Fatal Frame「劇場版 零〜ゼロ〜」(2014)

The peaceful life of the girls of a Catholic boarding school in a small Japanese town turns first strange, then rather too exciting, and finally tragic. It starts when one day, everyone’s favourite student Aya locks herself into her room, and after a month, she’s still not coming out.

She does appear in the dreams of some of her friends, though, whispering into their ears to free her from “the curse that can only afflict women”. The dreams turn to frightening visions, and soon, some of the girls find themselves sleepwalking during these visions, waking up in front of a portrait photo of Aya, and just about to kiss that photo. There’s an urban legend about a love spell ritual and a curse connected to that sort of thing going around in school, but it’s disconcertingly vague, so it’s not much help in any attempt of the girls to understand what’s going on around them. What’s not vague is the fact that those of the girls who do end up kissing the photo disappear without a trace.

Has Aya really cursed the others – and if so, why – or is something rather different and quite a bit more complicated going on here?

Officially, Mari Asato’s Fatal Frame is some kind of adaptation of the fine (at least those I could play before they landed in the exclusivity-grabbing hands of Nintendo) series of survival horror videogames known as Project Zero here in Europe, but if you expect a film about girls and young women hunting ghosts with the help of a magical camera, you’ll not be too happy here, even though photos do play an important role in the plot. The main connections between the film and the games are certain thematic concerns: girls growing up, girls uncovering the dark secrets of the past, sometimes even their own, the societal and internal emotional pressures on the lives of young women, and the difficulties added to them by a Shinto and animist inspired supernatural world that, unlike in our world, actually exists. The rest are merely nods in the direction of fans of the games.

Fortunately, Fatal Frame the movie is much too well made a film to make this loose approach to adaptation annoying – even though I’d still like to see a film about young women photographing ghosts while uncovering the secrets of the past – telling a clever story with quite a bit of subtextual pull in an interesting and satisfying way. Going by the films I’ve seen by director Asato, she’s one of the rays of light among younger Japanese genre directors, the kind of woman who can turn on paper crappy sounding franchise work into pretty great low budget films which definitely show a personal handwriting and thematic concerns, in particular concerning female friendship, love between women, and growing up.

Obviously, these are some of the main themes of Fatal Frame, too, sometimes elegantly, sometimes somewhat bluntly expressed and intensified through the supernatural. At first, the film does threaten to be beholden to a bit of lesbian panic but the longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes Asano (who is also responsible for the script) is playing a different game with different rules, and clearly isn’t out to preach against the (highly doubtful) evils of girl-love, though, this being a Japanese film where a gay happy end still seems rather unthinkable, it’s not really embracing it either. It’s not all that important to Asano, either way, I think, for the director seems more interested in how the sexual aspects of growing up add to the general confusion of girls right on the line of becoming women, even before the threats of the supernatural come into it at all. While the film does have quite satisfying supernatural elements (and a bit of the Japanese gothic too), they are on the quiet side, the ghosts here being a pleasant antidote to the jump scares of contemporary US horror as well as to the fixation of some Japanese horror directors on repeating scenes from Ringu again and again. For some tastes, this approach might be too quiet and too little interested in the supernatural being scary but I found myself quickly invested in a film that does use the supernatural from a different angle than we’re used to right now; it does of course help I’m rather fond of quiet ghost stories, and that “quiet” doesn’t mean “without emotional stakes” or “harmless”.

While the storytelling becomes a bit flabby towards the film’s end – the sort of thing that happens when you have to tie up plot threads of not just your main characters’ growing up but also of more than one haunting and more than one case of very human evil – most of the film is very focused, with Asato’s highly composed looking, always clear and calm direction anchoring the film in a world of naturalistic sensation that can still turn into the dream-like and the strange with apparent ease. There are quite a few moments here I find quietly wonderful from a filmmaking perspective, at their core very simple scenes and concepts realized with a quiet confidence, helping unite character, mood and themes, and making it easy to ignore the film’s handful of missteps. If you – as I do – sometimes like admire the rhythm of a film, this might impress you as much as it does me.

