Posted by David Kalat on January 5, 2013
The late 1970s and early 1980s were lousy with disaster flicks, a sub-genre to which Virus unquestionably belongs. Apocalypse thrillers have always been in vogue, but they do tend to shift in tone with the cultural zeitgeist. But there was something about the Cold War era that gave rise to some wonderful end-of-the-world movies the likes of which we don’t really encounter anymore. The bizarre illogic of the Cold War was somehow more conducive to nightmare poetry: two superpowers armed with enough firepower to destroy life on Earth countless times over, where in order to preserve the peace they each must threaten total war. The only thing keeping those nukes in their holsters was the promise of Mutually Assured Destruction (quite appropriately, MAD). Edward Albee couldn’t have thunk up any better.
And Virus, mind you, is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s a rip-snorting good movie that packs in not just one apocalypse, but two.
We start with MAD, and the way such a strategy might save the world but compromise military options. The United States and the Soviet Union have each slaved their nuclear arsenals to an Automatic Response System (ARS), which guarantees retaliation in the case of even a single bomb falling. In other words, if either side shoots first, regardless of how devastating that strike may be, it would be met with total annihilation. It is a robot-enforced stalemate (and if science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that giving weapons to robots is a Bad Idea, but I’m getting ahead of myself). To you and I, the idea that nuclear missiles would only ever be launched in self-defense sounds better than the alternative, but to folks like Colonel Rankin (George Touliatos) it’s a ball-and-chain. To reclaim some military advantage, he wants something not restricted by the ARS—and to that end is secretly overseeing the development of a germ weapon.
For those of us who are followers of Kinji Fukasaku, the name Rankin already carries some connotation of note: back in Fukasaku’s deliriously silly The Green Slime, Robert Horton starred as a Jack Rankin. Although anyone who has sat through The Green Slime will likely attest its is too frothy a concoction to have any serious component, Fukasaku claimed he intended it to serve as a parable about the Vietnam War—specifically the way the American military barges into situations it doesn’t understand, ignorant of how their belligerence just makes things worse. The Green Slime‘s Rankin is the poster boy for this attitude, a by-the-book military guy who continues to shoot at the monsters even after he learns that doing so makes them stronger. Twelve years later, Fukasaku co-authors the screenplay for a film with another similarly drawn figure with the same name, once again blithely following orders and doing his duty without regard to the horrendous consequences.
The Pentagon has created a virus they call MM88. It may look ominous when written out, but unfortunately there is no way to say “MM88” aloud with any sense of menace. As weak as the name of the thing might be, it is one dangerous bug. It’s not a killer in and of itself, but it works like an all-purpose viral power-up, super-charging all other viruses into lethal agents. With MM88 in the air, even the common cold becomes deadly.
Worse, the Pentagon has not yet developed a cure, so when a vial of MM88 is accidentally released things go bad pretty fast. The only people who know what it is keep their mouths shut, because admitting the origins of the plague would be politically imprudent. Within months the human race is all but extinct.
Since MM88 is inactive under extreme cold, those researchers already holed up in Antarctic stations survive the catastrophe. Things in the South Pole aren’t perfect—there are 855 men but only 8 women, limited food stocks and other supplies, and then there’s the fact they all live in the frozenest place on Earth. But they will make a go of it, and rebuild society as best they can.
It is a rare interracial love story for the period—and Japanese film of the time was never particularly comfortable with romance anyway. Onscreen kissing was such a taboo that several major Japanese actors had contractual guarantees that they would never be asked to do it, yet here is Masao Kusakari getting’ it on with Olivia Hussey. These two have each lost their original families, not to mention everything about their former lives, and have stumbled together quite accidentally, against all odds. Their bond is an irrational, impossible treasure.
It always makes me chuckle, though, because Yoshizumi is the last name of Kusakari’s character—his given name is Matsuo, which is only ever spoken by other Japanese characters. But that’s what Olivia Hussey calls him—even when they are improbably reunited years later, following an epic cataclysm. I’ve always been amused that this great love affair, uniting these two lost souls across such hardship, time, and distance, has somehow not progressed to a first-name basis.
