Lorelei (2005)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (3/5)
October 29, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean is the directorial debut of one Shinji Higuchi. Now Higuchi is truly a man of many talents. When he wasn't creating some of the coolest special effects in the Japanese film industry with his work on Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy (with just a fraction of the budget of the Heisei Godzilla films, no less) and other live action films, he was doing impressive storyboard and animation work on such Gainax anime titles as Gunbuster, Nadia and Neon Genesis Evangelion. With Lorelei, Higuchi makes the jump from special effects director extraordinaire to full fledged director with this adaptation of novelist Harutoshi Fukui's massive novel Shusen no Lorelei. To be blunt, I expected far better than this film from a man of Higuchi's talent. I'm actually kind of torn. I really like the filmmaking style of the movie, CGI aside, and find it quite entertaining and engrossing; however, I find its message and right wing slant a hard pill to swallow.

In terms of the story, it's the end of World War II and Little Boy has just been dropped on Hiroshima. Lieutenant Commander Masami, a sort of renegade commander who has been ostracized by the higher ups due to his opposition to Japan's various suicide tactics, along with a misfit crew is put in charge of the submarine I-507 by military officer Asakura and ordered to stop Fat Man from being dropped on Nagasaki. The submarine is a gift from the Nazis to the Japanese and possesses a secret weapon called the "Lorelei System", at the core of which is a young girl named Paula, who was modified by the Nazis to be kind of a human sonar system. However, the I-507 is too late and the bomb is soon dropped. Consequently, Asakura decides to surrender to the Americans and give the Lorelei System to them and they will in turn drop a third atomic bomb on Tokyo. Masami, however, disobeys orders and decides to take the I-507 and it's crew to Tinian on a suicidal mission to take down the plane carrying the third bomb.

While Lorelei is a highly entertaining film, the politics of it just don't sit right with me. The whole kamikaze attitude, that one should sacrifice their own life for the glory of their nation, is glorified in this film with Masami and his crew in the end deciding to sacrifice their lives for the future of Japan. Unlike in Wolfgang Petersen's U-boat epic Das Boot where the submarine crew are basically just normal people following orders, the Japanese crew in this film are very much fighting for the glory of their country. Don't get me wrong, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were truly terrible and tragic events, but they were a last resort and actually cost far fewer lives than "Operation Downfall", the full scale invasion of Japan that General MacArthur planned, would have. In another very interesting example, the film has a subplot involving human experimentation by the Germans yet completely glosses over the fact that the Japanese army, while stationed in Northern China, operated what was known as Unit 731 where they performed experiments on Chinese, Russian and even some Allied prisoners that are too horrific to mention here; in fact, they even sickened some visiting German scientists and are documented in both the 1987 Hong Kong production Men Behind the Sun and in the upcoming Philosophy of a Knife. That said, the American characters in this film are treated rather fairly, not as buffoons at all.

Technically, though, the film is excellent and is quite an entertaining two hours, though the special effects are actually kind of disappointing considering that this is a Higuchi film. Higuchi managed to nicely balance the analog and digital worlds with his work on the three Gamera films, but here he relies far too much on digital effects and not on good, old fashioned (and better looking) miniatures, with the submarines and warships being computer generated, not entirely convincingly I might add. Still, even if the special effects aren't all that realistic, there are some particularly eye popping vistas, many resembling such anime as Nadia: Secret of Blue Water (which Higuchi himself worked on) and Blue Submarine No. 6. Indeed, the film does have a heavy anime vibe, which is not surprising considering Higuchi's roots with Gainax. Lt. Commander Masami's wardrobe even resembles that of a kind of WWII-era Captian Gloval from Macross. Higuchi's direction is good, the film's cinematography, particularly of the submarine's claustrophobic interiors, is excellent and the film's digital color grading is done quite decently and tastefully, unlike the tacky color filters that plague a certain movie by the name of Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

The acting is one of the best aspects of the film. Koji Yakusho (from Tampopo and Shall We Dance and most recently in Babel) is absolutely superb as Lt. Commander Masami as are most of the other actors, particularly Jun Kunimura (Boss Tanaka in Kill Bill). Satoshi Tsumabuki and Yu Kashii are merely okay as the young leads. For once, the American actors, in what is surely a rarity in Japanese fantasy cinema, are actually competant, professional actors and not gaijin pulled off the streets. The film is not without its glaring flaws, however, as the music by Naohiro Sato did not impress me. At worst it sounds like video game or bad anime music, at best it sounds like a rip-off of Hans Zimmer's body of work (particularly his Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean themes). The film also suffers from a number of plot holes, which isn't surprising considering Fukui's novel was over a thousand pages long and the film version of it clocks in at just over two hours, particularly bizarre is the character of Asakura's motivations: he sends the I-507 to stop the bombs from hitting Japan and then basically states that he had planned for the bombs to hit all along.

In terms of character development, namely the development of Masami, one film that Lorelei makes an interesting comparison to is Ishiro Honda's classic Atragon (1963). Both Captain Jinguji in Atragon (1963) and Lt. Commander Masami are submarine commanders, but they have almost opposite character arcs. Jinguji at first still believes in the might of the Japanese Empire, but then has a change of heart and decides to use his submarine for the good of mankind. Masami, on the other hand, when we first meet him, is basically a renegade because he opposed the Japanese military's numerous suicide missions, but in the end decides to take his submarine on such a mission to save Japan. Commander Asakura, however, is a very poorly developed character with his motivations making no sense whatsoever.

Overall, it's a decent and entertaining piece of filmmaking with some flaws, but it loses a point or two due to its dubious political statements.