On the technical side, Fatal Frame also impresses with a very Suspiria-like soundtrack (which certainly isn’t an accident given the film’s themes), mostly excellent photography and acting that is much better than I’ve become used to in Japanese low budget films. Unfortunately, the film having come to me without an official release in these parts, I have no idea which actress is playing which role, but they’re all good, so it’s fine in any case.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Tape Deck: King of Snake (大蛇大戦 / Python Wars) AVA Nippon VHS

King Of Snake 001

Every time I revisit the 1984 giant monster oddity King of Snake I go in hoping I’ll like it at least a little more than I ever ultimately do. Chui Yuk-Lung’s yarn about a gargantuan snake, the girl who loves it, and the gangsters who beat the shit out of her parents is essentially 100 minutes of tonal inconsistency spruced up with some neat-o SPFX flair (courtesy of future Toei effects director Nobuo Yajima). Titanic rat-snake Mosler steals what little there is to take of the show, shaking Taipei to its miniature foundations in an ill-fated hunt for his kidnapped owner, an obnoxious adolescent named Ting-Ting.

King Of Snake 003

Beyond the giant serpent antics there’s just not much to love here, but they (and perhaps Yajima’s involvement in them as well) were enough to assure King of Snake what little legitimate home video presence it was ever to have – a pair of high-priced VHS releases through Japanese outfits WOO Video and AVA Nippon. Showcased here is the latter, released in 1990. Like the earlier WOO Video edition, AVA Nippon’s presents King of Snake in its native widescreen, with original Mandarin audio and relatively non-invasive Japanese subtitles. Overall quality suffers a bit in comparison to the other release – this one flickers throughout, and looks perhaps a generation degraded.

King Of Snake 002

At least the cover is pretty sweet, dominated by bold orange and red by way of Mosler’s fiery Taipei rampage. With regards to wear and tear my copy looks like it could have been minted yesterday – this package wears it’s 25 years pretty darned well. Like most videos of its origin and generation, the price point here is pretty staggering: King of Snake would have set you back a cool $100 at average 1990 exchange rates, consumption tax courteously included.

Sampled below is a bit of what this AVA Nippon release has to offer – the opening logo, video generated Japanese title (with English sub-heading), and a bit of snake-tastic footage from the feature itself. Yahoo Auctions Japan is the place to go for those looking to score a copy for themselves – King of Snake doesn’t show up there very often, but when it does the prices tend to be pretty low.

「ゴジラ」 Godzilla (1954)

With the new Godzilla due in theaters in but a few days time the Film Society of Minneapolis – St. Paul, in conjunction with Rialto Pictures, have returned the 1954 original to its rightful place on the big screen. 「ゴジラ」 Godzilla can be seen at the St. Anthony Main Theatre from May 9th through May 15th. Click here for details.

Unleashed upon the Japanese public to massive popular success in late fall of 1954, Godzilla was one of those rare perfect storms of cinema, a picture so tremendous in its impact that it ushered in not only a distinct new genre of Japanese film, but a bona fide pop culture revolution as well. It also struck a chord with a post-war Japan fresh from years of occupation and only just allowed to openly discuss the full sum of its wartime experiences. Godzilla‘s considerable box office take all but ensured the long run of increasingly silly (albeit much beloved) sequels that followed, and anyone familiar with those alone might be forgiven for expecting the same here, but the father of them all is a somber and often downright cerebral affair, and possessed of a raw power not seen in the genre since. More than just another monster movie, much more, Godzilla is also a spectacular public exorcism of the lingering specters of World War II, the grim expression of a nation’s struggle to come to terms with its history as both a perpetrator and a victim of incalculable wartime devastation.

The story begins with a series of dreadful shipping accidents off the coast of Japan, an investigation into which leads reporters and government officials to remote Odo Island, a sparsely populated speck of land near to where the accidents occurred. There they find no answers beyond the superstitious ramblings of one of the island’s elders, who is convinced that the mythical Godzilla – a mysterious sea beast the Odo Islanders once sated with human sacrifice – is responsible for the maritime troubles. No one believes a word of it until some thing comes ashore one storm-torn evening, leveling several of the island’s residences and leaving a set of impossibly huge footprints in its wake.

