The Shootout (凶弾, Toru Murakawa, 1982)

The seishun eiga or youth films of the 1960s often had an ambivalent attitude to rebellious youngsters who for various reasons were not able to accommodate themselves to the times in which they lived, but few were prepared to ask real questions about society’s responsibility towards young people in difficult situations who had often been let down by the same state institutions which only sought to demonise them. Based on a story by Hiroshi Fukuda which was inspired by a real life ferry hijack which outraged the nation when the police opted to shoot the teenage hijacker dead, Toru Murakawa’s The Shootout (凶弾, Kyodan) stars the nephew of 60s youth movie king Yujiro Ishihara and places the blame firmly at the door of the police and other public services whose gradual and needless escalation of events leads only to tragedy. 

Teenagers Hideo (Yoshizumi Ishihara), Numa (Masato Furuoya), and Soichi (Tatsuo Yamada) met in reform school and have become something like brothers. All of them either never knew their parents or lost them young and have developed a healthy distrust of authority thanks to their experiences. As the film opens, the boys run cheerfully through the streets of a small rural town headed to the mountains where they play with a shotgun Hideo inherited from his late father. While driving back the boys pick up a distressed young woman, Hiromi (Mio Takaki), running barefoot through the pouring rain, but soon come to the attention of a pair of bored policemen the older of whom has a definite problem with the “unreliable” youth of the day and all their “sissy” music. They pull car over for speeding which is a problem not only because Soichi has been drinking, but because it is also not his car. He took the neighbour’s when his was taken away and it’s been reported stolen. 

While the younger policeman processes Soichi, the older one decides to kick off after finding the shotgun, banging Hideo’s head against the side of the car and then attacking Numa with a police truncheon when he asks him politely to stop before punching him in the face and kneeing him in the stomach though at this point neither of the boys has made any attempt to resist. Continuing to kick him on the ground, the policeman tells Numa that he should have more respect for his parents which is something of a sore spot because Numa was a foundling raised in the care system. Snapping, Numa hits the policeman over the head with the shotgun leaving him crawling on the muddy ground in danger of drowning while having suffered a serious head injury. 

This is first of many needless escalations that the boys encounter. The policeman was not really interested in serving the law, only in validating his authority and in reality little better than a thug himself. If he had not needlessly inflicted violence on the two young men, which is in itself an act of extreme entitlement given his age and fitness level compared to that of two physically fit teenage boys, none of the succeeding action would have taken place. The boys feel that they are unfairly victimised and are understandably mistrustful of the police because as they say even when they are doing their best to adhere to the rules of mainstream society they are written off as reform school boys not least by the police who have already decided that they are innately bad and must be guilty of whatever it is they are accused. 

The boys find the same thing when they decide to turn themselves in after a few days on the run and go to their social worker for help. The social worker lives in a temple and first seems as if he’s going to help when they explain and ask him to mediate for them with the police who they fear will not listen to the real story, but it soon becomes clear that he only wants to help Hideo who is the grandson of a diplomat and a promising student while foundling Numa is according to him unsalvageable. If only the social worker had been prepared to listen to them, the hijacking would never have happened. All the boys ever ask for is that someone pay attention to their side of things, honestly without prejudice, but all they’re ever told is that the word of a reform school boy is worthless which really begs the question of what the reform school is for in the first place. 

Then again there are a handful of sympathetic officers including one in charge of the original incident who makes it clear to his men that they should not be judging the suspects on their backgrounds while another (Kunie Tanaka) who was responsible for arresting Hideo when he killed his sister’s no good violent boyfriend during a fight reflects that he had beautiful eyes for a murderer and has come to question the nature of contemporary policing feeling perhaps that boys like these deserve help rather than punishment. The only person who does make an effort to listen is the fatherly captain of the ferry which Hideo ends up hijacking (Tomisaburo Wakayama) who seems to be getting through to him only to have his progress undermined by the police who again only want to preserve their own authority. 

