Kinji Fukasaku: The Man No Genre Could Tame

Fukkatsu no Hi: Virus

"Taken to extremes, what Japanese film companies most desire is that films like Star Wars or ET — or even Rocky or Back to the Future — come out every year, or that Kadokawa Haruki or Fuji Television sponsor some major work. An old Japanese expression refers to this as competing in sumo wrestling while wearing someone else's loincloth."

-- OSHIMA Nagisa, Perspectives on the Japanese Film
included in Cinema, Censorship, and the State
(Boston: Massachusetts Inbstitute of Technology Press, 1992)

Kadokawa Haruki inherited control of his family's publishing company, Kadokawa Shoten, in 1975. He brought with him ambitious plans for expanding the company into a gigantic multimedia empire. As part of his plan, he established a movie-making wing of the organization, called Kadokawa Eiga, and started making well-mounted and commercially salable films... many of which were based on novels Kadokawa had already published. Among the first movies to appear from Kadokawa Eiga were a series of films based on popular mystery stories featuring the detective Kindaichi Kôsuke; Kadokawa did his best to ensure the success of his first movie by bringing in legendary director Ichikawa Kon to helm it.

Though Kadokawa himself was removed from his position in the wake of a drug scandal in 1992, the film company he started remains successful today. In fact, Kadokawa Eiga has been largely responsible for the Japanese "horror renaissance" of the late 1990's, having produced the Ringu series as well as movies like Shikoku, Inugami, St. John's Wort and the Cellphone series.

But if there's one point at which Kadokawa's business sense failed him, it was in his first attempts to gain international attention for his movies. His first major international co-production, the movie that was supposed to secure his reputation in the American market, relied on the star-power of — ahem — George Kennedy as its main selling-point. Nobody bought it.

For his next major effort at breaking into the US market, he decided to turn to a genre that had proven itself to be enormously popular: the big-budget disaster movie. Turning to a source novel by Komatsu Sakyo, whose work had also inspired The Submersion of Japan a few years before, Kadokawa Eiga began production on Fukkatsu no Hi, or Day of Resurrection... the disaster movie to end all disaster movies.

Unlike most other disaster movies, Fukkatsu no Hi didn't deal with a localized incident and its aftermath. It was concerned with the end of the entire world. And even though the world's end came not with a bang, but with a-choo! — thereby calling for fewer spectacular special effects — Kadokawa knew better than to skimp on the budget. This was going to be the most expensive movie Japan had yet produced. This time, in addition to George Kennedy, the movie would feature an impressive Irwin Allen-style all-star cast, including Olivia Hussey, Glenn Ford, Robert Vaughan, Bo Svenson, Chuck Connors... plus a rising star named Edward James Olmos (not to mention Sonny Chiba Shinichi, at least in the Japanese version of the movie). And to direct the movie, who better than the man whose previous films had already confronted the death of civilization, albeit on a smaller scale? The man who had a self-confessed weakness for huge casts and complex multi-threaded plots? The man who'd already made at least one of Japan's previous most-expensive movies, Message from Space? Who better than Fukasaku Kinji?!1

So it seemed as though Kadokawa was certain to realize his dream of breaking into the American and international film market. With a seasoned, professional director overseeing a seasoned, professional cast and crew... and with more than enough funding to allow them to film all over the world (including major setups in Antarctica)... what could possibly go wrong?

What, indeed.

Needless to say, Fukkatsu no Hi — or Virus, to use its international title — did not take the US by storm. Part of the reason Kadokawa's pet project failed was its script: in spite of a gripping opening, in which the end of almost all vertebrate life on Earth is condensed into about a half-hour, the movie bogs down into a bunch of silly, often naïve sub-plots. Then, after a sizeable chunk of post-apocalyptic soap opera, we're plunged back into familiar disaster movie territory, as mismatched heroes race against time to save the world's remaining population. Though the film does take an unexpected twist toward the end that saves it from complete banality, the nature of that twist was unlikely to win it many friends among American summer audiences.

Still, other movies have ovecome their poor scripts and succeeded at the box office. I you'll allow me to offer a guess, I'm reasonably sure the main reason the film tanked internationally was the same reason a number of other big-budget blockbusters crashed and burned at the same time: the US had undergone a sudden, major cultural shift that rendered the movie obsolete.

Can't Stop the Mucus
Few eras in cultural history have begun with such precision as the American 80's. People disagree about the exact starts of the so-called 60's and 70's, but there's no doubt that the 80's arrived promptly in 1980. Film-makers all over the world were caught by surprise by the change (which probably isn't all that surprising when you consider how long it takes a studio to switch direction, even on those rare occasions when it realizes its comfortable rut is no longer fashionable). The highest-profile casualty of the year in film was the disco musical: though disco had been publicly executed in the summer of 1979, this didn't stop three multinational studios from embarrassing themselves with disco movies nobody wanted to see, namely EMI's Can't Stop the Music, Universal's Xanadu and Cannon's The Apple.