A scientific expedition headed by noted zoologist Dr. Yamane (the great Takashi Shimura) is swiftly mounted to survey the destruction and investigate its cause. Once the scientists are on the island they make a series of surprising discoveries. The footprints left behind are intensely radioactive, and the area around them dangerously contaminated. What’s more, they’re littered with ancient sediments and the remnants of primitive life long thought extinct, suggesting a destructive force from straight out of prehistory. It isn’t long before more conclusive evidence arrives in the form of a mountainous Jurassic-age monster – the Godzilla of Odo Island legend – with its sights set on Japan’s thriving metropolitan heart.

Co-written by director Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata (Rodan) from an original story by Shigeru Kayama (which he also novelized), the basics of Godzilla‘s narrative development are pretty traditional, writ large, with the origins for the monster having been freely adapted from elements of the classic King Kong (an island, a legend, talk of human sacrifice) and the contemporary The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (about a prehistoric monster roused from its icy slumbers by an atomic test in the Arctic). Indeed, the idea of a dinosaur wreaking havoc on modern civilization was nothing new to cinema at the time, having been seen previously in the silent The Lost World, Max Fleischer’s Superman short The Arctic Giant, as well as in Godzilla‘s most direct inspiration, the aforementioned Beast. The difference, as ever, is in the details.

Under the creative auspices of Honda, Kayama, Murata, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and even composer Akira Ifukube1, Godzilla‘s eponymous monster grew to become one of the most singularly loaded metaphors in film history. Through references both overt and subliminal to such events as the irradiation of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru by the Castle Bravo H-bomb test, the fall of radioactive rain resulting from Soviet atomic tests, the firebombing of Tokyo and the A-bombing of Nagasaki, Godzilla becomes a fearsome and direct manifestation both of the horrors of World War II and the new and frightening realities of the Atomic Age. The monster’s steady, methodical destruction of modern Tokyo is a sequence unlike anything before it. Godzilla advances with the unrelenting force of an atomic blast, sending whole blocks crumbling into smoldering rubble and engulfing the city’s skyline in a curtain of nuclear flame. Dialogue clarifies whatever doubts may be lingering as to the rampage’s symbolic significance – “Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head…“

In Godzilla’s wake millions lie dead or dying, both of physical injuries and radioactive contamination, while countless traumatized survivors wonder what terrors are yet to come. The imagery here – endless corridors filled with the wounded and an entire city reduced to wasteland – is potent, and evocative not only of the haunting aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of the wartime razing of Tokyo as well. Even Godzilla himself is granted a history of victimization, with Dr. Yamane insinuating that, much like Japan’s A-bomb survivors, the creature is traumatized by its recent brush with American nuclear might. “Don’t shine searchlights on Godzilla!” he gravely begs of a military officer, fearful that they might remind of the blinding flash that tore him from his deep sea niche and send the monster into a deeper rage. Of course Godzilla is not just a victim, but an aggressor as well, and the vision of a dragon rising from the Pacific alludes strongly to the ugly flip side of Japan’s wartime misfortune – the fact that through their own militant nationalism and the brutal campaign of conquest that resulted from it, they had brought that misfortune upon themselves.

To that end the central dramatic conflict of the film might be viewed as an allusion to the position of the Allied forces during the war. Godzilla, awakened by the H-bomb and impervious to all modern munitions, seems unstoppable, but a brilliant young scientist – Dr. Serizawa (a convincing young Akihiko Hirata) – may have found an answer. The problem? His discovery has such immense destructive potential that any use of it, however good the cause, could prove catastrophic. It’s a narrative development that dramatically echoes the creation and eventual use of the Atom bomb in the final days of World War II, and which implies a clear understanding by Honda and his colleagues of the position of the Allied forces at the time. With a marauding force like the Imperial Japanese military dangerously at large, do you set aside your most powerful weapon for fear of the horrific consequences of its use or do you use it in spite of them? What the Allies decided is history, and their decision is paralleled by that of Dr. Serizawa. The result is that Godzilla is stopped, though at a tremendous cost. Another elemental force, as horrifying as the H-bomb, has been set loose upon the world, and the film concludes with a grave Dr. Yamane wondering what other Godzillas might be unleashed as a result.

