Tsunamis, Meltdowns And Japan's Disaster Movie Obsession

Japanese fascination for epic disasters – both natural and man-made – has long been expressed in film, as a way to exorcize very real dangers. And when the movie comes to life?

Godzilla, an atomic-fueled lizard, came to Japanese screens soon after Hiroshima.
Godzilla, an atomic-fueled lizard, came to Japanese screens soon after Hiroshima.
Thomas Sotinel

Hayao Miyazaki, the acclaimed Japanese director of Spirited Away, chose the 2008 Venice Film Festival to present his 10th feature film, called Ponyo. The Italian "lagoon city" helped Miyazaki explain why his movie ended with a ravaging tsunami -- and why the Japanese so often celebrate nature in spite of its destructive power.

"It doesn't do anyone any good to depict natural disasters as malicious events. They are just part of the world we live in," Miyazaki said. "Every time I come to Venice, a city that is slowly being engulfed by the sea, I am always impressed to see that people here continue to enjoy life as if nothing happened. The inevitable destruction of Venice is part of these people's lives, and the same thing happens in Japan, with its earthquakes and typhoons. The people there have a very different perception of natural disasters."

In Miyazaki's animation films, humans always live in accordance with the will of the nature, and not the other way around. In Ponyo, the devastating tsunami eventually has beneficial effects on the land, which with its population of old people and small coastal towns looks much like real world Japan.

But not all Japanese films -- animated or live-action -- have embraced this type of animistic and environmental harmony. On the movie screens, the sea surrounding Japan is mostly shown as a deadly enemy accidentally awoken by major telluric phenomena. Alain Schlockoff, a former director of the Fantastic Film Festival in Paris and current editor in chief of the French magazine L'Ecran fantastique, has a vivid memory of Tidal Wave, released in Japan in 1974 and inspired by a science fiction novel. In the film, Japan is struck by apocalyptical tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, and is slowly sinking under the pressure of unstable tectonic plates. "The Japanese are masters of disaster films and the images shown in the film are exactly like those we're seeing right now," Alain Schlockoff says. A remake of Tidal Wave was released in 2006, as if there was a permanent need to show the unavoidable nature of this kind of nightmares.

In addition to the threat posed by nature, the Japanese have also absorbed, after the Second World War and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the terror inspired by atomic threats. The manga series called Barefoot Gen has been adapted into a live action film and explicitly speaks of atomic weapons.

Still, most anime films tell stories of cities being destroyed without any explicit cause, like Rintaro's Metropolis (2001), or Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy (2005), which is set in a parallel world where the piston engine and nuclear energy are yet to be discovered, but technology is still seen as a deadly threat hanging over the society.

Japanese disaster films have mostly been considered to play an exorcising role, and not a premonitory one. The most famous example is Godzilla. The monster was born in 1954, less than 10 years after the atomic bombs struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki, coming to life in the Toho studios, where his statue still reigns. According to the plot, the lizard of gigantic proportions is the result of American nuclear experiments gone awry; its strength and radioactive properties make it capable of wiping out the entire city of Tokyo. Contrary to Hollywood's King Kong, Godzilla does not inspire any sympathy, only sheer terror.

The film enjoyed such enormous success that the monster has featured in more than 30 remakes, until Hollywood produced the most famous of them all, the 1998 blockbuster directed by the German director Roland Emmerich. In this version of the story, the animal's mutation is due to nuclear tests conducted by the French in the Pacific Ocean. Another remake is currently being discussed.

By the looks of it, Japanese nightmares might be contagious. Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, the new international master of fantastic cinema, announced on March 8 that he is currently working on Pacific Rim. The film is apparently set to depict a population of horrible creatures that are set free by an earthquake at the bottom of the ocean and bent on destroying Tokyo and Los Angeles. But the tragedy affecting Japan today might spell the end of this project. Watching the live coverage of events in Japan, Alain Schlockoff admits to feeling "somewhat ashamed of having enjoyed these kinds of movies." The exorcism, in the end, turned out to be prophesy.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Marxchivist

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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