Virus (1980)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (4/5)
May 7th, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Virus is a megabucks doomsday epic footed by producer Haruki Kadokawa. Kadokawa was always the ambitious type; he is best described as the Jerry Bruckheimer of Japan. The films he produced were loud, big, filled with pop-stars and always had Blockbuster potential. By the early 1980s, he sought international success and to branch into Hollywood films and Virus was his attempt at this. It features some Hollywood B-list stars and a budget (allegedly about $15 million) and production values fit for a Hollywood film. The film was a flop, though, and Kadokawa's dreams of international fame were squashed, but Virus is actually a fairly wonderful film. Its quality is owed mostly to director Kinji Fukasaku, one of the greatest mavericks in the Japanese film industry. He was exclusively a studio director and yet nearly every film he made had his unique mark on it. Virus is no different; despite its massive size and American cast, Fukasaku manages to convey a hauntingly beautiful quality and deep, humanitarian sense of the tragic.

In regards to the story: The world has died. A British submarine, the Neried, arrives in a completely abandoned and decimated Tokyo from Antarctica, the last settlement still inhabited by human beings. Yoshizumi (Masao Kusakari), a Japanese scientist, looks at his completely lifeless former home city and begins to remember how it happened. The year is 1982. An American scientist develops a horrific pathogenic viral strain called MM-88. When the virus is stolen by the East German communists, the American government sends in a group of secret agents to try to recover the virus, but their plane experiences engine failure and the vial containing the strain is shattered, exposing it to the open air. Before long, the virus begins to kill live stock and soon moves on to humans, first becoming an epidemic in Italy, causing it to be dubbed the “Italian flu“. In a few short months, it spreads across the entire planet, wiping out every human being in its path. In the end, the only humans left alive are a group of 863 souls in Antarctica, where the virus cannot survive due its cold temperature, including only eight women. The group soon has problems of it's own however, when Yoshizumi realizes that a coming earthquake in Washington DC may very well trigger Washington's missile system or Automatic Reaction System (ARS), which in turn will trigger the Soviet Union's, one of whose missiles is pointing directly at the base. Yoshizumi and American Major Carter (Bo Svenson) are sent to Washington DC to disarm the missiles, but is there enough time?

Virus is based upon a novel by Sakyo Komatsu, one of Japan's gloomiest and most sociopolitical sci-fi novelists; his previous novel was Japan Sinks, which was made into Submersion of Japan by Toho in 1973. The two stories are similar in some ways: Submersion of Japan shows the tragic, tectonic-plate induced downfall of the nation of Japan and the mass migration of the survivors to other countries. Virus shows us the even more tragic, genetically engineered superbug-induced downfall of the entire human race and the plight of the small community of survivors in Antarctica. Kinji Fukasaku, who frequently would infuse an element of human tragedy into his films, most notably in films like Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972), Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Battle Royale, gives the film a truly somber edge. He himself was no stranger to international co-productions. He directed The Green Slime (with Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel early on in his career, worked on the Japanese segments of Fox's Tora! Tora! Tora! and directed Vic Morrow in Message from Space. Virus features such actors as Bo Svenson (Walking Tall Part II), Glenn Ford, George Kennedy, Chuck Connors, Cec Linder (Goldfinger), Edward James Olmos (later to play a memorable role in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner) and Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet, Black Christmas). Virus also features, however, a fair amount of Japanese actors as well, including such Fukasaku regulars as Yumi Takigawa (the protagonist's abused prostitute spouse in Graveyard of Honor), the beloved Sonny Chiba, fine, late actor Ken Ogata (Vengeance is Mine) and regular yakuza Tsunehiko Watase. So in a sense, you get the best of both worlds.

