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“Pandemic” sees Japanese cinema again taking on the time honoured disaster movie formula, this time with the tale of a deadly virus threatening the country as various stars try to save themselves and their loved ones. Very much in the style of the 1995 Hollywood outing “Outbreak”, the film was directed by Zeze Takahisa, (best known for the offbeat vampire effort “Moon Child”), with actor Tsumabuki Satoshi (“Dororo”) and actress Dan Rei (“Love and Honor”) in the lead roles, and a supporting ensemble cast including Sato Koichi (“The Magic Hour”), Ikewaki Chizuru (“Strawberry Shortcakes”), Fuji Tatsuya (“Flavor of Happiness”), Kuninaka Ryoko (“Train Man”), and Mitsuishi Ken. Arriving shortly on region 2 DVD via MVM, the film was originally released domestically back in 2009, at a time when global virus scares were still very much making headline news, and given recent events in Japan, its scenes of eerily empty cities and destruction still ring sadly true.
Tsumabuki Satoshi plays a kindly young doctor called Matsuoka, whose latest patient is a man with what seem to be fairly obvious flu symptoms. However, the usual tests come back false, and the unfortunate fellow is soon bleeding from his eyes and nose, before going into violent convulsions and dying. It quickly becomes clear that this is only the start of a new and particularly infectious pandemic, with the hospital being quarantined after a number of staff members also start to show signs of having contracted the killer bug. Although the media latch onto the idea that the virus is a new strain of flu caused by contaminated poultry, Matsuoka and a World Health Organization officer (Dan Rei), who just happens to be his former lover, trace it back to an island in the Northern Philippines, desperately racing against time to find a cure before it can spread to the rest of the country.
It’s clear from early on that “Pandemic” is sticking closely to the usual virus film template, and that comparisons with “Outbreak” are entirely justified, with director Zeze Takahisa following the usual path of charting the catastrophe as it spreads from overseas, infects a small town and moves on to threaten the nation, working in a variety of human interest stories along the way. Thankfully, although the film doesn’t really add anything new to the genre, it’s an efficient and engaging piece of storytelling that never dives too far into melodrama, even as the supporting cast inevitably start to drop off one by one. There are a fair few teary scenes along the way and drawn out noble death scenes, though the film deserves credit for not tugging too hard at the heartstrings, and for maintaining a vaguely scientific and detached demeanour through to the end. The cast are generally on reasonable form, and though Tsumabuki Satoshi’s earnest young medic is a little on the obvious side as a protagonist, his relationship with Dan Rei’s more hard-nosed health agent is effective at giving the film a pleasing emotional core.
The premise itself is interesting, with national and global pandemics still being very much of public interest, and the film is all the more believable for taking a measured and grounded approach, with a good balance between set pieces and character drama. Whilst at over two hours it does feel a touch overstretched, it’s never dull and manages a decent amount of tension as events escalate, with the third act shift of the action to the Philippines making for a nice change of scenery. Oddly enough, the film does seem to be trying to make some kind of point about the virus and people co-existing, with a theme of acceptance and responsibility taking the fore during the later stages. This actually works quite well, and although it would be going too far to accuse the film of any genuine spirituality, the idea of not treating the disease as an evil enemy is an interesting one.
Though this isn’t quite enough to make “Pandemic” particularly different to other virus themed disaster movies, it’s certainly one of the better examples of the form of recent years and is equal to anything produced by Hollywood on the topic. Well made and acted, it makes for entertaining viewing at the same time as convincingly presenting an all too possible doomsday scenario that will doubtless be revisited by more films in the future.
Takahisa Zeze (director) / Takahisa Zeze, Takashi Hirano, Atsuyuki Shimoda (screenplay)
CAST: Satoshi Tsumabuki … Tsuyoshi Matsuoka
Rei Dan … Eiko Kobayashi
Ryôko Kuninaka … Takako Mita
Yûji Tanaka … Eisuke Mita
Chizuru Ikewaki … Mami Manabe