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Friday, July 21, 2006

Shame this one won't sink without a trace

The new disaster epic "Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks)" exploits one of those simple but brilliant ideas that has hacks everywhere slapping their foreheads with envy.

Nihon Chinbotsu Rating: (2.5 out of 5)
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News photo
Ko Shibasaki in "Nihon Chinbotsu" (C) EIGA "NIHON CHIBOTSU" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Shinji Higuchi
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (July 21, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The kernel -- Japan is mortally threatened by a powerful force seemingly beyond human control -- is that of dozens of monster and disaster pics, but in his eponymous 1973 novel, Sakyo Komatsu took it one step further: He imagined Japan, not stomped by giant lizards, but literally sinking as a collision of two tectonic plates causes the one supporting the archipelago to buckle under. The result is not only new oceanfront property, but a hellbroth of earthquakes and volcanoes that kill millions and force the evacuation of the entire country.

"Nihon Chinbotsu," which plugged into ancient and well-founded fears about the fragility of the natural order here, became a monster best seller. Not long after the novel's publication in 1973, Toho cranked out a "Nihon Chinbotsu" movie, spending a then-stupendous 500 million yen.

This new big-budget remake, delivering the sort of CG effects impossible back in the '70s maybe should be called "Japan Floods," given the current uproar over global warming, but Toho is not one to mess with a proven formula.

One addition is a more assertive central female character -- a rescue worker played by Ko Shibasaki. And director Shinji Higuchi explains much of the scientific mumbo-jumbo in captioned images and a presentation by a briefly glimpsed U.S. expert that even a grade schooler can understand.

More importantly -- to disaster movie fans -- "Nihon Chinbotsu" gets right down to business from its first scene, with a massive earthquake that reduces the city of Numazu to rubble.

The film, however, lacks the headlong momentum of Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," another recent film with an apocalyptic theme (if with eruptions of space monsters, not lava). Instead, the narrative follows the stop-and-start pattern of many a 1970s disaster movie -- frequently slowing for fraught meetings and partings, in spaces that are islands apart from the destruction raining down outside.

Stranded on these islands, the cast resorts to everything from soulful grimaces to strenuous mugging, some from desperation, others from TV habit. One exception is Mao Daichi, who plays the head of the emergency management office -- the Japanese equivalent of FEMA. A former star otokoyaku (player of male roles) for the Takarazuka theater troupe, Daichi effortlessly dominates the gray-suited and uniformed macho types around her with cool intelligence, forceful personality and ageless glamour.

The two principals, however, are Shibasaki as rescue worker Reiko Abe, and Tsuyoshi Kusanagi (of SMAP fame) as deep-sea submersible pilot Toshio Onodera. They meet in the first scene, when Reiko saves both a dazed Onodera and a young girl named Misa (Mayuko Fukuda) who has become separated from her parents in the the quake's fiery aftermath.

Soon after, the aforementioned U.S. expert tells Japanese government officials that Japan will slide into the Pacific in 40 years. A skeptical "earth scientist," Dr. Tadokoro (Etsushi Toyokawa), investigates this claim, sending two submersible pilots -- one of whom is Onodera -- to examine any changes in the sea bed off Japan. His conclusion: Japan will vanish in 338 days, give or take several hours.

As he agonizes over his country's fate, Tadokoro is visited by Reiko, who is looking for Onodera. She tells Onodera that Misa's father is dead and her mother, in a coma, is now under her care. Together they go to visit Misa at her new home -- a monjayaki shop run by Reiko's aunt in a funky Tokyo Bay neighborhood. Onodera is enraptured by the shop and its salt-of-the-earth regulars -- as well as by Reiko. To him they represent everything that is good about a land that is about to disappear forever.

What can anyone do about this horror? Some insiders say that, to avoid mass panic, the government should lie about the true situation -- shikata ga nai (it can't be helped). But the good-hearted prime minister (Koji Ishizaka) can't stand by as his countrymen drown like rats on a sinking ship. He appoints his ablest minister, Takamori (Daichi), to head a task force dedicated to saving as many lives as possible.

"Nihon Chinbotsu" offers enough earthquakes, eruptions and general havoc to keep disaster fans happy. For me, though, the film's brand of soft nationalism held more interest. No one sings "Kimigayo" as yet another cultural landmark falls to rubble, but most of the good characters opt to stay with Dainippon until the bitter (or rather salty) end.

It's no accident that Onodera's sub is named Wadatsumi (Ocean) -- a reference to a famous collection of letters by college students who marched off to die for their country in World War II. "Nihon Chinbotsu," it turns out, is nostalgic enough -- for 1945.

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