Disaster movies became big in both Hollywood and Japan in the 1970s — an era of soaring gas prices, volatile exchange rates and a failed Republican presidency. Now, with history repeating itself (in spades), this much-derided genre is booming again.

Two of Japan’s biggest disasters of the 20th century — World War II and the atomic bombings that ended it — have been reflected, not only realistically in war movies, but also symbolically in the Godzilla series — Japan’s original diaster movies — whose title monster has been a stand-in for everything from fire bombings (that breath!) and earthquakes (that stomp!) to atomic blasts.

Even disaster films that seemingly have nothing to do with those long-ago events often echo them. In 2006’s “Nihon Chinbotsu” (“Japan Sinks”) — a remake of a 1973 film about the sinking of the Japanese archipelago due to a massive shift in tectonic plates. A submarine pilot who dives to his death in a desperate attempt to reverse the shift in a sub called the Wadatsumi (Ocean) — a reference to a famous collection of letters by college students who fought and died in the war.

Kansen Retto
Director Takehisa Zeze
Run Time 130 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (Jan. 23, 2009)

“Kansen Retto” (“Pandemic Archipelago”) continues this tradition, albeit in a distinctly contemporary guise.

Directed by Takehisa Zeze, the film takes scare headlines about deadly new infectious diseases from SARS to bird flu to their logical, terrifying conclusion — an epidemic that kills millions and brings the country to a shuddering halt.

The characters struggle against onrushing doom, while the audience guesses which ones will survive to the final reel. This may strike you as a downer way to spend two hours, especially if you’ve recently been the recipient of the bad economic news that’s about as common as cold germs these days.

On the other hand, perhaps the film’s skin-crawlingly staged apocalypse — and the central characters’ gutsy attempts to stop it — will give you a needed reality check (the current badness could be worse), as well as a booster shot against despair (if they can pull through, why not me?).

Among the gutsiest is Matsuoka (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a young doctor who works in the emergency room of a provincial hospital. He and his colleagues, including his gruff-but-good-hearted sempai (senior) Ando (Koichi Sato) are soon confronted with flu cases that don’t respond to the usual treatment, with patients dying horrific, blood-spewing deaths. Soon the hospital waiting room is full of ill and terrified people, while the doctors and nurses labor heroically, if futilely, on.

A medical officer from the WHO, the pretty, steely Eiko Kobayashi (Rei Dan), comes to investigate and promptly encounters skepticism and outright sexism from the hospital powers-that-be. She also stirs memories and more in Matsuoka, since they were once lovers, who parted acrimoniously when Eiko went abroad to study.

They put their personal issues aside, however, to confront the immediate crisis and somehow find a cure. In this search, they seek help from unusual sources, including a fat, asocial researcher (Kanningu Takeyama) who seems to know more than his baffled seniors, and an elderly bird-flu expert (Taktsuya Fuji) who accompanies Matsuoka on a journey to a southern island where the pandemic may have started.

Zeze, who got his start in pinku eiga (soft-porn featurettes) and later made quirky/erotic/violent indie films that gained notice abroad, has scripted and directed this story with a solid professionalism if few distinctive touches and a few generically typical ones. As is usual in these films, including the Godzilla pics, foreigners prove to be unreliable allies and the Japanese must finally go it alone. In fact, outlanders blame Japan for the virus — which they even call “Blame” (a nice xenophobic touch).

Naturally, the hospital’s doctors and nurses are self-sacrificing to a fault, raising their hands to volunteer for hazardous ward duty en masse — in a scene reminiscent of films about kamikaze suicide pilots. There is even that stock character from wartime propaganda films, a saintly Japanese doctor (Kyusaku Shimada) who wins the trust and loyalty of the natives of the poverty-ridden island.

This is not to say that “Kansen Retto” is nationalist propaganda itself; mostly it is a standard medical thriller. But it does have the virus of the local disaster/monster/war film conventions in its cinematic bloodstream, even though its enemy is measured in microns.

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