Days of Renewal: COVID-19 and VIRUS (1980)
This article contains candid discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic that may be difficult to read for those personally affected by it.
In December 1983, the British submarine Nereid arrives in a deserted Tokyo Bay. All life in the city has perished. The submarine’s captain, McCloud (Chuck Connors), sends out a drone to see if the pathogen that killed Tokyo’s inhabitants is active. He summons Japanese scientist Dr. Shuzo Yoshizumi (Masao Kusakari) to the bridge. Looking upon his decimated homeland, Yoshizumi sees the skeletal remains of an infant. He remembers his late girlfriend Noriko (Yumi Takigawa). She told him that she was pregnant before he left for Antarctica and the hellish pandemic that wiped humanity off the face of the Earth took place. American military man Major Carter (Bo Svenson) boorishly mocks Yoshizumi. French doctor Henri La Tour (Cec Linder) informs McCloud that the virus is still active. He implores McCloud to let him take back a sample so he can study it and possibly develop a vaccine. After some convincing, McCloud relents. The Nereid heads back to humanity’s final stronghold, the continent of Antarctica. Yoshizumi remembers how this nightmare began.
The largest production in Japanese film history to that point, Virus brings another prophetic novel by Sakyo Komatsu (Japan Sinks) to vivid life. This adaptation was helmed by Kinji Fukasaku, later known for the dystopian masterpiece Battle Royale (2000). Fukasaku (1930–2003), a prolific director who until then specialized in gangster films, crafts a sprawling apocalyptic epic. Difficult to watch in the wake of COVID-19, Virus combines the nightmares of biowarfare and nuclear annihilation. Fukasaku’s best genre film, Virus boasts impressive first and final acts and a bleak tone coupled with top tier production values.
The Michael Crichton of Japan, Sakyo Komatsu was known for writing clever speculative fiction. His novels often had apocalyptic overtones. Along with Shinichi Hoshi and Yasutaka Tsutsui, he was considered a post-war luminary of literary Japanese science fiction. He was born Minoru Komatsu in 1931 in Osaka to an entrepreneur father. He was a sickly child unable to play sports, so he was a voracious reader. His older brother, later an engineer at Sanyo, inspired an interest in scientific matters. His brother would allow young Komatsu to read his science manuals. World War II left an indelible impression on Komatsu, especially stories of youth his age used as cannon fodder and killed in Okinawa. After the war, he became interested in literature, especially classical Italian works like Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Komatsu studied Italian literature at Kyoto University. He also became politically active, joining the Japanese Communist Party. Komatsu left the JCP after finding out that the Soviet Union was also testing nuclear weapons. Graduating college in 1954, his early career was difficult and full of hardship. He toiled writing amateur plays until the late 1950s. Afterward, Komatsu was inspired by author Kobo Abe and decided to try his hand at story writing. His first major short story was called Peace on Earth. It presents an alternate universe where World War II didn’t end and the Allies mounted an invasion of the Japanese islands.
His next short story was Memoirs of an Eccentric Time Traveler. It won the top prize in a competition at Masami Fukushima’s SF Magazine. Komatsu soon began writing his first novel, Japan’s Apaches, inspired by Korean “sangokujin” scavengers after the war. It tells the story of outcast youth in a post-apocalyptic Japan who survive by collecting scrap metal from the ruins of the previous world. Japan’s Apaches was published in 1964 and was a bestseller. It has since become quite iconic in Japanese pop culture. Komatsu published his second full length novel, Virus: The Day of Resurrection, in 1964. The inspiration for The Day of Resurrection came from the recent sequencing of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson. They had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. Komatsu thought that such a discovery had just as much potential for destruction as the splitting of the atom. During World War II, Japan was, interestingly, one of the first countries to understand the power of weaponizing biowarfare. Imperial military doctor Lt. General Shiro Ishii was obsessed with bioweapons research. This factored into the medical experimentation done at the Unit 731 facility in Manchuria which he presided over. Ishii wanted to turn the tide of the Pacific War back in Japan’s favor using a lethal strain of Bubonic plague. In exchange for his data, MacArthur’s occupation forces did not charge him or his associates with war crimes. Major influence on The Day of Resurrection also came from the novel and film On the Beach. On the Beach also depicts survivors living on a single continent after an apocalyptic event. Stanley Kubrick’s recent Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, with its “doomsday machine” also inspired the concept of the “ARS” missile system.