But 1980 also saw the death of the disaster movie. Irwin Allen released the last of his trademark films (the aptly-named volcano movie When Time Ran Out) in March, and not even the subsequent explosion of Mt. Saint Helens two months later could convince anybody to go to see it. The disaster movie, like the disco movie, had been worked to death. And so by the time Virus was released in Japan, six days after Can't Stop the Music opened in America, it really was the 70's-type disaster movie to end all disaster movies. It didn't matter that Virus, for all its faults, was a better movie than any Irwin Allen ever made: the US and international market for such films had ceased to exist.

What's more, the cultural and political upheavals that followed across the decade made Virus look more and more outdated. Virus was made during Jimmy Carter's presidency, and its look ahead to 1982 foresaw an American President attempting to use diplomacy to end the Cold War — much to the disgust of the military, who have their own plans. Instead, in 1982 we had Ronald Reagan in the White House, building up the military and taking a hard-line stance against the Soviet Union; while in the USSR and Eastern Europe, reform movements grew steadily in power. By the end of the 80's the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, and it seemed for a little while as though the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction, which has a bigger rôle in Virus than George Kennedy does, had been banished.

Now that I think about it, it seems to me that Virus is actually a more topical film today than it was in the 1980's. Though the Cold War is over, the risk of chemical and biological attack is fresh in people's minds, since both Japan and the US have been targeted by such attacks. Also, the threat of nuclear war is emerging once again, not just from countries like North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, or from terrorists threatening to use primitive "dirty bombs", but also from the announced intentions of the United States to actively pursue "mini-nukes" for practical combat use. Suddenly the double nightmare of germs and bombs posed by Virus starts to seem more plausible than it ever did before.

But we were talking about the 80's. The "borrowed sumo loincloth" that Kadokawa was wearing had become too stiff and stinky to wear any more. International success had eluded him again, and he ended up selling Virus directly to American cable TV in a drastically-truncated form. The American TV version, which cuts out most of the Japanese characters, is missing over three-quarters of an hour of footage. As you can probably imagine, the cuts make nonsense out of the film. You can't really blame Kadokawa for wanting to recoup his investment, but it would have been kinder for everyone else involved if he hadn't released the cut version at all2.

The rest of this review contains major spoilers (as usual). Virus really isn't the kind of movie you watch to "find out what happens next": even if you watch it with your brain on low-power, you'll probably find enough inconsistencies and ludicrous plot twists to ruin any sense of suspense the movie might have built up. The main reason to watch the film is to see what a great job Fukasaku has done turning a lousy script into a beautifully-shot and entertaining movie.

"It Was The Cough That Carried Him Off;
It Was The Coffin They Carried Him Off In"
The movie begins in 1983, as the British nuclear submarine Nereid makes its way into Tokyo harbor. At the helm is Chuck Connors...but there seems to be something wrong with him. He... talks funny. It takes us a while to catch on: he's supposed to be English! "The Rifleman"; the ex-pro ball player; one of the most quintessentially American actors ever to appear on screen, is playing an English — no, excuse me, a Scottish submarine captain. All they needed was to cast Michael Caine as a guy from Brooklyn, and their casting coup would have been complete.

But if we can distract ourselves from Connors' noble if doomed attempt at a British accent, there are more urgent matters to attend to. Scientists aboard the submarine cautiously take an air sample, while a camera drone is launched to survey the empty city. Chuck — er, Captain MacLeod suddenly realizes that the one Japanese scientist aboard, the seismologist Yoshizumi, isn't in the control room. Realizing the images from the drone may give Yoshizumi his last-ever view of home, Captain MacLeod orders his men to summon him.

Yoshizumi has been spending long hours working on his theory of earthquake prediction, though everybody thinks he's nuts. In fact, he's not really resting from his work, as everyone assumes. He's propped up in his bunk, going over his books and charts yet again, when the call comes for him to report to the bridge. Getting out of the bunk, he drops his books and papers all over the guy in the bunk below him. The guy below him is Major Carter (Bo Svenson), who dislikes the Japanese in general, and Yoshizumi in particular. You may have guessed that this has major ramifications for the end of the movie...

