Also known as The Sinking of Japan, Japan Sinks 日本沉没, the most expensive Japanese movie ever (I heard), is Japan's answer to Korean and Hollywood movies that usually appeal to international audiences. It is a soulless, propagandistic blockbuster that sang praises of Japanese culture (and the country), displaying the sheer Samurai-like courage of Japanese people and their subtle and ridiculously honourable approaches in romance for the not-too-intelligent audiences. The opening credits were played over various famous landscapes and sceneries of Japan, all my years of watching Japanese films and never have I ever seen that many Japanese landmarks crammed in one film, let alone one montage.
I wasn't expecting much from the film, seriously, what kind of person would actually expect a disaster flick like this having aspirations to be high art? I expected some shallow social commentaries of sorts, like cheap shots at US (check), cheap shots at certain stubborn Japanese politicians (check), hinting a future female Prime Minister (hello, Yuriko Koike!), but other than that, I just wanted to see destruction, people dying, buildings crumbling, innocents screaming, soldiers weeping, head of states fuming etc. All those cliches you would get in disaster flicks like Armageddon, Deep Impact, Dante's Peak, Volcano, Day After Tomorrow, I got them, and because of that, I was content with the viewing experience.
Even though knowing full well I was watching an entirely shallow, soulless Hollywood blockbuster wannabe that dumbed itself down for mass consumption, with an atrociously stupid, snicker-inducing romantic subplot that even my little sister shook her head and dismissed as 'ridiculously sappy'.
Japan Sinks is like Snakes On A Plane, the title says it all, it's about Japan... sinking, its title lacks the subtlety of the aforementioned Hollywood disaster flicks. I'll copy and paste the summary from IMDB
In the aftermath of a major earthquake under Suraga Bay, Misaki (a young girl) and Toshiro (a pilot of a deep sea submarine played by Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) are rescued from a ruined city street just as leaking gasoline ignites. Reiko Abe (Kou Shibasaki) arrives just in time, lowered from a helicopter. Scientists predict that Japan will sink within 40 years, due to subduction of a tectonic plate to the west. However, Dr. Tadokoro (Etsushi Toyokawa), who leads an oceanic scientific team that includes Toshiro, calculates that this will happen far sooner, in only 338.54 days. He presents his findings to Prime Minister Yamamoto (dude looked like real ex-Japanese PM Koizumi) who decides to create a new department for impending disaster relief assigning Saoro Takamori (Mao Daichi) to cover the new duties, since of all his ministers she will take it seriously but also bring "heart" to the process.
So, more cliches. Dr. Tadokoro's this badass rebel scientist whose brilliance was ignored by the stubborn government because, well, he's a badass rebel scientist who looked intense in an action hero manner in every single scene he was in, to the point where it finally occurred to me that this character wasn't supposed to be taken seriously and that his sheer tenacious intensity was meant to be a joke (after finding out that Japan's sinking in less than a year, intense Dr. Tadokoro screamed in heroic anger and punched a hole onto his computer screen, then picked up the monitor, embraced it, and wept manly tears of sorrow when he realized that his beloved country, ran by stubborn old farts who never took him seriously, was in trouble).
Misaki, Toshiro and Reiko became exceptionally close after their encounter at the Suraga Bay, young Misaki, orphaned after the earthquake, looked at Toshiro and Reiko as her parental figures, and because of this, a budding attraction grew between Toshiro and Reiko, with Toshiro wanting to escape from Japan, bringing Reiko and Misaki along with him so they can live happily ever after like a family. Gee, I wonder why Misaki had such special feelings for Toshiro after the earthquake considering that he was just this random guy who was rescued along with her by Reiko (she's in the rescue team), oh right, that's because he's the hero. (Misaki bonding with Reiko is understandable, but Misaki and Toshiro's relationship is befuddling... if I wasn't aware of the fact that this, being a mindless blockbuster, was supposed to defy logic).
