“The Sinking of Japan” (also known as “Japan Sinks”) is not exactly the stuff of dramatic legend, but oh my is it one heck of a visual treat. That is, if you like disaster movies, and don’t mind seeing, oh, 50 million or so people perish in a neverending sequence of earth-shattering quakes, mountain spewing volcanic ash, and yes, those pesky mile-high tidal waves. Of course, the fact that the astonishing bodycount of “The Sinking of Japan” is achieved through heavy (though spectacular) special effects gives them as much weight as, say, Tom Cruise dodging alien death rays in “War of the Worlds”. This is a disaster movie in every sense of the genre, complete with genre archetypes spouting the exact same dialogue you’ve heard in every disaster movie made by Hollywood except, well, it’s all in Japanese this time.
It appears that something underneath Japan, or in the Earth’s crust below Japan has deteriorated, or moved, or is shifting, or perhaps is doing the Electric Boogaloo (I forgot which), and the result is Japan’s imminent sinking. Scientists predict that the island nation will be under water in something like 30 years, but shocking discoveries by scientist Tadokoro (Etsushi Toyokawa) says otherwise. The spirited archaeologist, or marine biologist, or is that oceanographer (again, I forgot what he does exactly, but suffice to say he’s the movie’s Brilliant Scientist character and leave it at that) theorizes that Japan will sink in a matter of 300-odd days, and not years. Uh oh.
Of course, this being a disaster movie and since we’re still in the early goings of the film, no one believes our scientist, not even his Estranged Ex-Wife Takamori (Mao Daichi), who also happens to be the Vice Prime Minister, or Minister of Interior, or some sort of Minister in the Government. In any case, she gets put in charge after the Prime Minister goes down in a hail of volcanic missiles over the countryside and the acting Prime Minister skips the country. Now with Japan on the verge of collapsing into the sea, Takamori turns to her estranged husband to come up with a brilliant plan to save everyone. And of course, as is the case with all disaster movies made in a post-nuke world, Tadokoro believes that nuking the Earth’s crust will do the trick. And they say nuclear arms can’t solve the world’s problems!
To be perfectly honest with you, after years of watching disaster movies, I’ve been trained to glass over whenever the Brilliant Scientist character start explaining things, so I’ve probably missed one or two (or all) of the film’s scientific whatamagigs. Usually exposition scenes go like this: the Brilliant Scientist will go on and on with his funky math and science and whatnot, and it’s up to someone in the cast to say with some exasperation, “In English, doctor!” To which our Brilliant Scientist would do something hokey like burn a peach or use his fist to demonstrate a meteor. In this case, Takamori just asks her ex how to save Japan, and he shows her the peach trick using a newspaper. Which, curiously, made me feel as if I’ve been gyp. I mean, no one in the film even says, “In English, doctor!” Isn’t that a Disaster Movie Law or something? Apparently not in Japan.
Based on the novel by Sakyo Komatsu, “The Sinking of Japan” is basically a natural disaster version of a Godzilla movie, where thousands of hapless Japanese civilians are sent scurrying across city streets (in this case, the nation) whenever the monsters do battle, and the carnage is simply too massive to fully comprehend. Or to take all that seriously, actually. And like a Godzilla film, most of the movie is taken up with perfunctory civilian side stories that we, the audience, are supposed to empathize with. Meanwhile, the audience waits patiently for the monsters to return and crush some more plaster buildings. Except instead of miniatures and guys in rubber suits, director Shinji Higuchi has millions of dollars for brilliant computer visual effects.
And that really is the film’s main draw. “The Sinking of Japan” tries to give us a ground-level view of the chaos through the eyes of three main characters, but they’re hopelessly uninteresting and only serve to add almost 30 minutes of unnecessary stabs at human drama to the film. The three main characters are firefighter rescue chick Reiko (Kou Shibasaki), her maybe-maybe not boyfriend Toshio (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), and Misaki (Mayuko Fukuda), the little orphan girl they sorta adopt after a serendipitous meeting in a devastated city street early in the film. And um, they’re suppose to remind us of the human casualties of the catastrophe, and why we should care, and other junk like that. Whatever. Bring on the collapsing cities!
And this is exactly what Higuchi is counting on, as he delivers one incredible citywide massacre sequence after another. No surprise, then, that a cursory trip through IMDB.com reveals Higuchi to be an old hand at choreographing mass destruction of Japanese cities on a grand scale, as he was the special effects supervisor on a number of Godzilla films. “The Sinking of Japan” is Higuchi’s second feature film, after making his debut with 2005’s revisionist World War II submarine drama “Lorelai: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean”.
Curiously, while disaster movies know enough to devote only a few expensive sequences to the mass chaos of their film’s disaster elements, “The Sinking of Japan” continues to pile on the bodycount throughout the film. You would think that after a while the filmmakers would “get” that we, the audience, “get” that Japan is going to hell really fast unless Tadokoro’s plan works. Apparently not, because the destruction of Japan is a neverending part of “Sinking”, with one prefecture after another going down. Yes, we get it. Tadokoro’s plan better work. Now can we please watch Tadokoro and his army of oceanic drillers get to work saving the day? Finally, Higuchi and screenwriter Masato Kato relents, and — what’s this? We’re already 100 minutes into the movie? And there’s only 35 minutes of screentime left? Oh well.
Now, while I don’t know how Japan is laid out in intricate details, and speaking purely as an outsider and a layman, I would swear that by the time moody and do-nothing Toshio gets off his ass and decides he wants to save Japan or die trying, there isn’t really a whole lot of Japan left to save. Isn’t 90% of the country already in the ocean, along with its population? I don’t know, my Japanese geography isn’t my strongest suit, but I’m not sure if there’s a whole lot left to salvage, boys. Maybe they can use their Self Defense Force and take over South Korea. (In something of an inside joke to those familiar with current Korean-Japanese politics, there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss bit in the film about every nation in the world accepting Japanese refugees save two — North and South Korea. In fact, there’s even a scene where ships full of Japanese refugees are turned away from Korean ports. Take that, Koreans!)
Without belaboring the point, “The Sinking of Japan” tries is darnedest to work as human drama, and achieves in spurts, but it’s all the same stuff you’ve seen before in films like “Armageddon” and its ilk. Fortunately this hit-and-miss part of the film isn’t really a hindrance, as “Sinking” is first and foremost a brilliant piece of technical filmmaking. It needs to be said again that the destruction that Higuchi orchestrates is impressive. There are even some amazing non-disaster shots, such as when Reiko and Toshio say their goodbyes under a pouring rain. Except it’s not rain, but rather volcanic ash. And of course, this scene is played over a love melody, as it surely must. It’s a Disaster Movie Law, doncha know.
Shinji Higuchi (director) / Sakyo Komatsu (novel), Masato Kato (screenplay)
CAST: Tsuyoshi Kusanagi …. Toshio Onodera
Kou Shibasaki …. Reiko Abe
Etsushi Toyokawa …. Yusuke Tadokoro
Mao Daichi …. Saori Takamori
Mitsuhiro Oikawa …. Shinji Yuki
Mayuko Fukuda …. Misaki Kuraki
Hideko Yoshida …. Tamae Tanokura
Akira Emoto …. Prof. Fukuhara