Yoshizumi arrives on the bridge in time to see images of withered corpses strewn in the streets of Tokyo. As he watches in horror, Maj. Carter walks in behind him and makes a callous joke about the Japanese finally solving their smog problem; Captain MacLeod gives him a stern rebuke. Another of the scientists, the French Dr. Latour, tells the Captain that virus levels in the outside air are still high. MacLeod wants to discard the air samples and get out, but Latour convinces him to bring the contaminated samples back to their base for study. Their base — the crew balks at calling it "home" — is Antarctica, the last bastion of vertebrate life on the planet.

And how did things get to this terrible state? As the opening credits begin, we find out in horrifying detail: the world was destroyed by bad pop music. Just listen to the cloying ballad that plays under the opening montage and you'll understand what I mean. I can't convey the full awfulness of it, but here's a hint on what the music sounds like:

"Symptoms... nothing more than... Symptoms..."

Pining for death's sweet embrace yet? "Viiii-rus! Wohh - wohh - wohh, viii-rus!" How about now?

So you don't believe me? I can't include a recording of the song to prove my point, but here are the actual lyrics:

What's the time?
      Where's the place?
Why the line?
      Where's the race?
Just in time
      I see your face —

            Toujours gai, mon cher.

You are the star
      that greets the sun;
Shine across my distant sky
      When night is done.
You'll be the moon
      To light my way —

            Toujours gai, mon cher.

It's not too late
      To start again;
It's not too late,
      though when you go away
            the skies are gray again...
In the time
      That remains
I will stay
toujours gai, mon cher.

No regrets
      For the light that will not shine;
No regrets
      but don't forget the flame was mine;
In another place —
      in another time,

            Toujours gai, mon cher.

It's not too late...
     etc., etc., etc.
There: what did I tell you? Terrible! Though as the music dies away, we at least can take some comfort in the fact that whatever happens in the movie, it can't possibly be as bHalfway measures... (aw, crap; here it goes again)...
      ... go unsung;
Take your pleasures
      While you're young.
Just remember
      When they're done —
toujours gai, mon cher.

All right, now it's over. By the time it's done, The Nereid has returned to Antarctica (in what feels like real-time)... just in time for us to flash back to February of 1982. Actually, the intertitles overshoot a little and threaten to take us all the way back to 1981, but they recover at the last minute and bring us back to '82: the beginning of the end.

In the middle of a blizzard, an East German scientist bluffs his way out of his top secret laboratory in Leipzig to meet with some shady-looking characters in an old farmhouse. The scientist has brought with him a sample of a virus in the false bottom of a thermos of coffee. The virus, says the scientist, is called MM8-8, and it's the most dangerously lethal pathogen known to man. It was developed by accident, as a result of American experiments in genetic engineering (viruses are used in genetic engineering because of the way they reproduce: they take over their hosts' cells and re-program them with the virus's own genetic material). MM8-8 was an unintended consequence of the research. It's a virus which is capable of infecting any vertebrate life form; once it does, it mutates to take on the characteristics of other viral diseases until, within 3 days, it's found a way to kill its host. Though its creation was an accident (and one wonders how on earth anyone would be able to test such a deadly virus), its potential as a bioweapon was immediately recognized by both the Americans and the Soviets, who'd obtained their sample through the, er, usual channels.

Now, I don't really know anything about virology, so I'm going to have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt when it asks me to believe in a virus capable of infecting people, mice, elephants, geckos, fish, hummingbirds, newts, Galapagos tortoises and sloths with equal lethality. For the sake of the story, I can accept that. The explanation of its mutability I can accept as well, with some mental recalculation: the mutation hypothesis might be an early guess on the part of a frightened scientist, though the real explanation is more likely to be something like the way the HIV virus operates. Rather than MM8-8 "mimicking" other viruses, it would be more logical that it causes a catastrophic collapse of the host's immune system, so that within 3 days the infected animal is dead of any number of opportunistic infections.

It's scary that I can go back to a sci-fi disaster movie and fill in details based on current events; but then again, it's like I said: Virus is more timely now than it was in 1980.

There are other things I have problems with regarding the explanation of MM8-8, but I'll get to them later.

The East German scientist insists that the virus sample be delivered to the aptly-named Dr. Not-Appearing-In-This-Movie — no, wait; Dr. Freex has threatened to clobber anybody he catches quoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail, so I'd best watch myself — make that Dr. Leisenauer in Switzerland. Amusingly enough, the spies are shocked by the scientist's inability to furnish documentation for his claims. They're absolutely right, but how many times do we hear trenchcoat-clad operatives demanding backup information for the McGuffin? Savor the moment while you can.

The scientist points out, reasonably enough under the circumstances, that he had enough trouble getting the sample out undetected. He goes on to refuse the spies' offer of payment for his services. The only important thing, says the scientist, is that the virus sample be taken safely to Leisenauer, so that the Swiss virologist can get to work on a defense against MM8-8 before anyone is foolish enough to use it as a weapon.

