It is the sort of film that seems to go out of its way to sow confusion. Since its initial release, the original 156-minute cut and a truncated 108-minute international edition have both been widely circulated. There was also a Teo Macero-produced soundtrack, featuring funky tunes performed by 1970s jazz superstars, including Chick Corea, Ron Carter, David Sanborn, and Larry Corryell, but you will not hear those cuts during the film. Perhaps most bafflingly, Sonny “Streetfighter” Chiba appears in a largely passive supporting role. However, the narrative is clear enough. Thanks to the accidental release of a weaponized super-bacillus, all vertebrate life is pretty much doomed in Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society retrospective: Pop! Goes Cinema: Kadokawa Films and 1980s Japan.
You can blame us hawkish Yanks for developing MM88 and the East Germans for recklessly stealing it. However, it will rather unfairly be dubbed the “Italian Flu,” because that is where the first devastating outbreaks and consequential riots first manifested. Soon it is sweeping across the planet, masking its presence by amplifying existing viral diseases. President Richardson is quite disappointed in the situation, but his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs only has a mind to turn on our automatic nuclear retaliation system. This will loom large down the stretch.
Seven months later, humanity only survives on Antarctica, where the sub-zero temperatures force the virus into dormancy. It is a difficult situation, what with the eight women to three-hundred-some men ratio. It is particularly hard on seismologist Shuzo Yoshizumi. He was so obsessed with his research, he submissively allowed his pregnant lover Noriko Asami to break-up with him. It would be very Seinfeld-esque, if it were not so tragic. However, he develops feelings of protective affection for Marit, the sole survivor of the Norwegian station, and her recently delivered infant.
Directed by Fukasaku, the edgy studio hitmaker responsible for the Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Battle Royale franchises, Virus was the most expensive Japanese film of its era. Despite its considerable international distribution, it still bombed. A little distance was probably needed to appreciate how Fukasaku fuses the Western all-star disaster melodrama with a peculiarly Japanese foray into the surreal and the existential. At times, this film is just plain odd, but it also boasts a who’s who of late 1970s Irwin Allen and Alistair McLean movies, including the likes of Glenn Ford, Chuck Connors, Bo Svenson, Olivia Hussey (Zeffirelli’s Juliet playing Norwegian), Henry Silva, Cec Linder (Felix Leiter in Goldfinger), George Kennedy, and the recently departed Robert Vaughn.
Yet, far and away, the best performance comes from Masao Kusakari as the bereaved and neurotic Yoshizumi. The film really gets its heart and soul from his relationships with Yumi Takigawa’s Asami and Hussey’s Marit. However, most of his scenes were axed from the international hack-job, so you want to hold out for the long version (which of course, the Japan Society will screen).
There are a number of wonderfully over-the-top death scenes in Virus that really put it in a class by itself. Granted, it is hard to believe you could just saunter through the front door of a post-apocalyptic White House, even with 1980 security technology, but silly third acts come with the disaster movie territory. Arguably, Virus was way ahead of its time, staking a claim to pandemic territory before Outbreak, Contagion, and Twenty-Eight Days Later. It is also a lot of nostalgic fun to watch the so-of its-time cast, albeit in a rather pessimistic context. Recommended for fans of apocalyptic cinema, Virus screens this Tuesday (11/22) at the Japan Society, as part of their ongoing Kadokawa retrospective.