The first act of the film is absolutely incredible and is Fukasaku at the top of his form but with ten times the usual amount of money to work with. We see hospitals overflowing with frightened, sick mothers and children, the military torching the bodies of the massive amounts of dead in Tokyo and then montages of the world's now abandoned major cities with title cards showing the full death tolls (titles card as harbingers of death being a very frequent Fukasaku trademark also famously employed in Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Battle Royale). The world's military leaders are depicted as not much better than the yakuza bosses in any Fukasaku crime film and every bit as self serving. Particularly notable is cult actor Henry Silva's portrayal of US military leader General Garland, a character very akin to Sterling Hayden's General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, using the virus outbreak as the perfect excuse to make war with the Soviets. The second act of the movie is sadly less effective and a little dull, but the film jumps back into form for its third and final act, in which, after the world is destroyed again thanks to a nuclear holocaust, Yoshizumi decides to return to his beloved Marit (Olivia Hussey) and for several years walks all the way from Washington to the Southernmost tip of South America, becoming quite emaciated and ragged. The film features a particularly beautiful sequence in which Yoshizumi rests in a church and has a kind of metaphysical conversation with a skeleton there. The film's cinematography, by Daisuke Kimura who also lensed Submersion of Japan, is gorgeous. Particularly stunning are its panoramic, aerial shots of the bleak but beautiful Antarctic locales. The film's score, by Kentaro Heneda with a beautiful song produced by Teo Macero and sung by folksy singer Janis Ian, is powerful and effective even if it is a little 1980s and producer Kadokawa displays his very Hollywood penchant for putting pop songs every where he can fit them, a habit far that would be far more painfully evident in Kadokawa and Fukasaku's later collaboration Legend of the Eight Samurai.

The film's biggest flaws are its somewhat dull second act and some very Japanese miscasting of the Western actors. Chuck Connors plays a submarine captain intended to be British but speaks as American as apple pie and Olivia Hussey's character is supposed to be Norwegian but is so obviously played by a British woman. Like how Westerners view Africans, the Japanese seem to think all Caucasians or “gaijin”, are the same and speak “white”. While Kinji Fukasaku, for a director who spoke little to no English, does a good enough job directing the Westerners, far better than his stiff work for The Green Slime, it's clear that he was much comfortable directing his Japanese actors as the Japanese sequences are stronger and feel more “Fukasaku”. The script is one of the film's biggest flaws. It is rather sloppily plotted and its “viral outbreak logic” is very inconsistent. One big problem is the virus wipes out all vertebrate life on the planet yet the massive destruction of the planet's eco-system if such a thing happened is not delved into and Yoshizumi is shown catching a fish in the final act when a scene in the first act showing a dead goldfish in the background implies that fish are victims of the virus too. MM88 is also shown to be only dormant at subzero temperatures, but then why doesn't it come to Antarctica during the summer thaw. The film's concept of the base's six women essentially having to become prostitutes for the whole Antarctic base's 800 plus male population is logical and probably would happen in real life, but the majority of the women are shown accepting such horrific circumstances with far too much ease. With the exception of Yoshizumi, Bo Svenson's Major Carter and Olivia Hussey's Marit, who provide some meager character arcs, the majority of the film's characters are static mere disaster-epic archetypes, though Robert Vaughn also gets a chance to shine as a progressive senator who sees through all the political claptrap going on the first act.

Those gripes aside, though, Virus is a surprisingly good and powerful film and is very criminally underrated. This could be because the international US cut, which for years was more commonly seen than its two and a half hour Japanese counterpart, is heavily cut and missing almost an hour of exposition. The Japanese version focuses on Masao Kusakari's Yoshizumi as the focal point of the movie but in the US version there is essentially no main character and it has a messy, unfocused feel as a result. One thing completely axed in the US version is Yoshizumi's motivation, here only hinted at. In the Japanese version, his pregnant girlfriend (played by Yumi Takigawa), plays a large part in the first act with Yoshizumi more or less abandoning her to spend time in Antarctica. She loses her baby from stress and finally commits suicide out of grief. Yoshizumi is deeply haunted by his actions and this is what drives his “trek” on foot across two continents. I am all for a tighter runtime but the 108-minute version of Virus is just plain butchered. While the film failed to take off even in Japan, make Kadokawa the Hollywood player he wanted to be or get Kinji Fukasaku the world-wide acclaim he deserved, in its full uncut version, Virus is a very good and compelling end-of-the-world drama far better than most of Japan's other such films.