In fact, the scientist has got one of his facts wrong: his activities have not gone undetected. Suddenly, East German troops pour into the farmhouse. The spies, being professionals, manage to escape the ensuing hail of point-blank machine gun fire (by blowing out a candle and running out the back door). The scientist is not so lucky: like the soldiers, he has apparently forgotten that faarmhouses might have a back door, and so he ends up in bloody bits all over the floor.

Somehow, though we never find out exactly how, the spies manage to evade the Germans and escape through the blizzard. When next we see them, they're in a plane flying low over a mountain range. At first, we might assume the mountains are the Alps, but then we find out the spies have absolutely no interest in giving the sample to Leisenauer in Switzerland. I think they're supposed to be Americans, interested in finding out how much the Communists have discovered about MM8-8. They're flying dangerously low because they don't want to be detected; that sort-of hints that they're still flying in Eastern-block territory. When they encounter sudden turbulence, they seem about to start into some bad comic relief; but fortunately, before things can get too unpleasant, the plane loses control and slams into the side of a mountain. The thermos containing the virus sample, unscathed by the plane's explosion, falls to the rocks below and shatters. The camera zooms in portentiously on the shattered flask...

There Was One Tiny Flaw In The Plan:
It Was Bollocks
And now we come to the point where the script veers seriously off the "science" and dives headfirst into a steaming pile of "fiction".

We're going to have it explained to us that this virus thrives in any temperature greater than -10 Celsius; that left to its own devices, it can spread across the entire world in a distressingly short time. We're further asked to believe that the tiny vial of specimen virus, which shattered on the slope of a distant mountain, released a cloud of virus that proceeded to grow, and multiply, and spread over the rest of the world. The first incident we get to see after the airplane crash takes place in Kazakhstan, which implies that the tiny spy plane was flying out of East Germany and straight into the heart of the Soviet Union (which makes no sense). But the first major outbreak to catch world attention is in Italy, of all places, so that the virus gets the name "Italian flu". So the virus is spreading on its own, like a tiny and invisible swarm of bees.

The problem here is — disaster film fans and B-Fest 2005 attendees take note — There Is No Bee Here.

I don't know very much about viruses, but there is one very important thing I do know, because it's one of the virus' most important characteristics. A virus (or to be more exact a virion, which is a virus before it's attacked a host cell) can not reproduce on its own. A virus is really just a living set of instructions (and many disagree with the "living" description, mainly for this reason) that depends on the genetic material it finds in its host to create copies of itself. Even if it's a virus which is transmissable through the air, which was the nightmare scenario presented in Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman, it still needs a vector — some medium through which it can transmit itself to other organisms. It isn't going to feed off thin air and expand into a huge swirling cloud of lethality.

So unless there was a distasteful episode that got left on the cutting-room floor involving a mountain goat and a lonely mountaineer, I don't know how the virus managed to spread so quickly. I can probably come up with some excuses to figure out how the virus manages to wipe out everybody and everything in the whole world in such a short time — I suppose with every vertebrate animal being susceptible to the illness, it might be difficult to avoid infection... and everybody who did manage to stay healthy probably got themselves clobbered in the Fall of Society As We Know It. But what I can't figure out is how the virus could continue to grow, and thrive, and infect every last particle of air long after it's killed its last viable host.

But this is a disaster movie, and everybody knows that the cardinal rule of disaster movies is: no matter how badly the proverbial deck is stacked against our heroes at the beginning of the movie, there's always room for the situation to get a little worse. The opening song said, toujours gai, toujours gai, and I can only chime in like mehitabel, wotthehell, wottthehell.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, a scientist working on the MM8-8 project (which is code named "Operation Phoenix" — oh, the irony; the irony!) manages to figure out the ultimate purpose of the research he's doing. Before he can make his case to the Senate's Defense Oversight Committee, headed by Sen. Barkley (Robert Vaughn!), he is discovered by his military project leader, Col. Rankin (who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Groucho Marx... I should also point out that this Col. Rankin is not related to Commander Jack Rankin, the nominal hero of Fukasaku's Green Slime).

How does Rankin intend to silence the rogue scientist? "Send him to Letterman," he says — another moment which has not aged well. Naturally, he does not mean "put him on late night national television." He means: send him to the hospital to be declared insane and committed by the unseen Dr. Letterman. How was anyone to know that an aspiring comic by the same name would premiere his first solo TV show three days before Virus opened in Japan?

