Some movies have “cult” written all over them. But that can actually be counterproductive. If the psychotronic audience sense the film is trying too hard to be a cult epic, then it risks rejection. In this context, I’m not quite sure what to think of Minoru Kawasaki’s The World Sinks Except Japan (2006).
Kawasaki is a filmmaker who is idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. His work is gradually becoming available to North American audiences, with such titles as The Calamari Wrestler and Executive Koala leading the pack (and those titles are not metaphors – they literally describe the main characters). I confess to being very curious to see what he does with his recent revival of Guilala (in The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit) – surely the giant monster that the fewest people have been clamoring to see again. The World Sinks Except Japan is another film whose title precisely describes the central concept. When everywhere else drops beneath the waves, Japan is flooded with refugees from the rest of the world. Result: Americans reduced to service sector jobs, Chinese and Korean leaders suddenly becoming lapdogs to the Japanese Prime Minister, caricatures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis play-act action scenes for chump change, and so on.
All of this is certainly bizarre. And the 98-pound actor who is no more American than I am from Mars and is supposed to be Willis must be seen to be believed. There are also some very funny moments. But overall, I can’t help but feel that this is a good example of the trying-too-hard cult film, especially as far as North American audiences are concerned. There are a number of reasons for this. In the first place, the weirdness feels a little smug, a little too pleased with itself. Sometimes it seems as if oddness was considered enough in and of itself, and no further effort was necessary.
The result of this is the second point. The film is stunningly bland to look at. The camera is immobile, most of the shots are an unending parade of eye-level medium shots, and the overall aesthetic effect recalls either the blandest of network TV offerings from the 70s, or the most poverty-stricken SF entries from the 50s. The events portrayed may be outlandish, but the banal presentation robs them, and the film, of energy. Given the crazed nature of the concept and the sheer wealth of both incident and ideas, sucking out said energy is no mean feat.
The third problem is the nature of the satire. Effective satire needs to be clear. Otherwise, what’s the point? But the point is very much what one is searching for here. Who or what is the target of the film’s barbs? American arrogance? Japanese xenophobia? Both? I would lean toward the latter reading, and it is certainly possible to engage in extremely wide-ranging satire (Gulliver’s Travels being a case in point), but we aren’t all Jonathan Swift, and the risk of having too many targets is an approach that seems too scattershot, too random, and finally too meandering.
Would the film play better in its native context? Perhaps. That’s a question I simply cannot answer. On this side of the Pacific, however, the film is certainly interesting, and, as cleverer wiseacres than I have put it, it is a fine example of something. But that something is not, in our context, an effective satire. Nor is it, I would venture to say, a successful cult film. But that still leaves the big question hanging: is the deliberate cult movie possible? Or even authentic? A philosophical debate for another time.