Given the absurd gender imbalance of the camp, it is indeed the case that traditional monogamous relationships have been rendered obsolete. Some new sexual mores will need to be minted, and the eight women will have to steel themselves against the reality that they will need to start producing babies with a lot of different men. Still, it’s a difficult idea to tackle seriously, especially since it had been satirized so effectively by Dr. Strangelove many years earlier. To trot out the hoary old cliché of the world’s surviving women forced to become de facto whores and have it play as anything other than pervy wish-fulfillment for an awkward young male audience (“if the world ends, then she can’t say no to me!”) would require some very deft handling. This movie has George Kennedy intoning, “Of course, there’s truth in what you say. We must protect our women.” Deft handling it is not.
Meanwhile, an earthquake, the bugbear of Japanese life, is due to hit Washington, D.C. with tremendous force. Nobody lives there anymore, but that’s the problem: the ARS system is on, as is the USSR’s. The earthquake tremors will feel enough like a nuclear blast to set off the American ARS response, sending a torrent of missiles onto the now uninhabited Soviet Union. In turn, the first missile to land on Russian soil will trigger their automatic retaliation, and some of the Soviet nukes are aimed at the South Pole. When the earthquake hits, those stupid machines will mindlessly destroy the only remaining survivors of the human race. The ridiculous mentality of MAD is set to chug away, the final resolution of an ideological debate nobody cares about anymore.
Normally I hate spoilers, but this movie has been out for thirty years, so I’ll just come out and say it—they don’t switch off the ARS in time, and the machines do wage their pointless nuclear war on each other.
There is no saccharine triumph, no false hope. Life is hard, and the survivors still have deep wounds. Nevertheless, love survives even the end of the world—it’s not too late to start again.
Movies about nuclear war inevitably step outside the us-versus-them politics of the Cold War and damn both sides more or less at the same time. The very nature of the genre makes it tough to imagine a plot where one of the parties responsible for genocide was somehow blameless. Nevertheless, the Japanese origin of this film does give it a slightly more balanced attitude toward the two nuclear superpowers. The back and forth actions that result in the creation and release of MM88 and the launching of a nuclear holocaust involve both the US and the USSR, and the film offers up caricatured villains as well as noble heroes from both sides as well.
In the aftermath of WWII, postwar Japan established a constitution expressly written to prevent such aggression from happening again. To that end the Japanese military was (and is, to this day) forbidden from taking action in any context other than strictly self-defense—and self-defense, mind you, was limited to situations on Japanese territory. So, if an enemy showed up on Japanese soil with invasion in mind, there would be well-armed Japanese troops ready to hold them back, but for every other contingency the nation would have to rely on diplomacy. Where America felt compelled to rattle its nuclear sword against the commie threat, Japan had no choice but to view both sides with equal measures of trust and hope, skepticism and wariness.
You can find that attitude simmering through the original Japanese cut of Return of Godzilla, with Japan let down by both superpowers. When Americanized into Godzilla 1985, the film was recut to turn the Ruskies into sneering, craven bad guys. Similarly, 1973′s The Submersion of Japan originally painted all the nations of the world as insensitive and prejudiced against the Japanese—but the American version Tidal Wave inserted footage of Lorne Greene as a kindly American ambassador who comes (sort of) to the rescue.
The relationship between The Submersion of Japan and Virus runs deep—not surprising, because The Submersion of Japan was a blockbuster that directly or indirectly shaped most Japanese genre films made in its wake for at least twenty years. In fact, calling it a blockbuster is almost an abuse of the word—we are talking here about a miracle.
The Japanese film industry collapsed in the 1970s. To paraphrase a line from Virus, it had been reduced to rubble, and then the rubble was reduced to rubble. In just ten years, fully three-quarters of the theater-going audience just stopped going to the theater. Half the movie studios went out of business; those that survived stopped being movie studios per se and turned into real estate giants with a side business in filmmaking. To the extent movies were still made in Japan, they were rigidly formulaic genre pictures made on the cheap and aimed at a narrowly targeted audience of true-believers. That, or porn. Which is really just another way of saying the same thing.
Then, in the darkest hour, Toho Studios put out a lavish, epic, dead-serious disaster picture like nothing before it. It broke box office records, despite the total decimation of available theaters. The Submersion of Japan was a shining beacon of hope in a ruined industry.