In terms of drama Godzilla has certainly aged in the decades since it was made, and a forgettable love triangle between Toho’s brightest young stars (top-billed Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi and Akihiko Hirata) will be of minimal interest to modern viewers, but the complex substance of the thing remains, its power undiminished in the 60 years since it was made. A waking nightmare of both the past and future and the unlikely birthplace of a pop culture icon, Godzilla is perhaps the best of its ilk ever made, and still stands as the ultimate, indelible atomic monster experience.

1 Some of Ifukube’s cues for the film, both the elegiac pieces set to Godzilla’s aftermath and demise and the descending motif that accompanies the earlier ship disasters, are highly evocative (and in the latter case a direct adaptation) of his past work on Kaneto Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima (a somber, thoughtful film about the human toll of the Hiroshima bombing), an allusion that only further cements Godzilla‘s connection to World War II and the burgeoning Atomic Age.

This article originally appeared on the now-defunct Wtf-Film in January of 2012 (in conjunction with the Criterion Collection issue of the film on home video), and has been significantly edited and revised for its publication here.

高速ばぁば / The Crone (2012)

the crone coverThe two less popular members of the idol group Jersey Girls, Nanami and Mayuko, hate their group own star (if you want to use that word in the kind of bottom-feeder world these girls are working in) Ayane with a degree of passion – at the very least enough to let out their hatred in the kind of physical “pranks” that can’t be described as friendly anymore.

As if this weren’t unpleasant enough, the newest episode of their TV show sees the girls visiting an empty, supposedly haunted, nursing home. Alas, the haunting is more than just a supposed one, and soon Ayane, who was the first to enter the building, is plagued by the titular crone, a ghost that doesn’t just delight in a lot of fast skittering but also brings with her the dubious pleasures of decay, age, and physical abuse. Even though Ayane is the first to suffer, the curious curse eventually reaches out for all three of the girls, as well as to their handler and the show’s director. More ghostly skittering and physical ickiness abound.

Idol-culture based horror has become a bit of a thing in Japanese low budget horror in the last couple of years, and it’s easy to see why: a production can hire idols instead of actual actors, which probably comes quite a bit cheaper, it can latch onto whatever fan base said idols possess, and when in doubt, nobody involved has to do too much acting.

Surprisingly enough, the idol actresses involved in this part of another attempt to re-light the J-horror fire, Honoka Miki, Shiori Kitayama and Kaoru Goto, aren’t playing themselves, and are even giving perfectly decent performances, not only when it comes to screaming but also in the slightly heightened awkwardness of the idoling (that’s the verb, right?) they bring to the movie. That’s all you can ask of young women in their late teens with little actual acting experience, and really all The Crone needs; it even gives one hope for a future for these actresses.

While The Crone is clearly a very cheap production – just look at the Crone make-up to realize how cheap – made in very limited shooting time, director and scriptwriter Eisuke Naito does some interesting things with what he has to work with. This is a film where all the different, and increasingly freaky, ways the supernatural shows itself are actually connected to plot and theme, with nothing happening that isn’t textual or subtextual part of the horrors of the helplessness of the aged, physical abuse and decay. In this context, making the film’s protagonists idols, living symbols of an unhealthy obsession with youth and physical perfection if ever there were one, seems particularly clever, not just because the girls are logical figures of hate for the film’s specific ghost but also, the film seems to suggest, because the kind of objectification inherent in idol culture is entwined with the hatred for the old and their physical imperfections like a Siamese twin.

Naito’s film is really surprisingly resonant in this way, demonstrating a willingness to be a bit deeper than your typical cheap spook-fest usually shows, as well as suggesting a director possessing an ability to actually see his ideas through to the end. There’s an actual sense for contemporary anxieties underlying the proceedings, perhaps even a bit of absolutely appropriate hysteria, which is more than I can say about much praised films like The Conjuring that seem interested in anything but the shocks without ever having an idea what the shocks are supposed to be there for.