In 1965, Toho sought to produce a big screen adaptation of The Day of Resurrection. Realizing the story was too large in scale to produce on their own, Toho sought to co-produce the film with 20th Century Fox. They were also interested in making a film pitting Godzilla against Batman with them. A deal with Fox could not be reached and both projects fell by the wayside. Physician turned sci-fi author Michael Crichton would write the similar The Andromeda Strain in 1969, made into a film by Robert Wise in 1971. The Hong Kong flu pandemic also took place in 1968 which brought the novel to mind for many Japanese.
By the mid 1970s, Haruki Kadokawa, heir to the Kadokawa Shoten publishing empire, had taken over his late father’s company. Kadokawa (1942-) was determined to get into the movie business. His company’s first film production was The Inugamis (1976), directed by Kon Ichikawa. Kadokawa’s next films Proof of the Man (1977) and Never Give Up (1978) were two of the biggest hits in Japanese box office history. Kadokawa was beginning to develop the distinctive brand of making Hollywood-style Blockbusters in Japan. Ala a Japanese Jerry Bruckheimer, his movies were big budgeted and bombastic with high concepts and production values. Kadokawa Shoten had already published a reprint of The Day of Resurrection. Making a film adaptation was Haruki Kadokawa’s dream. The successes of Proof of the Man and Never Give Up paved the way for Kadokawa to next produce Virus. Kadokawa was keen on making a large budget, lavish film with international cooperation. He courted Hollywood director John Frankenheimer to helm the film, but he wasn’t interested. Kinji Fukasaku was thus chosen as director, though many felt he was not a good fit. At that point, the director was mainly known for his violent, gritty crime flicks at Toei. Director Shiro Moritani who had helmed Submersion of Japan (1973) lobbied for the role with Komatsu’s blessing. Kadokawa was keen on Kinji Fukasaku however. He was a fan of his gangster pictures and Fukasaku had more experience working on international co-productions. Daisaku Kimura, the cinematographer of Submersion of Japan, was hired as DP as a compromise to Komatsu.
Like a Japanese Howard Hawks, in his versatile career Fukasaku walked a tightrope between fierce auteur and hit-making program director. Fukasaku was born in Mito, Japan. As a teenager during World War II, his class was put to work at a munitions factory. The factory was hit more than once by American bombers and his experiences there left a bitter scar. Fukasaku was 15 when the war ended and remembered the chaos of post-war Japan vividly. He consoled himself by going to see films in the cinema, moved by Italian neorealist pictures by De Sica and Rosselini. Fukasaku soon entered the Nihon University College of Art where he studied screenwriting.
In 1954, he joined Toei as an assistant director, working under directors like Masahiro Makino. Finally in 1961 he was promoted to director. Fukasaku’s debut was a quartet of hour long actioners with future action star Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba. Fukasaku and Chiba would form a long lasting friendship and work together again on numerous occasions in coming decades. These were followed by the longer High Noon For Gangsters (aka Greed in Broad Daylight). More noirish films followed like The Proud Challenge, Gang vs. G-Men (both 1962), Jakoman and Tetsu and Wolves, Pig and Men (both 1964). Kamikaze Man: Duel at Noon (1966) was Fukasaku’s first color film. By this time, he developed a solid reputation at Toei for directing action films on time and on budget. He married actress Sanae Nakahara in 1965. The two were inseparable until Kinji’s death.
