By Shane Burridge | March 21, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 225: “Japan Sinks” (1973 Japanese disaster epic).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None (not counting the truncated, Americanized Roger Corman effort “Tidal Wave”).

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive title that never crossed the Pacific in its entirety.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Stranger things have happened.

(Phil Hall is having his ego re-upholstered this week, so guest writer Shane Burridge is pitching in with this edition of the Bootleg Files.)

“Japan Sinks” – and it sure did. We can thank Roger Corman’s New World Studios for consigning this Japanese sci-fi epic to oblivion.

Shortly before Hollywood made an industry out of ‘disaster movies’ which jeopardized celebrity casts in airliners, ships, burning buildings, and earthquakes in the 1970s, Japan had already settled for nothing less than the destruction of their entire country. Produced byToho Studios, which had been warming up for years by knocking down cities with a lineup of prehistoric monsters such as Rodan and Mothra, “Nippon Chinbotsu” (otherwise known as “The Submersion of Japan” or “Japan Sinks”) was, at the time, one of the most expensive productions filmed in Japan. It was certainly a much more mature and accomplished achievement some viewers may have expected from Toho, given their genre history, but Western audiences only ever saw Corman’s truncated version (called, rather ridiculously, “Tidal Wave”), edited with a hacksaw and stuffed with new scenes featuring Lorne Greene (in the same way that Raymond Burr had been inserted into Toho’s original “Godzilla” many years earlier). This version of the film opened to terrible reviews in the U.S. and, fittingly, sank without a trace. But the damage had already been done, and “Japan Sinks” never did resurface abroad in its original 143-minute cut.

Seeing “Japan Sinks” became a personal quest of mine. I discovered it in the appendix of a sci-fi and fantasy book I read in high school, and I was intrigued by the capsule review’s comment that the “original version” should be seen if possible. Easier said than done!. While other films on my Want List were being ticked off in the passing years, the film remained maddeningly unattainable.

Finally, in 2003, it appeared on DVD in Japan, uncut, in widescreen, and…without subtitles. The release of the 2006 remake, “Nihon Chinbotsu,” seemed a good opportunity for a tie-in DVD re-release of the original with new subtitles (it didn’t happen) and the later DVD release of Nihon seemed an even better opportunity (it still didn’t happen). To add insult to injury, Nihon’s DVD was packaged with English subtitles while Nippon remained untouched. To add further ‘nyaaaah!’ to insult, a parody version “Niho IgaiI Zenbu Chinbotsu” (“The World Sinks Except Japan”) showed up in Japanese cinemas shortly afterwards, and even THAT got a DVD release with English subs.

It was patently clear to me that an English version of “Japan Sinks” was never going to happen and the only way I was going to see it was to get it translated myself. Fortunately, I was working in Japan by the time of the remake and parody versions and was able to enlist the aid of a colleague in translating 1,400 individual lines of text – so that six months and one LCD projector later, I was finally able to watch “Japan Sinks” in all its original glory.

After seeing the film, it wasn’t too hard to guess what was cut out for the U.S. release. There is a lot of talk in this movie, and most of it is technical. For the first hour, scientists investigate abnormalities in the Earth’s crust, gathering data, formulating projections, and discussing strategies (one animated simulation of the impending disaster is somewhat priapic in appearance, carrying with it the unintentional signifier that Japan is screwed). We’ve been well primed for a major destruction sequence by the time the first earthquake hits, and there are some effective scenes in the ten minutes of mayhem that follows, but unfortunately there are some also some absurdly cheap looking special effects (toy cars falling off a bridge, a toy helicopter dropping to the ground) that look all the shoddier projected in widescreen.

Even by the standard of effects in 1973 and the audience expectations of such, I still can’t believe that someone in the studio didn’t make the decision to judiciously remove a few minutes before the film’s release. With the advances of CGI decades later, the 2006 remake was able to show us, in terrifying clarity, an entire nation sinking into the sea; with “Japan Sinks,” we’re presented with model cities burning in normal-size flames, and model mountains being sloshed with a bucket of muddy water.

