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Wednesday, March 2, 2005

A submarine movie that has no trouble staying afloat


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Shinji Higuchi
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens March 5
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Submarine movies have less room to maneuver than other war films. Instead of ranging about the Philippine jungles or post-D-Day Europe, the characters spend most of their time cooped up in a steel tube, following much the same genre rules as their predecessors in "Das Boot," "The Hunt for Red October" and "U-571."

News photo
Members of the cast of "Lorelei"

First there is the mission, which inevitably involves dodging depth charges, stanching leaks and dealing with the freak-outs of the weaker-minded. Second, there is the captain, that ultimate grown-up, who may furrow his brow when the sub is being shaken like a tin of hard candy by a bored child, but never freaks out himself, even when the water is lapping his chin. Third, there is the comic relief, usually a colorful old salt who is utterly loyal to the captain and missing a screw or two from his torpedo.

Shinji Higuchi's "Lorelei" has all these elements and more, but is nonetheless a genre stand-out -- and the first Japanese submarine picture in nearly five decades.

It is not for lack of stories: The Japanese built the most diverse submarine fleet in World War II, ranging from kaiten minisubs for suicide missions to long-range subs that were then the largest in the world. They went on sorties from the Indian Ocean to the U.S. West Coast and engaged the enemy hundreds of times. But of the 174 ocean-going submarines that fought in the war, 128 did not survive it. In other words, not many happy endings for local audiences.

The makers of "Lorelei," beginning with Harutoshi Fukui, who wrote the best-selling novel on which the film is based, finesse inconvenient historical facts by an up-front resort to "what if" fantasy. The starring sub, the I-507, is a gift of the dying Nazi empire to the Japanese Navy in the closing days of the war. This sleek behemoth is equipped with imaging technology that is far in advance of the era's primitive sonar -- and is pure manga-esque invention.

The mission, as revealed by grim-visaged Chief of Staff Asakura (Shinichi Tsutsumi) after the A-bomb attack on Hiroshima, is to intercept U.S. ships carrying more such weapons to Tinian Island, the base for B-29 bombing runs to Japan. This, of course, is complete fiction, as is the man charged with the mission, Commander Masami (Yakusho Koji) -- a brilliant destroyer of enemy ships relieved of his command when he opposed the navy's increasing reliance on suicide tactics. Given a last chance to redeem himself, he is burning with zeal, but is ignorant of the various secrets the I-507 carries on board.

Once at sea, Lt. Takasu (Ken Ishiguro), the owlish technician in charge of the imaging system, refuses to tell Masami what it is or how it works. Masami also discovers that two crew members belong to the "kaiten" suicide corps. He has no idea why they are there -- and neither, for the moment, do they.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is tracking the I-507 with more than usual interest. What, Masami wonders, is going on here? Enough to say that a sweet-voiced teenage girl (Yu Kashi) is part of the master plan and that one of the minisub pilots (Satoshi Tsumabuki) becomes her protector -- and something more.

The script by Satoshi Suzuki ("Spellbound") is loaded with the sort of high-flown sentiments and on-the-nose pronouncements ("I hate this war," "We must save Tokyo!") that would usually sink a film of this type, whose very premise verges on the incredible.

Koji Yakusho rescues it, however, with a low-key, stripped-down performance that redeems even the clunkiest of lines. His Masami is not a patriotic poster boy, but a man sick of war, resigned to his certain defeat. He does the stern sub-commander act to perfection, but has human affections, human flaws. And, best of all, he never flares his nostrils or flexes his jaw.

Following Yakusho's lead, the supporting players, including Toshiro Yanagiba as the sub's second-in-command, look like a crew who have been through hell together, not actors indulging in macho theatrics. (One reason may have been the grueling shoot on a full-scale sub mock-up that looks all-too-realistically cramped and stifling.) Even the American sailors are reasonably life-like -- not the usual gaijin caricatures.

Credit is due to director Higuchi, an effects specialist who helmed three Gamera installments and the 2001 Godzilla film. He and his team may not have had a Hollywood budget, but their various CG-generated vessels, both above and below the water, have a solid, if grainy, presence. The I-507, especially, is a swift, dark, muscular thing of beauty. Also, the depth-charge explosions, with camera shakes by cinematographer Akira Sato and booms by Skywalker Sound, are satisfyingly stomach-churning and teeth-rattling.

"Lorelei" is no "Das Boot" -- that unsparing, unfaked document of submarine war. Despite its strainings after gravitas, it is, first and foremost, a thrill ride. Find a theater with a decent sound system, sit in the middle -- and take the plunge.

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