Thanks to a clause in his contract, he was able to do freelance direction for other studios. In 1968 he made the gangster film Blackmail is My Life for Shochiku. It was followed by the garish crime thriller Black Lizard, starring drag queen performer and singer Akihiro Miwa. Fukasaku directed a follow-up, Black Rose Mansion, the following year, also with Miwa. His ability to bring films in on schedule and under budget got him handed the reins to The Green Slime at Toei. A U.S./Japanese/Italian co-production, it was his first science fiction and tokusatsu film. Concerning titular green gunk spawning tentacled electric beasties on a space station, it featured an entirely Western cast. The stars included Wagon Train’s Robert Horton, Thunderball’s Luciana Paluzzi and The Dirty Dozen’s Richard Jaeckel. Fukasaku was not allowed to bring much directorial flair, but it was his first film to be exported internationally.
Fukasaku got another high profile international gig in 1970. Akira Kurosawa had dropped out of the US/Japanese co-production Tora! Tora! Tora! due to creative conflict with 20th Century Fox. Fukasaku and contemporary Toshio Masuda were brought on board to direct the Japanese sequences as both had good reputations for efficiency. Fukasaku focused on the action scenes as he disliked the script’s gentlemanly portrayal of the Imperial military brass. Far removed from Pearl Harbor’s spectacle, he also directed the tragic youth film If You Were Young: Rage. Inspired by Sam Peckinpah, he cultivated a darker style for his gangster pictures with Sympathy For the Underdog (1971). He used his generous paycheck for Tora! Tora! Tora! to purchase the rights to a book by Shohei Tokisane. This became Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972). Alongside Masaki Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy, it’s one of the most scathing condemnations of Imperial Japan put to film.
Starting with Street Mobster in 1972, Fukasaku began to pioneer the jitsuroku (true crime story) subgenre of yakuza films. The film’s actor, Bunta Sugawara, became another of his favorite players. Before Fukasaku, Japanese gangster pictures were ninkyo films. These were more stylized yarns depicting the protagonists akin to samurai, flawed but honorable. Ala Peckinpah’s deconstruction of the old West, Fukasaku wanted something truer to his postwar experience. Quick and cheap to produce, these films were heavy on exploitation-style violence and mayhem. Yet they used avant-garde filmmaking methods that were almost arthouse. Fukasaku employed grotty locales, handheld shooting and titled angles to emphasize the world of chaos and brutality these gangsters thrived in. The plots were based on true crime stories that had made headlines back in their day. Fukasaku’s masterwork was his five film Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973–74) saga. In Japan, it’s considered the Nippon equivalent to Coppola’s The Godfather.
While other Japanese studios struggled in the 70s, Toei developed a name with violent, low budget but innovative films from directors like Fukasaku. Trailers began to refer to him as “genius director Kinji Fukasaku”. More gritty gangster-themed films followed, such as three New Battles Without Honor and Humanity films (1974–76), Graveyard of Honor, Cops vs. Thugs (both 1975), Yakuza Graveyard (1976), Hokuriku Proxy War and Doberman Cop (both 1977). In 1978, Fukasaku, long wary of the traditionalism of the samurai genre, finally reneged. He directed a pair of jidai-geki films: Shogun’s Samurai and The Fall of Ako Castle. He also directed the Star Wars inspired space opera Message From Space that same year. The film was heavy on special effects and featured late American actor Vic Morrow. Being the largest budgeted Japanese film up to that time, it no doubt influenced Kadokawa to hire Fukasaku for Virus, which quickly dethroned Message From Space.
For Virus, Fukasaku and writers Koji Takada and Gregory Knapp significantly altered Komatsu’s novel. In the book, MM88, ala Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, is a space-borne pathogen discovered by astronauts and weaponized. The “MM” stands for “Martian Murderer”. In the film, it is entirely human engineered. This is in line with the misanthropic tone pervading Fukasaku’s work. Much of the exposition regarding the virus’ development, theft and spread is altered, trimmed and simplified. In the book, the virus is stolen by the British and taken to the biowarfare lab in Porton Down rather than by the East Germans. Additionally, the novel’s size of the Antarctic community is close to 10,000 men and 16 women. This is in stark contrast to the film’s 855 men and eight women.