There are other cliches too, like, well, you know a guy's going to die when he goes on a mission and he takes out a photo of his wife and son, you know a nice guy's going to die too when he does something noble, but was never introduced at all prior to the movie, you know that a dog and a little girl won't die because dogs and little girls are hard to kill in disaster films. A sappy romantic scene with loud pop ballad playing in background (music video provided below), bringing back memories of... Aerosmith. The list goes on.
I don't hate this film, despite it being an obvious crap film. I'm just amused by its existence, and I'm starting to wonder whether this film is going to be the first of Japan's many attempts to garner more international audiences (like their Korean counterparts had been doing in the past decade). Some of the finest films in Japanese cinema had always been special to me because they possess this special 'something' that I've never seen in films of other countries. A subtlety of expression, a lack of in-your-face Korean-style melodrama, their capability of being immensely moving without trying too hard, the understated emotions that are rare in Hong Kong and Korean films, let alone Hollywood films. Basically, they are films that linger. Their lack of pretensions enthralled me.
It had always been painful for me when I tried to convince narrow-minded friends of mine to give Japanese films a go, and I would either hear them damning Japanese films for not being either as romantic (read: sappy) as their Korean counterparts, or visually sumptuous or expensive as Hollywood films. It's also somewhat depressing that the perception of Japanese cinema by most people around the world (especially the West) is defined completely by those internationally popular horror films like Ring and Ju-On, or the ultra-violent films with a notoriety that reached beyond their own country (Takashi Miike and Beat Takeshi's films, Battle Royale etc.). Although I'm not one of those pretentious elitist indie filmmakers who have nothing but disdain for mainstream tastes and popcorn entertainment, I'll be damned if Japan Sinks become the beginning of a new trend where we'll see more dumbed down special-effects bonanzas tailored to please the mass audience.
I remember when I was in high school, whilst trying to share my love for Japan films and doramas with this girl I liked, her retort was "BAH! If 'Beautiful Life' is the most-viewed TV doramas of all-time, I don't think I can respect the works of Japan that much", if I hadn't liked her that much then, and if I wasn't talking to her via the Internet, and if I weren't such a gentleman absolutely against domestic violence against women, I would have trouble suppressing the urge to punch her in the face.
Sorry that a review for a minor film like this would turn into a full-fledged rant. I guess I'm just slightly peeved after reading Screenhead's List of Hardest Novels To Film and its suggestion that Beat Takeshi, the 'country's best filmmaker', should go adapt The Wind-up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami, 'possibly the best book of the last 50 years' (my book review here). Everything's a matter of taste, of course, but Beat Takeshi... the country's best filmmaker? I liked Zatoichi too, but c'mon! (Of course, maybe I'm just annoyed that Shunji Iwai, one of my biggest influences, isn't getting any love here, and hey, if you take anime more seriously, you should be considering Hayao Miyazaki a filmmaker too), I'm sure the Miike hardcore fans ain't too happy either.
(I don't know, such outlandish declarations just annoyed me as much as Johnnie To's exclusion from Senses of Cinema's list of great directors. Tsai Min Liang is on the list but not Johnnie To? Despite what the guy had been doing all these years? His artistic and commercial achievements? WTF?)
But back to Japan Sinks, well, I won't say it sucks, because I usually reserve this for films which I didn't have any positive experience at all while watching. Don't take it seriously (unfortunately, my dad did, and he was absolutely disgusted by the poisonous center of this film) and you MIGHT enjoy it in a Snakes On A Plane manner.
Anyway, I've just gotten the DVD of Everywhere Except Japan Sinks in Shanghai, a parody of Japan Sinks, I'm going to check that out soon.
EDIT: Review of THE WORLD SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN (also known as EVERYWHERE EXCEPT JAPAN SINKS) here
Trailer of Sinking of Japan
Music video of Keep Holding You by Sunmin featuring Kubota