Sinking of Japan - DVD

Sunday, 07 March 2010 09:27

Though it was made in 2006, Shinji Higuchi’s disaster movie is surely something of a hot potato at the moment. The recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of the world’s population. Are we ready for fictional tale of terrible death and destruction when the reality of it appears nightly on our news bulletins? That decision will be up to the DVD buying and renting public.

Billed as a Japanese rival to “2012”, “Sinking of Japan” is about just that – the dragging under water of Japan as the tectonic plate it lies on is pulled down by an adjacent plate. The horrendous side effects are city-levelling earth quakes, awesomely destructive tsunamis and possibly even a volcanic eruption from Mount Fuji. Dr Tadokoro (Etsushi Toyokawa) is the scientist who makes this terrifying discovery, following a more minor but still devastating quake beneath Suruga Bay.

Sinking of Japan DVDThe core of the film follows the scientists’ efforts to come up with a solution, the politicians’ debates over how best to break the news to the public and evacuate them to neighbouring nations (assuming they want that many refugees), and the experiences of a few people and their families “on the coal face”.

Let us begin with the effectiveness of the action and special effects, and the movie’s ability to provoke empathy from its audience – generally the two staples of the disaster film genre. The director wisely chooses to give us three levels of observation: in the thick of the action as though we are alongside the protagonists, then a bird’s eye view of the destruction such as when we see a whole cityscape crumble to dust, and lastly a view from space or the upper atmosphere, where massive clouds of ash and dust eclipse huge swathes of the land.

By chopping and changing between the three perspectives, we are constantly reminded of what this kind of environmental tragedy is like from the ground and also of the enormous reach a major earth quake can have.

The CGI and physical effects are generally very convincing and dramatically shot. Gaping maws open up in the ground, buildings shudder and topple like fragile Jenga stacks, plumes of dust and ash shoot into the sky and thunderous explosions threaten to finish off anything still left standing. The action is normally accompanied by an erratically shaking camera, which fortunately feels very realistic and does not make your feel sick, partly because the camera normally cuts away to a different, more distant and static shot fairly quickly. It helps to make the effects more believable by slightly disorienting the viewer, much like a less severe version of the sensation that those in the thick of it would experience.

The tsunami effects are less effective, suffering from the same “big water” footage that so many films of this ilk have before. Massive CGI waves transform into real water smashing through either smaller-scale model sets or zoomed-in water superimposed on shots of real streets. This deficiency does not undermine the film too much, but it does jar a little when the rest of the effects are executed so well.

In terms of pulling at the heart strings, this movie is only partly successful. Most of the characters are pleasant enough and we do care when they are placed in danger. When hundreds, thousands or even millions of strangers are engulfed by water or crushed by buildings it is somehow harder to empathise. Part of me thinks this is because the director never draws you into the film far enough to start believing it is real, and partly because (as mentioned in my introduction) we are sadly immersed in news and images of massive casualties day in, day out. We somehow disconnect our feelings to avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed by it all.

In real life, personal stories of bravery and triumph in adversity, or suffering and sacrifice are often more touching, and so it is in “Sinking of Japan”. The film focuses on the intertwining lives of three people: Toshio Onodera (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) is a research submarine pilot; Misaki Kuraki (Mayuko Fukuda) is a little girl orphaned by the initial quake; Reiko Abe (Kou Shibasaki) is a helicopter rescue worker who saves the other two at the start of the movie. The three stars are united by calamity, and Reiko and Toshio realise they owe it to each other and their nation to use their skills to try to save as many people as possible.

The movie throws up some interesting political and philosophical puzzles. As is often the case, the politicians do not want to cause undue panic if they can evacuate their people safely. Therefore they face tough decisions over how much to tell the public. They also have to prioritise who is evacuated and in what order. What struck me most was the decision of many people to reject evacuation, not because they thought someone else was more deserving, but rather because their bonds with their country, towns, homes and friends and family were so great that they could not bear to leave them behind. This was especially true for those people who had already lost relatives to the disasters leading up to the final dénouement.

The Japanese were infamous during the Second World War for going on suicide missions, and the same sense of unquestioning honour and inseparable ties to their nation resonate throughout this movie.

“Sinking of Japan” is a decent addition to the disaster movie genre. It balances good effects, exciting action and believable characters on the one hand with politics and geological science on the other. It occasionally gets too sentimental for its own good, but for the most part it is even handed, tasteful and quite gritty. There are no special features at all on this release, which is odd for such an effects-driven movie. A making-of feature could have been interesting.

The DVD (certificate ‘12’) is out now from MVM, priced £15.99, or less from


Movie Review: “Sinking of Japan” (2006)



Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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