In late 1978, after completing work on his jidai-geki The Fall of Ako Castle, Fukasaku and company began scouting locations. While visiting Antarctica, Fukasaku swam in the volcanic hot springs of Deception Island. It reminded him of the onsens back in Japan. With the largest budget in Japanese film history pushing $20 million, Virus’ shoot was massive; taking place around the world throughout 1979. Virus was the first commercial film shot in Antarctica and the first time the continent was shot with 35mm cameras. Another Japanese crew would return a few years later to make the dog sled drama Antarctica (1983). Much of Virus’ interior set sequences were filmed in Toronto, Canada. Other sequences were shot in Japan, Alaska and Chile. The crew also traveled to Machu Picchu in Peru. In total, Fukasaku’s unit exposed a whopping close to 50 hours of footage for Virus.
Given its size and scope, the shoot for Virus was fraught with difficulties. Much of the Canadian crew working with Fukasaku’s unit in Toronto had trouble with his direction. It did not help that Fukasaku spoke no English at all and was dependent on an interpreter, Toshiko Adilman. In stark contrast to the anarchic handheld camerawork of his yakuza films, Fukasaku shot Virus in a more static style. Working with Kimura as DP rather than his usual yakuza film cinematographers like Hanjiro Nakazawa likely influenced his decision for more “locked-down” camera work. The Canadians were frustrated by this as they had access to steadicams and dollies that Fukasaku often chose not to use. The effective miniature work was done not by a Japanese tokusatsu crew but Hollywood’s Greg Jein and Michael Minor. Both had just worked on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Jein (1945-) had won an Oscar for the alien spaceship in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He and Minor clashed with the Japanese crew, who wanted the mattes more brightly colored. Jein would continue to be one of Hollywood’s premiere miniature-makers, with recent work on James Cameron’s Avatar and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Chile’s Navy supported the production. They lent Fukasaku’s unit one of their submarines, the Simpson, which portrayed the Nereid. The film’s icebreaker was portrayed by the Chilean ship Piloto Pardo. Towards the end of the shoot in December of 1979, the Swedish passenger ship Lindblood was carrying much of Virus’ cast and crew. They hit an underwater volcano, ran aground and the passengers had to be rescued by the Chilean Navy. This story made the front page of The New York Times.
Virus boasts an international cast including numerous American and Japanese players. There’s George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke) as Admiral Conway, fresh from the Airport series. Kennedy had previously appeared in Proof of the Man for Kadokawa. Noir and Western star Glenn Ford plays President Richardson. For the well directed White House scenes, Fukasaku had difficulty getting Ford to remember his lines . The crew had to hide cue cards all over the set. Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) plays the cunning Senator Barkley who gets to the bottom of the “Operation Phoenix” conspiracy. Henry Silva plays the General Ripper-like Garland. Silva was a very prolific actor who played supporting roles in Hollywood films, including a memorable part in Ocean’s 11 (1960). He then switched to bigger roles in European films, mainly Euro Crime films from Italy.
One of Virus’ flaws is that some of the Western roles are not convincingly cast. Former athlete and Rifleman star Chuck Conners is badly miscast as the British Captain McCloud. He attempts, at best, a kung fu dub-like mid-Atlantic accent. Interestingly, in Komatsu’s novel, the Nereid is an American submarine. It sinks a British sub filled with infected crewmen instead of the Soviet T-232. Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet, Black Christmas) plays the supposedly Norwegian Marit but speaks the Queen’s. Swedish-American actor Bo Svenson appears as Major Carter. Svenson had taken over the role of sheriff Buford Pusser from Joe Don Baker for the Walking Tall sequels. He had also appeared in the 1977 Spaghetti war film The Inglorious Bastards. He and Kinji Fukasaku got along well and the two would keep in touch for years until Fukasaku’s death. Svenson later appeared in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) for Quentin Tarantino. Edward James Olmos, best known for his role in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, plays a small part as well. Canadian actor Cecil “Cec” Linder (Goldfinger) portrays Dr. La Tour. He also played Professor Roney in 1957 BBC TV serial of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit.
