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Japan

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

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