Nippon chinbotsu a.k.a. The Submersion of Japan (1973)
Directed by: Shirô Moritani
Starring: Hiroshi Fujioka, Keiju Kobayashi, Tetsurô Tanba, Ayumi Ishida
In English, Nippon chinbotsu is known as The Submersion of Japan or, simply, Japan Sinks. Whatever else you might think of this film, you certainly can’t complain about the scope. Yes, the entire nation of Japan is headed for the bottom of the sea.
The movie opens aboard a research ship, where the dashing young submarine pilot Onodera and a colleague are discussing the recent sinking of a Japanese island. A scientist, Dr. Tadokoro, is investigating the incident and enlists Onodera and his submarine to take a look at the ocean floor. They experience what appears to be underwater earthquakes and discover worrying “mud currents”. As we return to the surface, a group of scientists brief Prime Minister Yamamoto and we’re treated to a geology lesson, explaining basic plate tectonics. Dr. Tadokoro comes to the conclusion that Japan is in danger of collapsing into the sea, and a huge earthquake devastating Tokyo and killing three million people drives the point home.
Dr. Tadokoro is made head of the emergency operation ”Plan D”, while PM Yamamoto has the unenviable task of finding a way to evacuate as many of his people as possible — or should he, as some propose, do nothing at all? Japan seeks the aid of other nations, and while most seem willing to lend their assistance, Australia flat out refuses (“They’ll just use us to build themselves a new country”, the Aussie ambassador says).
Despite the efforts of Dr Tadokoro, PM Yamamoto and others, the coming disaster cannot be avoided. Volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes and huge tsunamis lay waste to the unfortunate island nation, sending millions of refugees into an uncertain future in foreign lands. The End — and it’s not a happy one.
While released at around the same time as, for instance, Earthquake, Nippon chinbotsu is a disaster epic with an altogether different flavor. It is not the standard action-thriller you usually expect from this genre, but more of a drama and quite somber in tone (reasonable, I’d say, given that the subject basically is the extinction of an entire culture). Apart from the disaster scenes themselves there’s not much actual action, but quite a bit of important people talking about important things.
The film is also less focused on individuals and heroics than its genre cousins, and mostly depicts the events on a more general level: we follow the efforts of the Prime Minister and the scientists, but spend little time with ordinary people. This gives the proceedings a slightly disconnected feel, but a nice performance by Tetsurô Tanba as PM Yamamoto injects some personality and emotion.
The above might sound more negative than it is intended. I’m sure many will find Nippon chinbotsu boring, and it is true that it is a rather slow-moving piece of film. Nevertheless, I like it. After a while, you get into the rhythm of the piece, and there’s a thoughtfulness to it that I appreciated. Strangely, for such a crazy concept, the movie deals with it in a way that actually makes it feel surprisingly credible. Also, the disaster shots are well worth watching. The film features some nice sequences mixing large scale models with stock footage. The destruction of Tokyo is perhaps the pièce-de-résistance, turning the capital into a fiery hell. Sure, there are some shots that look pretty corny seen with modern eyes — particularly some scenes when earthquakes rip an obvious landscape model apart — but they’re fun if you like this kind of vintage effects work.
It needs to be pointed out that Nippon chinbotsu exists in at least three different versions. The Japanese original is 140 minutes. The version I saw, which I think is a Hong Kong release, has been edited down to about 110 minutes. In 1975, the film was also cannibalized for an American version, titled Tidal Wave, which was trimmed even further to a meagre 82 minutes, ditching (from what I gather) most of the original Japanese storyline, but adding Lorne Greene. Yay, America!
The 30 minutes missing from the HK release may explain why certain parts of the plot are so vague and strangely disconnected. The opening gives the distinct feeling we’ve missed out on a lot of things already. Character introductions are virtually non-existent, and it seems an entire subplot involving Onodera and a young woman, apparently the object of his affection, has been edited out. What remains, however, is interesting enough to make me want to watch the unedited Japanese original. I’ll let you know if I find it.