Virus’ Japanese cast was just as high profile to Japanese audiences. Star Masao Kusakari (1952-) had already appeared in a previous Komatsu adaptation: ESPY (1974). The son of an American G.I. and Japanese mother, his handsome Eurasian looks got him a gig as model for the cosmetics company Shishido. After Virus, he became a superstar for his role in Kadokawa’s Dirty Hero (1982). Frequent Fukasaku collaborator Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba plays what amounts to an extended cameo. Consummate Ken Ogata plays a small role as a Japanese doctor dealing with the horrific pandemic. Ogata (1937–2008) is best known for his roles in Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (1979) and The Ballad of Narayama (1983). He played the lead of Yukio Mishima in Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). For Kinji Fukasaku, he later played swordsman Musashi Miyamoto in Samurai Reincarnation (1981). He also appeared in Fukasaku’s House on Fire (1986) and Chaos of Flowers (1988). Actress Yumi Takigawa (1951-) is best known for her role in Norifumi Suzuki’s “pinky violence” classic School of the Holy Beast (1974). She had played the role of an abused yakuza moll in Fukasaku’s previous Graveyard of Honor (1975). Takigawa later reunited with the director for 1992’s The Triple Cross. Actor Tsunehiko Watase (1944–2017) plays the distraught Tatsuno. He was a favorite of director Fukasaku, often playing roles as young gangsters in his yakuza films.
Virus was a major milestone in director Fukasaku’s career. It was his final step away from B-movie director towards a new status as a mainstream hitmaker. Virus is without question his finest science fiction film. The film’s prologue aboard the Nereid strongly invokes Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach. The film’s first act is disturbingly powerful at times, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scenes showing the viral pandemic emerging in Italy and overwhelmed medical staff in Japan are difficult to watch now. The early Japanese scenes show the most confidence from Fukasaku. One moment featuring topless girls dancing in a disco as they cough is especially unsettling. Excised from the export versions, it is the perfect image of a collapsing society that hasn’t yet accepted its destruction. The virus is prophetically depicted as causing mass civil unrest. COVID-19, like MM88, is a virus with highly variable symptoms that starts as a cold or flu and then can progress to lethality. Hauntingly, a Reuters article dated April 14, 2020 reads “‘Isolated within isolation’: keeping out coronavirus in the frozen Antarctic”. Like COVID-19, in the novel MM88 starts spreading in China and then Italy. Virus also looks ahead to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which began to make headlines shortly after the film’s release.
In spite of the large scale production, Fukasaku brings his own style to Virus. He was inspired by the dread he felt during the height of the Cold War. In an interview for Stuart Galbraith’s Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo, he said “The Cuban Missile Crisis had threatened the whole world- it was a really dangerous period, not only for Japan. I wanted to reflect that feeling all over the world in Virus”. There’s a somber montage that rattles off the death tolls of each major city with title cards. Like contemporaries Kihachi Okamoto and Toshio Masuda, Fukasaku was fond of using heavy onscreen supers in his films. In Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), they introduce the labyrinthian cast of characters and appear on screen whenever a gangster is killed or arrested. In the later Battle Royale, title cards keep track of each student who dies in the film’s brutal killing game. Like the memorials to the fallen Battle Royale students, Virus’ title cards are an epitaph for humanity. In Virus, the world’s leaders behave much like the yakuza families in Battles Without Honor. Rather than guns and knives, they hurl biowarfare agents and nuclear weapons at each other. Kinji Fukasaku had a clear disdain for U.S. foreign policy that is on vivid display here as well. His final script for 2003’s Battle Royale II is quite ferociously anti-American in the wake of 9/11. It outright sympathizes with the Islamic terrorists the United States still fervently hunts.