At the same time, in Japan, a ship is being prepared to take a crew of scientists down to Antarctica. Spring in Japan is autumn in Antarctica, so the scientists have a short time to put their systems in place before they're completely cut off from the rest of the world by the polar winter. Among the scientists is the seismologist Yoshizumi. Now, the uncut version of Virus which I saw had no subtitles for the Japanese episodes, and what little Japanese I once knew I have now forgotten; so I may not have the nuances quite right here... It seems as though Yoshizumi's girlfriend wants to settle down with him and have children, but Yoshizumi doesn't want that for a number of reasons (all of which will come back to haunt him after everybody's dead). Complicating matters is the fact that she's already carrying his child. Just as he's about to leave her for a year at the South Pole (ironically, while his friend Tatsuno bids a fond farewell to his wife and little son), she breaks off their relationship. You may have guessed that this has major ramifications for the end of the movie.

So off goes Yoshizumi to the ends of the earth, while the end of the world sneaks in behind him.

When the Italian flu hits Japan, Yoshizumi's girlfriend Noriko (being a nurse) is put under so much stress that she loses her baby. Since the doctors and nurses are unaware of the true nature of the disease, they fail to take some elementary precautions. Reality sinks in when the ailing doctors find the goldfish in their break room have all died as well. It isn't long before everyone in the hospital has collapsed on the floor in a heap... all except one person, and no prizes for guessing who that is.

Up until this point, the movie's been reasonably good. Unfortunately, things are about to take a major down-turn. Perhaps we can believe that the MM8-8 project was developed by the military without the knowledge of the President... after all, this is one of the only political plot points brought up by the film that actually came true later (though there is still argument over whether or not President Reagan really knew about secret arms deals with Iran). Perhaps we can believe that the stunning impact of the Italian flu makes the world's doctors and nurses forget elementary precautions like barrier nursing, thereby ensuring that the disease spreads further and that even they get sick. Perhaps we can even imagine that the President of the US and his staff would continue to muddle on in the White House, even though we suspect they'd be more likely to hide themsleves in an Undisclosed Secure Location where not even a virus could get in (unless it had made a major financial contribution to the President's election campaign).

Absurd behavior I can understand and tolerate. I've even come to expect all American military personnel to be depicted as raving, bloodthirsty lunatics in the movies; it's absolutely untrue, but — sigh — I expect it. It's bathos that makes me lose my patience. Virus has plenty of opportunity to wallow, and to its credit it usually lets the moment pass: for instance, the loss of Noriko's baby could have been exploited pretty ruthlessly, but in fact it's handled reasonably well. Still, the script loses me completely during a scene at the Japanese base in Antarctica, where an increasingly desperate crew waits for word from the outside. The whole team is clustered around the radio, when a particular transmission comes through...

I have said in other reviews that a movie must be very careful handling the deaths of children. You can't just off kids the way you do disposable adult extras. I don't agree with the conventional Hollywood dictum that children should never be placed in serious jeopardy, but I do think that if you're going to harm children in the course of a movie, it's a gesture you have to take very, very seriously. Having said that, I have to say that this scene involves the death of a child, and it's not only the funniest scene in the movie, it's one of the most unintentionally hilarious sequences ever shot (Fukasaku's reserved and dignified treatment of the scene actually makes it worse).

The Japanese crew listens intently for an official transmission from.. somewhere; anywhere... when suddenly a little boy's voice comes on:

TOBY: Hello? Hello? Can anybody hear me? My name is Toby Anderson!
TATSUNO: (in heavily accented English) This is H7R observer station (??). Toby? Come in, Toby. Over.
TOBY: Can anybody hear me? My name is Toby!
TATSUNO: Toby! I hear you! I hear you!
TOBY: Can anybody hear me? I'm at the Anderson residence outside of Santa Fe. This is Daddy's radio. Can anybody hear me?

(Throughout the scene, the camera pans around the sweaty, serious faces of the Japanese crew)

TOBY: Daddy told me not to use the radio until I turned 10. I'm onwy five!
TATSUNO: Toby! Let go of the mike switch after you speak!
TOBY: I asked Daddy if I could use the radio just this once... but he doesn't answer... he's asleep on the floor and he won't wake up. Mommy's gone... is anybody out there?
TATSUNO (practically in tears): Toby! The switch! The switch! Let go the switch!
TOBY: Cough, cough... I don't feel good. I want my Mommy. I'm scared!
TATSUNO: Toby! The switch!
TOBY: I'm not a baby, though. Daddy's gun is right here. I know how to use it.
TOBY: I don't want to be alone...


TATSUNO (conversational voice): Toby...?
I just want you to picture for a moment: a five-year-old boy, shooting himself one-handed with his Daddy's gun while conveniently managing to hold down the microphone button even after he's dead. The whole thing is so ridiculous, so over-the-top, so blatantly manipulative and yet so poorly managed that (for me, anyway) it manages to upstage even the end of the world as the single most memorable moment in the film. It's so awful that it undermines some of the genuinely powerful moments that follow, particularly Yoshizumi's girlfriend's mercy-killing of Tatsuno's son before she commits suicide. Once we've had the death of a child trivialized, it's almost impossible to see it handled well without remembering the insincerity of the previous scene.

