Japanese studios used to grind out contemporary action movies by the dozen, with one company, Nikkatsu, specializing in them from the ’50s to the early ’70s. Stars like Yujiro “Tough Guy” Ishihara, Akira “Mite Guy” Kobayashi and Keiichiro “Tony” Akagi wowed action fans here in film after gun-blazing film.
What happened? Hollywood upped the violence and special effects ante — and the Japanese, hobbled by regulatory and budgetary restraints, were unable to call, let alone raise. If a Japanese producer tried to stage the car chase from “The French Connection” in Tokyo he’d never get the first bureaucratic stamp on his permission form.
Long after Nikkatsu abandoned action for the delights of porn, a production company called Robot discovered a fresh way to adapt the genre to the local market. Instead of competing head-to-head with Hollywood, Robot’s “Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)” — a 1998 cop thriller based on a popular Fuji TV show — focused on the bloodless but realistic conflict between elite police and cops on the beat, while throwing in plenty of farcical comedy. The result was the year’s biggest domestic hit — and it didn’t have a single explosion. In 2003, “Odoru” director Katsuyuki Motohiro returned with a sequel that, using nearly the same cast and story arc, raked in 17.3 billion yen — an all-time record for a nonanimated Japanese film.
Now the folks at Robot are back with “Umizaru (Sea Monkeys),” an action movie based on a popular manga appearing in Shukan Young Sunday magazine. This time the heroes are Japan Coast Guardsmen training to be divers — an elite group that constitutes only 1 percent of the JCG force. Think “An Officer and a Gentleman” in wet suits. To qualify, the trainees have to survive a 50-day course that is hell on earth — or rather in the deep end of the pool.
This is a storyline that has rarely, if ever, appeared in Japanese films set in or around water. More typical are the entries in the “Tsuri Baka Nisshi (Free and Easy)” series, whose salaryman hero is crazy about fishing and usually keeps his feet firmly planted on a dry deck. This makes box-office sense since amateur fishermen far outnumber deep-sea divers here — and the former are a heck of a lot easier and cheaper to film.
So give the folks at Robot, including first-time director Eiichiro Hazumi, credit for bravely going where few in the Japanese film industry have gone before. “Umizaru,” however, recycles many a Hollywood cliche, from the stern drillmaster with the secret wound to the trainees who begin as bitter rivals, but are forced to become partners and learn what really matters. This is one Japanese film whose Hollywood remake would be blazingly redundant — not that that’s going to stop anyone from flogging one, of course.
The hero is Daisuke Senzaki (Hideaki Ito), a former salaryman turned guardsman who, as the holder of a dive-master’s license, begins the training course with a leg (or flipper) up. Hara (Tatsuya Fuji), his grizzled, hard-bitten instructor, quickly sizes him up as a comer and pairs him with Kudo (Atsushi Ito), a shrimpy recruit everyone immediately pegs as a loser. These mismatched “buddies” soon find themselves at the bottom of the training class, flailing in the water and doing punishment push-ups on the deck.
Kudo, however, refuses to quit — and confesses he wants to become a diver to rescue people like his fisherman father, who drowned at sea. Daisuke begins to sympathize with him, as do other members of the class. The only exception is Mishima (Ken Kaito), an elite diver who is contemptuous of Kudo’s weakness.
Switch to Kanna (Ai Kato), a harried fashion-magazine editor who is getting quietly drunk with a friend at a bar, when it is invaded by a rowdy crowd of trainees on leave. Daisuke and Kanna wake up the next morning in the same love-hotel bed. He is nonchalant, she is mortified — in other words, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Before it can progress any further, however, a fatal accident throws the entire class into a funk. Then, on a training exercise at sea, they are faced with a real-life crisis and Daisuke is forced to make a life-or-death choice.
Hazumi, a longtime assistant director for Motohiro, keeps this story clipping along much as his senpai might, with occasional pauses for goofy antics and romantic tiffs. The underwater photography by Tetsuro Sano is gripping and even beautiful, particularly in the climactic sequence when the trainees, diving in loose formation, dramatically materialize in the deep blue, their flashlights blinking like underwater fireflies.
“Umizaru,” though, fails to plumb the emotional depths of the genre’s superior examples, including Taylor Hackford’s “An Officer and a Gentleman.” Its big crisis is cliffhanger hokum of the sort that “Sea Hunt” — that granddaddy of all underwater TV shows — was already recycling weekly back in the 1950s. Otherwise, Daisuke, played with stiff earnestness by Ito, is never truly put to the test by Hara, Kanna or his own nature. Instead, poor Kudo takes most of the movie’s lumps, including its biggest. It’s as if Hackford had divided Richard Gere’s ballsy-but-insecure Navy Flight School trainee into a loser-and-winner duo — instead of combining them to stronger effect.
That said, a sequel is already in the works (it’s announced in the closing credits) and Robot will probably have its hoped-for box-office success. After a long dry spell, local action fans, especially younger ones, will no doubt find “Umizaru” refreshing. And a few of them will no doubt line up at Japan Coast Guard recruiting offices. I hope, though, that the next time around Robot’s scriptwriters can come up with a few ideas Lloyd Bridges wasn’t already using in 1958.