The Crone‘s comparative intellectual depth is helpful in other regards, too, for as a mere horror show, the film isn’t quite as effective as you’d wish for, or rather, it is professional and often imaginative when it comes to its supernatural affairs, but it is seldom scary, nor does it induce the kind of breathlessness an audience should sometimes feel in an effective horror film. I’m not sure the film is even trying to scare its audience as much as it wants to transport it into a world of increasing strangeness while keeping inside the lines of the themes it has chosen. More often than not, The Crone succeeded with this for me, in part certainly because I expected rather something more in the vein of the last two direct-to-DVD Ju-on movies, or of whatever the last Ring movie was supposed to be. While Naito’s film doesn’t necessarily succeed in all it sets out to do, there’s a lot to say for a film and a director who at the very least seem to care about what they are doing.

I also found the film’s moments of body horror quite effective, scenes clearly more in the tradition of the grotesque that runs through a lot of Japanese art than in that of David Cronenberg, and all the stronger for it (sorry, Mr Cronenberg).

Visually, the film is shot in a style closer to Japanese horror of the late 90s and early 2000s with a limited colour scheme that is neither based on blue nor on yellow, and a look that can’t quite hide its low budget but which does suggest actual thought has been put into things like composition, blocking, and camera work that isn’t plain boring. You could call it retro, or you could call it an attempt to shoot a film not looking like a reality TV show; I’d certainly go for the latter.

Having said all this, I probably need to emphasise that The Crone isn’t the kind of film that will resonate with everyone as much as it does with me, for make no mistake, while all the rather delightful subtext is in there, this still is a very basic, very cheap piece of low budget horror in plot and structure. It just smuggles quite a bit of contraband into your brain if you let it.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?


悪魔が来りて笛を吹く: Devil’s Flute (1979)

The early years of post-war Japan. Private detective Kosuke Kindaichi (Toshiyuki Nishida) is asked to take a look at the curious affairs of the Tsubaki/Tamamushi family, whose upper class life is taking a turn for the worse. Eisuke Tsubaki (Noboru Nakaya) was the main suspect in a nasty poison murder and robbery affair, but after his name had already been cleared his body was found dead of suicide.

Curiously, nobody seems to have told Tsubaki he’s dead, and various members of his family see him appearing at the theatre, and in the windows of the family mansion. It’s gotten so disturbing, the family – not exactly a hotbed of sanity in any case – decides to hold a séance. Despite Kindaichi sitting in, there are even more curious things happening during the séance. Some of these, at least, look very much like products of human agency – ghosts, after all, are generally not wont to play records of their very favourite flute pieces when they could do some ghostly fluting of their own.

While Kindaichi seems rather at a loss to explain what and why is going on, someone (or is it something?) kills the doddering family gramps (Eitaro Ozawa) locked room style. With that, a series of unfortunate events gets rolling. Kindaichi starts on an investigation digging up family secrets and hidden sins, all the while trying to protect young, innocent, and pretty Miyako Tsubaki (Tomoko Saito) from the worst fall-out of the confounding affair.

Mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo’s character Kosuke Kindaichi has proven so popular in his native Japan that there’s a rather impressive number of movie and TV adaptations of the novels, with the detective so ingrained in parts of the popular imagination there’s even a rather popular anime, manga etc. cycle about the adventures of his grandson (the latter, it seems, pleasantly unauthorized by the author’s heirs).

Yokomizo is often (at least in the few parts of the English language internet talking about him at all) called “the Japanese John Dickson Carr”, and going by the Yokomizo adaptations I’ve seen – the translation situation of the writer’s novels into English or German being as bad as typical of nearly all Japanese writers of popular fiction before the advent of the light (that is to say, generally not very interesting) novel – this is one time when that sort of description actually fits. It’s not just that Yokomizo is as inordinately fond of locked room mysteries and impossible crimes as Carr, there’s a real kinship in the type of impossible crime the writers prefer, with many a well-researched accouterments of the gothic, the occult, the supernatural and the macabre used in a way that situates these mysteries well inside of the realm of the Weird, resulting in mysteries that need awe-inspiringly (and very often inspired) contrived solutions to be explained as natural instead of supernatural. Personally, I’m not much of an admirer of the “murder as a puzzle” approach of so-called “Golden Age Mysteries”, but when that approach is enhanced by copious amounts of séances, ghosts, vampirism, witchcraft and everything else that makes life worth living, I actually turn into something of a fan of the form, particularly when created by the kind of wit and imagination Carr and (again, going by the movie adaptations) Yokomizo brought to the table. Uncommon for the style, the “rational” explanations for the surely supernatural are generally not disappointing with these writers, for their use of sheer, overwrought yet often perfectly well thought out contrivances often reaches a point where their “rationality” seems even stranger than the supernatural would be.