Oddly enough, though, one of the most genuinely powerful sequences in the movie doesn't feature any of the actors at all. Fukasaku gives us a montage of images from the world's capitals, showing them empty and desolate. Static shots of familiar architecture and public sculpture strengthen the impression that the whole world has ground to a halt, and is frozen in time. The statuary seems to be grieving silently. Sunsets are a recurring visual motif in the film... the sun (hi) in Fukkatsu no Hi seems to be going down, not coming up... and in this sequence there are some amazingly beautiful sunset shots.

Anyway... after the whole world has fallen victim to the plague, and the US has finally realized that it's mostly their fault, it's the dying President of the United States himself who has the forehead-slapping moment when he remembers all the personnel stationed in Antarctica. The extreme cold has prevented the virus from reaching them (I believe the proper word for this situation is: D'OHH!). With almost his last breath, he orders the Antarctic personnel to stay where they are and make the best of their new world.

But before the President can wheeze, get all frowny-faced and close his eyes — die, in other words — he has to deal with the fanatic General Garland (Henry Silva). MM8-8 is Garland's fault, but even now that the world is in ruins he's still insisting on activating the Automated Response System to retaliate against possible Russian nuclear attacks. Garland interprests the President's dying gasps as permission to activate, so he goes down into the ARS control room (which, oddly enough, is located in the basement of the White House), pushes the magic buttons and sits down to giggle himself to death.

You may have guessed that this has major ramifications for the end of the movie...

Not With a Bang, But With...
er, Strike That.
Virus seems to want to be a cautionary tale, like the overwhelming British films Threads and The War Game, or like the considerably tamer American television movie The Day After. Those latter three films all dealt with the end of civilization as a consequence of full-scale nuclear war; they were intended less as entertainment than as a vehicle to make people aware just how bad things were likely to be if nuclear war really did break out. Unlike Virus, the makers of those films did not exaggerate the nature of the threat: rather, they studied likely scenarios very, very carefully. The result was doubly terrifying because it was so plausible.

Virus, on the other hand, is not plausible at all. It's clear that the writers of Virus did little or no research into the way viruses really work. They merely invented a super-bug with amazing powers and set it loose among their characters. If anything, they made the virus a little too lethal: I'd hate to imagine how the few humans who survived would get along without any other vertebrates on the entire planet. But then, having killed off most of the world's population, the movie leaves us with as unlikely a set of survivors as we might ever have expected. In Threads and the other films, the few survivors who made it out into the shattered world were a random cross-section of humanity, all reduced to a terrible state by radiation, disease, and despair. In Virus, because of the artificial nature of the threat, the survivors are all scientists, researchers, military personnel... all people whose lives revolve around structure, order, and hierarchy. Thus Virus doesn't show us a nightmarish post-apocalyptic world where the pathetic remains of humanity must revert to brutality to survive. No. Instead, the pathetic remains of humanity have meetings.

Perhaps the Norwegians took the most sensible way out: when the Japanese arrive at the Norwegian camp, they find that they've all killed themselves and each other. There is only one survivor, a heavily-pregnant woman (Olivia Hussey — you were wondering when we'd get to her, weren't you?) whom Yoshizumi finds huddled in a closet. Not having seen John Carpenter's The Thing, they take her back to the main outpost at Camp Pendleton, where she gives birth shortly after. The committee approves wholeheartedly.

There are now 863 total people left alive in Antarctica, and of these only 8 are women3 (these 8 women just happen to be more than reasonably attractive and of childbearing age, as female scientists always are in the movies...) So how do the survivors deal with the immense problems of sex, reproduction, and the survival of the species? They have a meeting. What happens in the aftermath of the collapse of the world's governments, when stereotyped American, Russian, Japanese, European and South American people are forced together in close quarters? They have meetings. Almost all of the events of the middle section of the film take place in conference.

The most important of these meetings takes place after we've settled into the surprisingly confortable rhythm of post-apocalyptic life. In the meantime, inevitably, Yoshizumi has fallen in love with the Norwegian widow, even though one-to-one relationships between men and women are no longer possible or permitted. Just when we're beginning to think things are getting a bit too... normal... Major Carter catches a glimpse of one of Yoshizumi's earthquake prediction charts. What he sees there disturbs him so much that he immediately insists on, you guessed it: having a meeting.