Meanwhile, Haruki Kadokawa ascended to control of his father’s formidable publishing empire. Being a contrarian megalomaniac, Kadokawa took one look at the decrepit state of Japanese cinema and said, “What this place needs are some big-budget vanity movies!” Transforming his publishing company into the Kadokawa Production Company, he started bankrolling a cycle of high-prodile blockbuster hopefuls, most of them adapted from books he published. First out was Kon Ichikawa’s The Inugami Family, a sort of Agatha Christie style pulp mystery that managed to be the second highest grossing Japanese film of 1976. Not bad for one’s first day.
But you don’t get to be Haruki Kadokawa by settling for second best. I’m not talking about climbing up to the top spot of Japanese domestic grosses instead of the second—even that is small potatoes next to conquering the American market, which is what Kadokawa really desired. He’d sussed the basic problem with Japanese cinema is that it is Japanese—Americans prefer to watch movies in which familiar actors speak English. Japanese film had been bifurcated by language, with things like Akira Kurosawa’s films landing subtitled in arthouse theaters and movies with Godzilla and martial arts stars in them showing up dubbed in drive-ins. This left the vast middle ground untouched.
Kadokawa’s first efforts in this direction did not go as planned. He brought actors like George Kennedy (all the kids love George Kennedy!) to Japan to appear in English-language productions, from which he would fashion dual versions especially tailored for Japanese and American tastes. But the American cuts of these films sat moldering on shelves just as unsold as any other Japanese film of the era. Stubbornly, he plowed onward, throwing more and more money at the problem.
He had another novel by Sakyo Komatsu, the author behind The Submersion of Japan. FUKKATSU NO HI, or “Day of Resurrection,” followed the template nicely: a disaster movie, or a monster movie without monsters, used as a framework to explore international politics and A (perceived) foreigner’s anti-Japanese prejudices. As the catastrophe unfolds, the story skips around between scenes of the institutional response (with government officials watching the cataclysm on video screens), special effects spectacles, and lovers separated.
Kadokawa had just signed Kinji Fukasaku to a three-picture contract, and set the director to adapting Komatsu’s novel into a film. By the time they were finished, the two of them would have spent somewhere between $11 and $18 Million dollars (depends who you ask). It was the most expensive Japanese film made to that date, and its record stood almost another decade. Day of Resurrection screened at Cannes as a 155-minute work-in-progress, later tidied up for its Japanese theatrical run at 156 minutes, and sold to American cable television in a 108-minute long American version directly to cable television under the title Virus.
Aspiring editors may wish to compare Virus against Day of Resurrection, because the two variants handle the same material and the same raw footage to create two very different cinematic experiences—the Japanese version is a sprawling and undisciplined film with a lot on its mind and an attention to fine details, where the American cut is punchier, and pulpier.
A disadvantage of packing your film with so many actors is that each one of them is likely to notice that they have three, maybe four, scenes out of this huge epic picture—just a handful of opportunities to make their part significant. The impulse to steal your respective scene must have formidable, and Fukasaku did little to reign his cast in (and, not speaking English, may have little ability to do so even if he’d wanted). Masao Kusakari and Olivia Hussey underplay their roles and the film is the better for it—but their costars overact at every opportunity—however the shorter cut trims away the hammier bits and focuses what’s left in ways that flatter the actors better.
I know it is the default position for a person like me (pointy-headed film nerd) to take that the director’s cut is always superior—longer is always better, and foreign always preferable. I’m not supposed to side with some abbreviated Americanized cut-down. But, that’s what I’m going to do—because Virus is the better movie. Day of Resurrection certainly enjoys a more serious tone, richer characterization, and a more global scale. But, despite some missteps and unfortunate disruptions, Virus holds together as a more coherent whole.
The plot has more than its share of melodramatic excess, and because the American cut pitches the whole thing as a B-movie, it comes across as the best damn B-movie in the world, with its nobler aspects imbuing it with a richness and depth not normally found in the genre. By contrast, Day of Resurrection takes itself so damn seriously that its pulpier moments serve only to undermine its pretensions. It’s hard to project such an aura of self-importance when you have Henry Silva laughing as he arms the nukes, or when you have little Toby playing with his daddy’s rifle. Virus wins a game of low expectations, and is more than it should be; Day of Resurrection tries to be more than it can.
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