Devil’s Flute‘s director Kosei Saito (that is at least his name when you follow the IMDB – the rather dubious subtitles call him Mitsumasa Saito, and I’m not fluent in Japan apart from knowing how to shout “Help! Ghost!”, so take your pick) does some rather extraordinary work with these nearly supernatural aspects of the plot, turning the parts of the movie concerning them into a Japanese approach to the Gothic, reaching intensity through artificiality, theatricality and dark and stormy nights. That aspect of the movie is – not exactly typical for the parts of this kind of film where the “rational” is supposed to assert itself – even strengthened once the identity and motivation of the killer become clear, for his or her reasons are completely founded on themes and ideas you’d look for in a Gothic novel. This impression is further enhanced by Saito’s decision to let his actors – apart from Nishida’s Kindaichi, who stands like a rock of basic human decency, understanding, compassion and rationality among the waves of melodramatic insanity surrounding him, undeniably close to Chandler’s idea of the private detective as a knight – go all out on their melodramatics, with emotional lives that seemingly start at being turned to eleven (and really, what less melodramatic human being would kill for this kind of bullshit, and in that way?), and no stops to be pulled out even in sight.

One could argue that Saito lays this sort of thing on a little too thick from time to time, but I’m not sure Devil’s Flute‘s plot would work at all if the director treated his characters’ emotional lives with a more subtle approach. It’s also quite obvious that Saito is able to enact a little less breathless melodramatic intensity when he wants to, for the film’s main emotional set pieces are broken up by scenes that create a very believable post-war Japan, a land of broken people standing right between utterly different approaches to look at life and reality, and utterly non-artificial landscape shots, embedding the Gothic melodrama of the film’s main plot in a much more conventionally bitter reality.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Virus – The Day of Resurrection

A handful of short stories and Japan Sinks. Until recently these were the only works by the late, great Sakyo Komatsu that had been accessible to those of us in the West, and in the case of the latter no printing has been available since the mid-90s. It’s a discouraging fact that’s always surprised me given both the enduring popularity of the sci-fi genre and Komatsu’s esteemed reputation within it, and it’s a shame that it took until 2012 – more than 35 years since one of his novels was last translated – for things to take a step in the right direction. Still, a step is a step, and we have Viz Media imprint Haikasoru to thank for the better-late-than-never appearance of one of the author’s first great science fiction novels in English. Originally published in 1964 by Japan’s Hayakawa Publishing Corp., Komatsu’s monumental disaster epic 『復活の日』 (Fukkatsu no HiDay of Resurrection) has been the better part of half a century in coming to America, but it’s finally here, and under a title that should be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with its filmed adaptation – Virus.

Virus begins with an irresistible grabber: The American nuclear submarine Neirid enters Tokyo Bay and launches an inflatable surveillance craft to observe the state of the city beyond. Yoshizumi, the only Japanese on board, watches intently as the results are relayed back to the submarine by video. What he sees is haunting. Tokyo, a metropolis once teaming with life, lies silent, its bustling avenues and intersections now littered with bleached bones and rusted automobiles. No commuter trains are running, no street lights flashing. Tokyo Tower still stands, quietly aging, now but a tombstone for the city’s dead millions. Air samples from the drone are tested and summarily discarded. It‘s still there, poisoning the atmosphere for all but the luckiest of warm-blooded things. The drone is retrieved and the submarine retreats, setting course for Antarctica – the only continent upon which human life still walks.

