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Hideaki Ito monkeys around in Uzimaru.
Ando, Hirotsugi Usui
Ito, Ai Kato, Ken Kaito, Karina, Atsushi Ito, Kyoko,
Jun Kunimura, Tatsuya Fuji, Tadahiro Aoki
A group of trainees try to become emergency rescue divers
in this polished, feel-good action movie that hits far
more often than it misses. Although the film is saddled
with a somewhat predictable storyline pulled straight
out of a Jerry Bruckheimer popcorn flick, Umizaru
succeeds in no small part due to its endearing, largely
humorous portrayal of its lead characters.
Based on the popular manga
of the same name, Umizaru (literally "Sea Monkeys")
is a winning action flick that borrows liberally from
the Top Gun formula, only this time around, the
pilots have been replaced with rescue divers, and the
locale has been changed to Japan. Still, it's not exactly
a lifeless carbon copy transported to Japanese shores.
While first-time director Eiichiro Hazumi does reenact
more than a few genre conventions pulled from countless
Hollywood films, he somehow succeeds in giving Umizaru
a pulse all of its own.
The story kicks off when fourteen
young men decide to become search and rescue divers
for the Coast Guard. Each of them claim to possess a
noble desire to help people, but in most cases that's
a lie - simply put, the rescue diver position is a prestigious
gig that'll help them achieve any number of personal,
often shallow goals.
Still, being a search and rescue
diver is a highly dangerous job to take on and applicants
are subject to a series of grueling training sessions
to qualify for the position. Naturally, like Full
Metal Jacket and an Officer and a Gentlemen
before it (and numerous other films with a vaguely militaristic
bent), Umizaru introduces viewers to a drill
sergeant-type character in the form of training supervisor
Taro Minamoto (Tatsuya Fuji), a harsh taskmaster battling
his own sea-related demons. The training he'll impose
on these men lasts for fifty days, and each newbie is
assigned a buddy with whom he'll be paired with throughout
the experience. That decision will eventually prove
to be the focal point of the storyline.
Although it seems to be an
ensemble piece at first, Umizaru isn't without
a leading man. In this case, the main character is Daisuke
Senzaki (Hideaki Ito), a working stiff with a taste
for adventure. He also happens to hold a diving master's
license, a fact which pegs him as "the one to watch"
among his peers. Unsurprisingly, Minamoto pairs him
off with Kudo (Atsushi Ito, later to be seen on TV's
Densha Otoko), a weak, fairly diminutive diver-in-training
who gives off the general impression that he'll be a
washout in no time flat. Although never stated outright,
it's suggested that Minamoto's rationale behind the
odd coupling is to turn both men into better divers
- Senzaki will learn to be a team leader, while Kudo
becomes a solid diver in his own right. Well, that's
the plan anyway.
At first, however, these mismatched
teammates find themselves tanking in the training exercises,
primarily due to Kudo's poor diving performance. As
a result, the two unlikely "buddies" end up suffering
all kinds of demeaning punishments at the hands of their
superior officer, and their failures earn the increasing
ire of the already cold-as-ice Mishima (Ken Kaito),
a supremely confident new recruit who's only looking
to get ahead and couldn't care less about Minamoto's
precious buddy system. Although the other recruits are
initially snotty towards Kudo as well, the tide turns
in his favor when he humbly admits his own weaknesses
and reveals his true reason for becoming a diver in
the first place. Moved by this gesture and Senzaki's
dedication in making Kudo a better diver, all of the
remaining recruits eventually decide to help Kudo succeed
- all but Mishima that is, who remains thoroughly unconvinced
of Kudo's merits.
Meanwhile, the men make some
trips off base and try their best to seduce local girls.
However, they end up failing miserably since the "Sea
Monkeys" have a terrible reputation among the female
residents of this seaside town. It seems the new recruits
always get new girlfriends when they arrive, but they
also promptly dump them as soon as training is over.
Even under these conditions, a few romances begin to
bloom. Kudo takes a liking to a nurse named Erika (Karina),
while Senzaki accidentally gets involved with her good
friend Kanna (Ai Kato), a Tokyo-based fashion writer
who's returned home to visit her ailing mother.
The "Meet Cute" moment between
the latter couple is decidedly embarrassing, as Kanna
gets drunk, hits on Senzaki, and takes him back to a
hotel room. She dozes off before anything sexual can
happen between the two, but when Kanna wakes up the
next morning she has no memory of the previous night
and believes she's slept with Senzaki. Both irritated
and delighted by Kanna's embarrassment, Senzaki is unable
and perhaps unwilling to clarify the situation for her.
Eventually, the two become friends and - you guessed
it - much, much more.
With both the action and the
romance angles covered, Umizaru goes one better
by adding a sizeable amount of comedy into the mix.
Surprisingly, the humor comes off as disarmingly self-deprecating.
That is to say, the fact that these trainees are depicted
as dorky guys rather than preening, super-cool pretty
boys is both refreshing and immediately endearing to
the audience, even if the actors can be somewhat broad,
if not over the top at times.
But still, all the fun and
games doesn't last as the Sea Monkeys are struck by
an unforeseen tragedy - one so terrible that it shakes
Senzaki to his very core. In fact, he's so bummed out
by this sad turn of events, that he considers quitting.
He's simply lost his nerve. Of course, this is a feel
good action flick, so it's no secret that he's going
to regain it, but how that plays out in the film is
no less exciting, predictability quibbles aside. And
once Senzaki gets things together, he soon finds both
his skills and those of his teammates put to the test
when an accident occurs on their final training mission.
With no option in sight and backup too far away to get
there in time, they have no option but to take matters
into their own hands and find out if they really have
the "right stuff" after all.
When looking over the characterizations
and the overall plot of Umizaru, the aforementioned
Top Gun comparison isn't a glib remark; there's
actually something to it. Senzaki is more or less playing
the Tom Cruise/Maverick role, while Kudo proves to be
"Goose" in ways you might not expect and Mishima clearly
inhabits the Val Kilmer/Iceman character from Tony Scott's
hit 1986 film. And it certainly feels like a 1980s Hollywood
movie at times, as demonstrated when the song "Open
Arms" by Journey plays not once, not twice, but THREE
times during the film! And the first time it rears its
head is during an overly saccharine movie kiss that's
sure to elicit a few groans, and perhaps even laughter.
It's just so darn cheesy.
But that's not to say
that Umizaru should be dismissed as either a
Top Gun retread or a glossy recruitment film
for the Japanese Coast Guard. The humor, the genuine
likeability of its characters, and the overt "Japanese-ness"
that colors the story trumps whatever deficiencies there
are in terms of plot mechanics or originality. This
is especially evident in the ending when the expected
"overcoming insurmountable odds/winning the respect
of a bitter rival" storyline is handled with a welcome
degree of subtlety that makes all the action movie clichés
a lot easier to swallow.
With that in mind, Umizaru
is effective commercial entertainment and a feel-good
action movie that hits far more often than not. Although
the movie features a fairly predictable storyline pulled
straight from a Jerry Bruckheimer flick, Umizaru
succeeds in no small part due to its charming, largely
comic portrayal of its lead characters and its deft
handling of the action movie formula. (Calvin McMillin,
Followed by the TV drama Umizaru Evolution
and a theatrical sequel, Limit of Love: Umizaru
(AKA: Umizaru 2: Test of Trust).
Region 2 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
DTS-ES 6.1 / Dolby Digital 6.1 EX
Removable English and Japanese Subtitles
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