettable) and the “popular” R&B songs that pop up at the romantic moments have to be the most cringe-worthy BoA-esque dreck I’ve ever heard soundtrack a modern Japanese film.
The narrative itself can be a little dry, with the number of chatty sequences clearly outweighing those involving special effects. But there are some interesting items brought to the table. In the film’s original incarnation there was a heavy mediation on the loss of Japanese economic superiority, and that certainly plays a small part here. There’s also a brief bit involving other countries, notably the US and England, protesting the influx of Japanese citizens escaping the flood. You know, the whole “We’ll help you as long as it’s on your foreign $Oil. Otherwise, your tired, poor, and huddled masses best step off,” attitude of the current administration. The Reiko character evidences a wide range of ideals. She fighting desperately to sort out her altruistic, nationalistic, and romantic issues as she observes death and despair on a massive scale while simultaneously falling in love with Toshio, a potential “Japan deserter.” Lastly, there’s that tried and true genre staple of reluctant heroism evidenced in Toshio.
Alas, this review has run away with me. It’s time to bring it to a close. Nihon Chinbotsu is an absolutely stunning technical achievement, and a decent remake. Its story may not be as strong as its visuals, but it certainly doesn’t bore. If you have a chance to see it, by all means do so.
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