Comparing the ferryjacking to the 1972 Munich terrorist attack, which seems rather hyperbolic even though the situation is obviously dangerous given the hostage taker is an emotionally volatile teenage boy with at this point two powerful firearms, the police and Coast Guard determine that killing him is likely the only solution. Obviously never having studied much about hostage negotiation, they surround the boat when it stops to refuel pushing Hideo further into a corner and increasing the likelihood that he may end up feeling out of options and decide to take everyone else with him when he goes. From the police’s point of view, perhaps that adds an extra justification to their clear determination to kill when the implication is that to them boys like Hideo are just a threat to be neutralised, another powder keg reform school boy who would have caused trouble eventually. 

That the public do not agree with the police’s actions perhaps says something about contemporary social attitudes, that in general people do not want to live under such rigid authoritarianism and could see that Hideo was merely a frightened boy who could have been talked down if again someone, other than the captain who did his best to save him, had been prepared to listen rather than once again needlessly escalating the situation to preserve the image of police authority. On the flip side, we’re also shown that the shooting has an adverse effect on the remorseful police sniper who is also at a moment of emotional strain caring for a wife dying of a brain tumour at only 25. Reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause, The Shootout like its heroes has a healthy distrust of authority figures but also a small faith in the wider public while asking serious questions about the way society treats those who are often the most in need of care and protection. 


Virus (復活の日, Kinji Fukasaku, 1980)

virusThe ‘70s. It was a bleak time when everyone was frightened of everything and desperately needed to be reminded why everything was so terrifying by sitting in a dark room and watching a disaster unfold on-screen. Thank goodness everything is so different now! Being the extraordinarily savvy guy he was, Hiroki Kadokawa decided he could harness this wave of cold war paranoia to make his move into international cinema with the still fledgling film arm he’d added to the publishing company inherited from his father.

Adapted from a pessimistic, post-plague novel in the vein of Andromeda Strain penned by Japan Sinks’ Sakyo Komatsu, Virus (復活の日, Fukkatsu no Hi) was, at that time, the most expensive Japanese movie ever made. Using an international cast with the bulk of the dialogue in English, Kadokawa’s hopes were high but his dream was ultimately dashed when the film bombed at the box office and ended up being unceremoniously sold off to cable TV in a re-edited international version which removed almost all of the Japanese scenes. Since its original release, the film has accrued something of a negative reputation and left a stain on the resume of its otherwise popular director Kinji Fukasaku  (whose other international effort, Tora! Tora! Tora! didn’t do him any favours either) but Virus is far from the disaster it’s often regarded to be, even if extremely flawed.

Seismologist Yoshizumi (Masao Kusakari) witnesses the ruined state of his homeland in December 1983 from the comfort of a British submarine. Reminiscing about the woman who left him because of his scientific obsessions, Yoshizumi becomes our catalyst for a flashback to learn exactly how the world was destroyed in just a couple of years. Genetic experiments to create new viruses were banned in 1981 but in the following February a dodgy deal goes down in East Germany and the most dangerous biological weapon ever created is accidentally unleashed when the plane it was travelling on crashes into the Alps. It’s not long before “Italian flu” is laying waste to half of Europe before reaching Asia and the Americas. The virus is all powerful and no serious attempts to combat it are possible given the lack of time, but, the virus is dormant at below zero temperatures so the antarctic polar research station becomes humanity’s last hope for survival.

Though the film is funded and produced by Japan, it clearly positions America as its global leader. This is, however, countered by the fact that the weapon itself was being developed in America as a “credible deterrent” against Russian aggression now that Russia and the US are about even on Nukes. The bad guys are the American intelligence officials who have been continuing the research illegally without the President’s knowledge. In a touch of ironic Soviet-style manoeuvring, a research scientist trying to blow the whistle on this frighteningly destructive project is thrown into a mental hospital.

