Review Date: October 18, 2010
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 11/18/2008
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
Floods, famines, earthquakes, epidemics, wildfires and...political posturing? Whether they be natural or manmade, every human catastrophe in today’s world seems to have political implications, especially as portrayed by the 24/7 news cycle. Hurricane Katrina helped turn the Bush Administration into a prematurely lame duck presidency. This summer’s BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico made the Obama Administration look impotent and the recent floods in Pakistan have raised concerns about the stability of that country’s fragile, nuclear armed government. While news coverage can be useful for raising serious questions about government responses, one has to lament that the political focus can take time away from the human dimensions of the tragedy. The World Sinks Except Japan
is a parody, not of disaster movies, but of international politics and Japanese society that ridicules that very politicization. But is it a good spoof, or are the film’s approval ratings headed into the toilet? Keep reading and find out.
We open at an upscale Japanese nightclub that, rather strangely, is mostly populated by non-Japanese people. Among them are Presidents Pepiton (Jon Heese
) and Sveshnikov, former leaders of the United States and Russia, and Presidents Zhang and Kim, the former leaders of China and South Korea, respectively. The Japanese Prime Minister (Takenori Murano
) is also at the nightclub, and all of these ex-foreign leaders are showing unusual deference to him. In fact, the former presidents of China and South Korea show no shame in groveling before him. What is going on here, and why are so many former national leaders even in Japan? Well, as we soon learn, three years earlier a horrible geological cataclysm struck the Earth. The North American continent began to sink below the sea, prompting millions of American refugees to flee to foreign lands. Under pressure from the Japanese armed forces, the Prime Minister agreed to accept refugees only under the condition that the United States surrender its military bases and equipment in his country.
Soon after another cataclysm struck the planet, and the rest of the continents began to sink, eventually leaving Japan as the only land mass left with refugees from all corners of the globe settling there. Then the real problems started, as the exchange rate for the cash that the foreigners brought with them dropped so much that it became practically worthless against the Japanese yen, and huge numbers of foreigners began living on the streets of Japanese cities in abject poverty. Jobs for foreigners became few and far between, and many of the ones that were available were demeaning and menial. Foreign women started selling their bodies.
The presence of so many poor, destitute foreigners led the Japanese government to take increasingly harsh measures against them, mandating that all foreigners must learn the Japanese language and creating a special paramilitary force to round up and deport those non-Japanese who have committed crimes. Tensions mount as Japan increasingly becomes an apartheid state and unrest begins to gather – and even though the former president of South Korea has become a vassal of the Japanese prime minister, the “Dear Leader” of North Korea has other plans and plots a hostile takeover. But even his dastardly plot may be interrupted by the forces of nature when a scientist named Tadokoro discovers that the same geologic forces that caused the rest of the world to sink are active again, and will probably plunge Japan to the bottom of the ocean soon!
Directed by cult filmmaker Minoru Kawasaki, The World Sinks Except Japan
is an unusually serious and somber entry on a resume that is littered with madcap movies like Executive Koala
and The Calamari Wrestler
. The film still retains plenty of comedic elements, but they have been noticeably toned down in comparison to some of his other works. An example of social science fiction, Kawasaki eschews large numbers of elaborate special effects – which he couldn’t afford anyways – in order to focus on his characters and the political/social/economic situation that they find themselves in. 2012
this is not; the special effects on hand here are decidedly limited, and many of them include stock shots which appear to have originated in other movies.
One of the most common hot button issues in the global north nowadays is immigration. From Western Europe to Canada, from Australia to the United States, passions over the issue everywhere seem to be aflame (in recent months there was a debate about crime going on in our own forums that didn’t start as a discussion over immigration, but took a nasty turn into it all the same). Western Europeans are upset over an influx of Muslims and Eastern Europeans in their countries, and a large portion of America is losing its head over the ever-growing population of illegal Mexican migrants. As is to be expected by an issue that touches us at our very core as citizens, the debates have not always been pleasant or polite. Hidden concerns about racial and cultural homogeneity often unconsciously come to the surface if you listen to many of the opponents of immigration.