Yoshizumi has forecast a major quake across the Eastern seaboard of the US. He explains that recent oil drilling has emptied out vast areas benaeth the Baltimore trench, leading to instabilities that will result in an enormous collapse. The epicenter will be in the area of Washington, DC, and it's going to happen within a very short time. This all sounds like a load of crap to me, but then again I know less about this sort of thing than I do about viruses.

The reason this so distresses Major Carter is that he just happened to be privy to the secrets of the Automated Defense System that General Garland activated. A major earthquake in Washington will be sensed by the ARS as the result of a nuclear attack. Thus the ARS will send its missiles over to Russia. Russia, in the meantime, has long been under the impression that the US was hiding missiles — just try and guess where? — at Camp Pendleton in Antarctica, where the remaining population of the entire world is presently living. Once the missiles leave their bases in the US, Russian missiles will automatically launch themselves in return... and the last outpost of humanity will be blown to tiny glowing bits.

Like I said earlier: in a disaster movie, nothing is ever so bleak that it can't be made a million times bleaker.

Naturally, there's nothing left to do except to move as many people and as much of their resources as possible, in stages if necessary, to the research stations on the other side of the continent. Right? Wrong. That would make too much sense. Instead, it's agreed that the Nereid will take a randomly-selected survivor up to Washington (and certain death) to attempt to disarm the ARS, while all the women and a small group of men sail to safer ground. Carter realizes that he's the only one who has any chance of succeeding, so he goes ahead and volunteers. Yoshizumi, hoping to end his life with a kind of purpose he'd failed to achieved before the apocalypse, insists on going along, though his nemesis Carter practically beats him up to prevent him. Yoshizumi keeps after him, until he becomes so annoying that Carter has no choice but to relent.

Before they embark — after the obligatory Tender Love Scene between Yoshizumi and his new main squeeze — Dr. Latour stops by to destroy the movie's last remaining shred of believability. Latour whispers that he may have discovered a vaccine against the virus. "Well, to simplify," he says, "it appears that high levels of radiation introduced into a living virus cell create an effective antibody."


Let's go over this, shall we?

1. Viruses do not have cells. They are more primitive than cellular organisms.
2. Viruses do not create antibodies for themselves. Antibodies are created by the immune system of the host.
3. High levels of radiation would be expected to kill the virus. Thus what Dr. Latour is describing is an ordinary killed-virus vaccine, which would have been the first and simplest thing virologists would have done to combat the infection.
4. I'll grant Dr. Latour the benefit of the doubt when it comes to having a virology lab all ready in Antarctica. Actually, considering how difficult it is to set up equipment and resources in Antarctica, maybe I shouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt. But in any case: given the lack of extra resources, especially after the long polar winter, how did he test his vaccine? What did he test it on — penguins? Given that he doesn't seem to understand even the basics of virus structure, I'm not sure how far I'd trust his untested vaccine...
Latour cautions Carter and Yoshizumi not to take the vaccine until just before they're ready to leave the submarine... in case it doesn't work and gives them the virus. And here we go again: the radiation would have killed the virus, and in any case a vaccine is going to take more than a few minutes to become effective. It has to stimulate the body's immune system into providing a response, which is going to take time.

Oh, but what's the difference? We're still left with the usual mismatched pair, racing against time to save the rest of humanity from annihilation. And, as we might have expected, after they manage to get to the abandoned White House and struggle heroically to get to the basement, Yoshizumi's earthquake strikes just as they reach the ARS control room. Carter is mortally wounded by his own explosives, leaving Yoshizumi to dash for the control panel as the alarms start flashing and the missiles swing into place...

But Yoshizumi doesn't make it.

There it is, folks: one of the two remaining Major Spoilers. Hope I didn't ruin it for you, any more than the silly script has ruined itself. There's one more incredible plot twist to go, though, so if you're still itching for a surprise, you might want to stop reading now.

Yoshizumi has time to radio in one last, depressing message to the Nereid, which is presumably getting the hell away from there at full speed. At least, he says, Dr. Latour's vaccine seems to have worked (I won't even bother to mention how short a time Yoshizumi's been exposed...)

Not long afterwards, Washington DC is hit dead-on by a nuclear missle. We're given a montage of very familiar bomb footage, meant to suggest the whole world going up in a nuclear fireball. Were it not for the fact that almost all vertebrate life has been wiped out already, we might expect a 200-foot-tall fire-breathing lizard to emerge. What the heck: there isn't much left we could throw at our few remaining survivors, and this is a Japanese movie...