Virus is quite an uneven film, however. Fukasaku’s lack of an ear for English clearly affected his ability to direct the Western actors. The film loses a little steam midway for the Antarctic base sequences and there’s a certain “strangeness” to some of the picture’s lengthy English language scenes. The aspect of the eight women having to act as prostitutes of sorts to hundreds of men is quite problematic. Yet the wry Fukasaku makes how deranged he feels this is quite clear in an uncomfortable sequence. Olivia Hussey’s Marit is shown about to bed a virginal young sailor “assigned” to her. The science of both the novel and film is quite terrible. Any virologist worth their PhD will tell you a virus that is a death sentence for “all vertebrate life on Earth” would have trouble spreading far. Viruses need living hosts to propagate. This is why Ebola’s high death rate actually makes it easier to contain and combat. Fukasaku’s vision for Virus is arguably even bleaker than Komatsu’s. In the novel, while Carter and Yoshizumi fail, another mission is able to stop the Soviet missiles from firing. Antarctica is thus spared and humanity begins to slowly rebuild by the end of the novel. In Fukasaku’s Virus, Dr. La Tour’s vaccine is the film’s only glimmer of hope. It’s a slightly Ishiro Honda-like moment where science (almost) saves the day.
The final act of Virus, however, is pretty incredible. Yoshizumi’s multi-continent trek is hauntingly beautiful. The location shooting adds an impressive scale. From both Fukasaku and Komatsu’s ends, Virus has a strongly Buddhist subtext. This is hinted at in a bit where Yoshizumi picks up a copy of Buddhist scholar Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen (1957) before leaving on the mission. It is also made clear in its Japanese title The Day of Resurrection. The story is ultimately about a mass cycle of death and rebirth. MM88, created in the aptly named “Operation Phoenix”, brings about yonaoshi (world renewal) like a microscopic Godzilla. Virus’ final, tranquil images are of Antarctic wildlife over the end credits. After the prior two-and-a-half hour marathon of death and destruction, these shots bring to mind this cycle. Life starts anew. Or as the film’s theme song by Janis Ian states in an affectionately on-the-nose fashion: “It’s not too late to start again”.
Virus was intended for release in December of 1979 but production ran over time and budget. The time-bending sci-fi jidai-geki film Time Slip aka G.I. Samurai was thus distributed for the holiday season instead. Virus was shown at Cannes in May 1980 where it met a mixed reception. While author Komatsu had been skeptical of Fukasaku as choice for director, he was impressed by the finished product. Virus remained Komatsu’s favorite of the film adaptations of his work until his dying day. When Virus was released in Japan the following summer, it did good business. Yet it was hardly the massive blockbuster Kadokawa had hoped. Heavy competition came from Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Additionally, Kadokawa and distributor Toho put out Virus the same day as the Japanese release of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Kadokawa had spent so much money on the picture that its Japanese gross wasn’t nearly enough to break even. He pinned his hopes on international distribution. Virus wound up being released directly to video and television in a cut down version in the U.S. It had come a few years too late for the ’70s disaster film boom. It was also a couple years too soon for the coming nuclear holocaust film renaissance starting with The Day After. Haruki Kadokawa would focus more on the Japanese market for future films. He went on to produce some of the most popular Nihon films of the ’80s. Kinji Fukasaku’s next major film and collaboration with Kadokawa was 1981’s Samurai Reincarnation based on a novel by Futaro Yamada. Virus has seen a strong resurgence in popularity in Japan due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It remains a hauntingly prophetic movie about humanity’s self destructive potential.
J.L. Carrozza (1986-) is the author of the upcoming book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (2021). This article is excerpted and edited from chapters in that book. Carrozza has written for such publications as Asian Cult Cinema, Monster Attack Team and Otaku USA.