For the Japanese, the topic of immigration onto their islands by foreigners is an especially touchy matter, as evidenced from the way it is presented in The World Sinks Except Japan
. In fact, it is an especially acute issue for the Japanese because they are literally dying out as a people. In order to maintain a stable population, most nations need a birth rate of at least 2.1 children per woman. That way the mother and father are replaced, and there are a few extra children around in order to compensate for those small numbers of children and young adults who die before starting families. If a nation’s birth rate drops below that 2.1 number and stays there the population will eventually plateau and then begin to shrink. Despite the environmental benefits of having fewer people in the world, it does cause problems; older people start outnumbering the younger people, economic growth suffers and the financing for social welfare schemes starts running in the red.
Low birth rates are an issue across almost all of the developed world – the French, the Italians, the Spanish and many others are dealing with it too – but it’s a special problem for Japan because its birth rate is especially low – just 1.27 births per woman, according to United Nations estimates. At that low rate it is not inconceivable that the Japanese as a culture could be more or less extinct in a few hundred years. There is a scene in this movie where a Japanese man, upon learning that his wife is pregnant, puts his head to her belly and exclaims, with pride, that another Japanese person has been created and how lucky the child will be to be born with Japanese citizenship (it’s worth noting that Japan, unlike many nations, does not consider a child born within its borders to be automatically a citizen; at least one of the parents has to be Japanese, a policy that apparently continues even after the rest of the world has sunk). Such sentiments, appropriate as they are within the context of the film, carry a much larger meaning for Japanese society.
In the film, a character describes the Japanese people as having a strong sense of tribal identity because they are an island nation, and recommends that foreigners make every effort to assimilate, something that proves much easier said than done. The issue of assimilation – and of foreign hordes who can’t or won’t assimilate, and who risk demographically swamping a society – is another familiar topic in the immigration debate. Japan, whose economy would probably benefit from an influx of young foreign workers, is notorious for its ancient xenophobic streak. While some nations in the world today can be classified as supraethnic – that is, they are held together by mass adherence to the political agreement that forms the basis of the state itself - Japan is an ethnic nation, whose cohesion is based upon a shared racial, linguistic and cultural heritage. Successful supraethnic states can assimilate larger numbers of immigrants and do it faster than most ethnic states. The movie presents such a difficult situation.
These themes are so interesting that it is a pity that The World Sinks Except Japan
isn’t as good a movie as one would hope. It’s certainly not bad; it just doesn’t have all the qualities needed for it be truly excellent. Try as he may by focusing on the characters, Minoru Kawasaki still doesn’t have the budget that he needs to tell the story, and the film suffers from being an epic story told in a decidedly meager way (he only had ten days of principal photography, which must have been an absolutely grueling shoot). In his search to find non-Japanese actors who could speak both English and Japanese, he turns to a lot of performers who lack serious acting ability. None of the American characters is played by a performer with any real talent. Some of them are okay, others are outright terrible. Some American characters are played by actors who are clearly not American. One woman, who is said to be from Texas, is actually a Russian who speaks with a heavy Slavic accent. For Japanese audiences this probably didn’t matter, as it would be hard for many of them to distinguish between English spoken with different accents. But to English speaking viewers it’s highly noticeable and highly distracting. Not distracting enough to ruin the movie, but distracting enough to pull us out of the reality the movie tries to create.
Low budget as it is, fans of Minoru Kawasaki’s other movies – I consider myself among them – will no doubt enjoy this one, for it has many of the same crazy qualities that have made his other works so endearing, if in lesser quantities. The World Sinks Except Japan
is an experimental film for Kawasaki considering the kinds of movies that he made before it, and one cannot say that the experiment was a total success, but it remains an entertaining movie that fans of Japanese cult cinema should check out.