But what we actually get in the following scenes is even more unbelievable than the sudden emergence of Godzilla. We get the sudden emergence of Yoshizumi, who has somehow managed to survive a direct hit by an H-bomb. And no: he's not 200 feet tall, unfortunately; he doesn't even glow in the dark. Instead, he looks like a shabby hermit, bent and unshaven, with his walking stick and a few ears of dried corn tied to his belt. Over the next three years, mercifully not shown in real-time, Yoshizumi makes his way on foot from the irradiated ruins of Washington, down through Central and South America, hoping to make it to Tierra del Fuego and (he hopes) the last remaining survivors of the human race. Strangely enough, his path takes him up into the Andes for a look at Macchu Picchu, which certainly doesn't seem like the easiest route for him to take. I guess he had all the time in the world; why shouldn't he stop and see the sights?

Yoshizumi passes by (presumably also irradiated) bomb craters on his journey, and eventually stops into a church he passed along the way; he gets down on his knees, and he begins to have a conversation with yet another withered corpse (I get the impression they only had a couple of corpse props, since all the dead people look remarkably alike). I'm sure this is the moment where everything comes together: the moment when the Meaning of it All is spelled out for us. I had intended to go over it carefully, with my Japanese dictionary in hand, but after two and a half hours of nonsense I gave up: I decided there was nothing else the movie could say that would make any difference. Eventually, the bedraggled Yoshizumi stumbles into the little village the few remaining survivors have built for themselves, proving that all we need to sustain us through the end of the world is... love.

I really don't understand why Yoshizumi is still alive, let alone in possession of his hair and his teeth. And as for his having children with his rediscovered lover... let's just say that might be a tad optimistic. Still, thinking of optimism, his final comment before the end of the movie is a repetition of the words the dying Carter asked him to say in Japanese before he died: "Life... is wonderful." I expect the camera got turned off before he could qualify the remark: "... except if there are any goddamned human beings involved. Then, it sucks."

Ultimately, I can't suspend my disbelief for Virus. I have no idea if this is a strength or a failing of my character. Oh, don't get me wrong: the movie did make a lasting impression on me... of sorts. I sometimes find myself lying awake thinking about some of the issues the movie didn't deal with that I expected it should... for instance, how did they keep track of who was attempting to breed with each of the 8 women, to avoid inbreeding among successive generations? Why were the survivors so seemingly unconcerned about their food, or gasoline, or other resources they needed to survive in the harsh climate of Antarctica... since there was no way to get any more once they ran out? On the other hand, I can suspend my disbelief for the tentacled green space monsters, or samurai vampires, or old women who turn into eyeball-eating giant centipedes, and other such things from Fukasaku's other sci-fi and fanstasy movies, because they are not meant to relate to the world as I know it.

Yet there are a lot of people who admire the uncut version, and who report that they were extremely moved by it. Though I may seem overly critical of the movie in my description of it, I can understand why it has such a devoted following.

If you want a clearer idea of how Virus stands out from other, equally silly disaster films, you need only compare it to Armageddon. The later film also sported an all-star cast, lots of dubious science and an end-of-the-world scenario that really didn't tell us as much about the human condition as it thought it did. But the special effects were the only thing about Armageddon worth watching... the only parts of the movie that were even remotely realistic were those created by computer. In the live-action parts of the film, the style was as vapid as the content. One moment in particular which stood out for me was a music-video-like sequence that ended with the astronaut's daughter collapsed with her hand outstretched toward the video monitor. The entire sequence was so artificially staged, so drenched with fake emotion, that it left me completely unmoved.

By contrast, Virus doesn't depend at all on effects, and what few effects there are are realized by comparatively simple means. There are some staggeringly effective moments in the film, but they are all achieved by means of solid direction, photography and editing. Virus looks and feels like a much better film than it is.

It's difficult to imagine anybody doing a better job with the material they were given than Fukasaku and his crew do. Certainly Virus counts as a Bad Movie: it tries very hard to say something meaningful, but it's so far divorced from reality that it ends up saying next-to-nothing. But even when it's blithering, it's blithering beautifully, and that's the crux of the matter right there: even Fukasaku's Bad Movies are really, really good Bad Movies, because he approached them with complete professionalism and respect.

Back to Main Page

1. Fukasaku, Fukkatsu, Virus... I seem to be doing everything I can to get this review blocked by poorly-coded Internet filtering software.

< Back

2. The only version most people outside Japan have seen is the cut version, and if you've seen that, you haven't really seen Virus at all. The cut version is the one you'll find on American VHS, on the British DVD and the low-cost Brentwood DVD sets. If you haven't seen the movie and are considering watching any of these copies, do yourself a favor — don't.

< Back

3. This should come as a lesson to the male-dominated world of science and research. You see, boys? You have to encourage more women to enter your fields. Otherwise, after you've destroyed the world, who will there be to make your coffee and have your babies?
(Send your hate mail to Harvard University. Thank you.)

< Back