I’m a big fan of visual effects from all eras of cinema, and I’m certainly not one to belittle a film simply because its effects were generated from a simpler state of the art. It’s easy to enjoy watching the Toho monsters knock down buildings and swat aside trains and planes because the stories are inherently silly and the effects are just part of the overall silliness. But in this film, it’s different. This film strives for realism, and because it invests so much research into its premise and raises ethical questions on a scale that makes the story seem merely an overture to an epic saga, it takes only a few seconds of sub-par effects to deflate its intentions.

The 2006 version is able to make up this FX shortfall with jaw-dropping visuals that can only be appreciated on a cinema screen, but unfortunately that’s about all it has going for it, as its screenplay is hopelessly clichéd: you want to see a couple running towards each other in slow motion while a pop song suddenly bursts onto the soundtrack and the camera spins around them? How about a cute little girl who is in peril so often that it appears the country is disintegrating purely as a personal grudge against her? Or a movie that begins AND ends with a rope-swinging rescue straight out of a Tarzan movie? And, unlike the novel or earlier film, the characters in 2006 decide they’re not going to lie down quietly and let the Earth’s tectonic plates just push them around.

Without this level of FX/CGI technology in 1973, the producers of the original version were forced to concentrate on the sociological, political, and geographical elements of the story, and ended up with the better script.

Director Shiro Moritani knows how to use his widescreen frame, and “Japan Sinks” looks great right from the opening montage, which positions the story specifically in Japan, (a shinkansen speeds past Mount Fuji in the opening shot, which is about as iconic as you can get – and rather cheekily is copied exactly in the 2006 remake’s own opening montage), and impresses upon us that its four islands are home to over 100 million people.

Already the movie is ramping up our expectations for a level of FX which it can’t possibly deliver, so it’s better to think of “Japan Sinks” as less of an action film and more of a treatise on the Japanese psyche. Perhaps after dealing in a more metaphorical way (e.g. Godzilla) with the three years of apocalyptic firebombing and final nuclear holocaust at the end of World War II, Toho saw this production as their final catharsis. There’s imagery of ash-covered bodies and falling shards of glass disturbingly evocative of the nuclear attacks, and the shots of citizens fleeing through burning buildings could have been taken directly from the firebombing massacre.

However there is no enemy, monster, or villain in this film, let alone war. The heroes are simply people doing their jobs – firefighters, politicians, scientists, and academics. There is a love interest in the story, of course, but this is handled much more realistically than you would expect and doesn’t take up much screen time. Neither is there a noble sacrifice nor sentimental reunion/departure at the end. The film’s wordless final shots – of two trains in two different countries – may not leave you satisfied, but in light of everything that is happened before, it is the most likely conclusion. And despite all the destruction by volcanoes, earthquakes, infernos, and tsunami that has been thrown up on the screen by the film’s end, there appears to be even worse to come: given the insular nature of Japan, which has strict immigration laws and maintains a fairly homogeneous culture, the extinction of their country would probably be a less traumatic event for the Japanese than the thought of having to integrate themselves into foreign societies. Is it any surprise that the characters in 2006 wanted to fight back?

Chances of an English release of “Japan Sinks” appear slim, despite its high profile in the canon of Japanese cinema – Toho’s reasoning may well be that foreign audiences prefer the slicker look of the 2006 than the outmoded effects and slower pace of the original, making an English repackaging of the 1973 film redundant. That won’t stop movie fans from finding some way to keep “Japan Sinks” circulating, however. In the age of DVDs, fansubs, and the Internet, nothing stays submerged for long. Nippon Saifujou!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Alexandra says:

    Do you know where I could find subtitles for the 1973 version of this? I’m watching it for its soundtrack, and my Japanese just isn’t up to all the technical terms. The only subtitles I can find are for the 2006 remake.