The World Sinks Except Japan
is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 progressive scan transfer that is enhanced for 16x9 displays. This is a low budget movie that was shot in high definition, and it looks accordingly. The HD cameras were clearly of a professional nature, and the DP was clearly a competent artisan, but the film does not have many striking visuals or stand out in terms of its cinematography. This DVD transfer captures that essence. Color quality is nice and most of the footage has a reasonably sharp, crisp appearance to it, but blacks are often crushed and many shots have an overall flat appearance to them. Synapse’s disc authoring here is up to their usual high standards, and the presentation is not marred by any significant compression artifacts, though video noise – likely a result of the original production – can be quite noticeable. Overall it’s a perfectly pleasing but not standout presentation.
Presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo, the film’s Japanese/English soundtrack is serviceable but, like the video, not exceptional. With the story being dialogue driven there are few opportunities for big, splashy sound effects, but there are instances – such the sinking of the continents – where it momentarily sounds like you’re listening to a bigger movie than this really is. The English dialogue is clear and intelligible, only marred by the difficult accents of some of the performers.
The English language dialogue comes with burned-in Japanese subtitles, and an optional English subtitle track translates the Japanese dialogue. Strangely, the English subtitles have a number of noticeable grammatical errors, as if the guys doing quality control fell asleep while watching their check discs. The errors are not bad and they do not occur frequently – the average Hong Kong DVD will have far more subtitle problems than we ever see here – but, considering that subtitles on Synapse releases are normally excellent, the presence of a noticeable numbers of errors here is strange.
Extras start off with a commentary track featuring Minoru Kawasaki and actor Takenori Murano, in Japanese with English subtitles. The two men have a great rapport and talk consistently throughout the movie, and I laughed at much of their banter, including a lengthy explanation from Kawasaki of what a DVD audio commentary is, as Murano confesses that he doesn’t understand why he’s in the recording studio! That being said, relatively little of the commentary is spent discussing The World Sinks Except Japan
, and more often than not the track seems like a big overview of Murano’s career. Kawasaki often presses him for information on a TV series called Rushing Youth
that he did in the early 1970’s, and the commentary will probably be slow going for most viewers, as there are frequent references to actors, TV shows and Japanese political figures who are not well known in the west.
The commentary is followed by a surprisingly lengthy making-of documentary. Clocking in at approximately thirty-eight minutes, the piece features oodles of behind-the-scenes footage and a number of on-the-fly interviews with the cast members, shot with what looks to have been a consumer grade video camcorder. Because the film itself is mostly a character driven tale with little action, most of the footage is little more than actors talking or goofing around and flubbing their lines, although some of the interviews are interesting. Actor Hiroshi Fujioka, who plays the xenophobic head of the Japanese military, reveals himself to actually be xenophobic in real life, while author Yasutaka Tsutsui, who wrote the satirical novel on which the movie is based, also appears on camera when he makes a cameo in the movie.
Next up are six minutes of videotaped introductions from Minoru Kawasaki and various cast members, who give their thoughts on the film and its meaning, a promo for Minoru Kawasaki’s alter ego Den Ace (he’s a guy who transforms into a Ultraman-style giant hero when he drinks beer, and who has a brief cameo in the film) and a theatrical trailer.
I can easily recommend The World Sinks Except Japan
, although I must also be honest and say that when I’m in the mood for Minoru Kawasaki I’m probably more likely to reach for something like the crazy Executive Koala
. This film has plenty of ambition and plenty of big ideas that are never completely realized, though it remains amusing, entertaining and illuminating as a sociological portrait of some of modern Japan’s most potent anxieties. Synapse Films’ DVD is quite a good reproduction of this low budget picture and the extras are worthwhile, though not outstanding.
Movie – B-
Image Quality – B+
Sound – B
Supplements – B
- Running Time – 1 hour 38 minutes
- Not rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- Japanese/English 2.0 Stereo
- English subtitles
- Burned-in Japanese subtitles over English scenes
- Audio commentary with director Minoru Kawasaki and actor Takenori Murano
- “Making-of” featurette
- Director and cast introductions
- Den Ace promo