Rather than the struggle to find a cure, Virus prefers to focus on the immediate effects of the epidemic as the civilised world crumbles with alarming speed. Zipping around the major world capitals with death tolls placed against picturesque landmarks, Fukasaku mixes in stock footage of real rioting and civil unrest (of which he had a lot to choose from by 1980) as people take to the streets in desperation. Hospitals overflow with the infected, and the bodies pile up unceasingly.

The situation in Antartica is calmer if concerned. Some researchers opt for suicide whilst others club together to discuss possible plans for the survival of the human race. Unfortunately, this being a scientific community in the 1980s, there are 800 men and just 8 women, which leads to a number of obvious social problems. The remaining women are quickly convinced to become a kind of comfort team “accommodating” the needs of the attendant men. If the need really was to repopulate as quickly as possible, such an extreme re-imagining of current social mores would hardly be necessary, but strangely the women seem to accept their sudden conversion to forced prostitution with stoic pragmatism. Civility is maintained, and the outpost colony survives without too many problems but another threat arrives when Yoshizumi predicts a major earthquake event set to hit Washington that may activate its secret nuclear weapons which are trained on Moscow. That hardly matters now except that Moscow’s nukes are pointed at their research base owing to a slight political misunderstanding.

The research base is a testament to international cooperation with representatives from all continents, all working together peacefully (well, mostly – Lopez (Edward James Olmos) is…a passionate man) for the betterment of science. When it comes down to it, Yoshizumi and the American soldier Carter (Bo Svenson) are the lone duo heading back into plague infested Washington in an attempt to shut down the nuclear weapons systems before it’s too late.

Where Virus differs from many of the similarly themed films of the time is in its generally benevolent view of humanity. Despite the fact that the virus was man made, constructed to perpetuate an ongoing arms race, and was released due to bad luck and avarice, the majority of people are good, progressive sorts who want to work together to figure all of this out. Where the re-edited US version opts for a bleaker than bleak ending, the Japanese version does at least demonstrate the strength of human endurance as Yoshizumi trudges south in search of the survivors. The world is not restored, but there is still a kind of life possible if only those left behind can choose to live it.

Fukasaku opts for a more straightforward approach than some of his more frenetic work, but introduces an interesting device when the exhausted, hungry, and lonely Yoshizumi passes through a church. A mental dialogue with Christ on the cross is offered entirely in subtitles, as is the later “conversation” with a skeleton lying next to it who asks Yoshizumi some tough questions about his relationships and intentions.

These more spiritual enquiries play into the secondary theme of Yoshizumi’s ongoing guilt over abandoning his pregnant girlfriend to head off to Antarctica. Though adding to Yoshizumi’s backstory, his lost love in Japan occupies slightly more of the running time than is comfortable only to end on an ambiguous, if bleak, note which has little to do with anything else going on at the time. It does, however, feed into the mirroring developments at the research station when Yoshizumi is charged with looking after a pregnant woman and then becomes attached both to her and to the baby. It’s Yoshizumi’s love for another man’s wife and child coupled with the failure to save his own which drive him onward, but the romantic subplot often feels like an after thought and never achieves the kind of impact it hopes for.

Though a meandering, unwieldy beast, Virus is undoubtedly ambitious and often successful even if its production values don’t always live up to its famously high budget. Despite odd casting decisions which find Americans commanding British submarines and Brits playing Norwegians with English accents the largely international cast acquits itself well. Virus’ world is an oddly rational one where those left behind are willing to put aside their differences to work together rather than selfishly try to save themselves (though the film offers no ideas on how anyone is going to survive on Antartica when the supplies run out). As such, its vision is as bleak as many ‘70s dystopias but it also offers a brief glimmer of hope in allowing Yoshizumi to trudge to a kind of home, even if it’s one of ongoing uncertainty and primitive survival.


This review refers to the full 156 minute cut rather than the 108 minute US version.

Original trailer (no subtitles)