The year is 1973, and out of a population of three and a half billion only a few over 10,000 remain, cloistered away in the ice-bound sanctuary of Antarctica for so long as it remains. In the face of such cataclysm the novel asks, How did this happen, and why?…

What follows is a history of the near-end of us and a lamentation of humanity’s endless obsession with self-destruction. A sample is stolen from a British germ warfare lab, and a plane crashes in the Alps. Newcastle disease decimates the world’s poultry (and vicariously its vaccine-producing capabilities) while an aggressive new form of influenza – the Tibetan flu – creeps ever Westward from out of the depths of central Asia. Meanwhile the rate of heart attacks, most alarmingly those among healthy individuals, steadily rises. Unbeknownst to anyone each of these happenings is connected, but how will be a revelation too late in coming. Virus charts the progress of its mysterious, crushing pandemic from a variety of shifting vantage points, from the highs of the US Presidency to the lows of average commuters, graphically detailing just what it looks like when a civilization falls apart at the seams.

As the exceptionally virulent Tibeten flu spreads public services are hit hard, with basic necessities like running water and electricity growing short in supply as the workers who manage the systems that produce them are laid out in increasing numbers. As mystery heart attacks become more frequent the accidents caused by them do as well. Traffic piles up, and all air traffic is grounded. Perhaps the most illustrative example of the creeping calamity Virus offers is that of Tokyo’s commuter trains. It’s a system that runs like clockwork, a new train arriving every half minute, with attendants accustomed to bodily forcing the last few passengers into the packed cars. As the pandemic develops the number of trains is cut, from two a minute to one, to one every two minutes and on and on. The number of passengers summarily dwindles to the point where seats are regularly available on the typically stuffed express routes, and the quietest, stillest of travelers are often discovered to be quite dead – more casualties of those damnable heart attacks. As hospitals and emergency services are overcome with the sick and dying the human wreckage spills out into the street, and only too late do suspicions rise in those who might have had the power to help. This is no ordinary flu pandemic or even an extraordinary one, like the Asian flu of the latter 1950s or the Spanish flu before it. This is something else, something far more horrifying, and something perhaps of our own making…

Virus – The Day of Resurrection isn’t always Komatsu at his most elegant, rambling as it does from more relatable human passages to god’s-eye views of the billion year history of Earth and even a lengthy lecture on the failings of intellectualism, but among his works it is one of the most lasting, a consistently thought-provoking tale with ambitions well above those of the average sci-fi thriller. Virus is nothing less than a parable for the Cold War era and beyond, built around a central lesson that’s as timely now than it was in 1964. When Komatsu asked, “How did this happen, and why?” he was posing the question not just within his own fictional narrative, but to the mid-century civilization that inspired it as well. War in Southeast Asia, political assassinations, an arms race and policies of mutually assured destruction… How did this happen, and why?

The answer Virus provides is quite simple, even if the solution to the problem is not so much. Behind the germ warfare labs, the politics of nuclear exchange, and the madmen with their fingers on the button is a baser failing of the species as a whole – a failure of imagination, of reason against the unreasonable, that has left war to ferment instead of peace and allowed the perversion science towards destructive ends. In Virus it’s a failing that haunts the few thousand Antarctic survivors long after the rest of humanity is dead, courtesy of two bits of fully-mechanized doomsday insanity – the United States’ automatic nuclear response system and its Soviet mirror-image. When an unprecedented natural disaster (the thematic precursor to that of Komatsu’s later work, Japan Sinks) threatens to destroy an early-warning station in Alaska it leaves the last of mankind, protected from the world-killing pandemic by the virus’ weakness to extreme cold, susceptible once more to complete annihilation…

Komatsu’s Virus is still a chilling read half a century after the fact and well-deserving of classic status among apocalyptic fiction, but the most frightful thing about it is just how little things have really changed since it was written. Nations still conspire to become nuclear powers, our own stockpiles of such weapons remain, the threat of manufactured super-bugs still hangs over our heads, and there appears to actually be a doomsday machine. Hope though there may be, the day seems far-away yet that our species will finally leave behind such self-destructive principles. And so long as our pre-occupation with destroying ourselves continues, Virus will have its place.

Virus – The Day of Resurrection is out now from Haikasoru / Viz Media in a handsome hardcover edition with dust jacket, translated from the original Japanese by Daniel Huddleston. The text suffers infrequently from a handful of typographical bumps and other errors missed in editing (for example, a date of “around Showa 30” is accidentally written as 1966 instead of the correct 1956), but otherwise appears sound. Virus can be purchased from Amazon and others, both in print and digital editions, and comes highly recommended.