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Review: ‘The Unbroken’

Japan’s Worst Air Disaster Provides Basis for FIlm

Ken Watanabe stars as a union leader in

Credit: Kadokawa

Above: Ken Watanabe stars as a union leader in "The Unbroken."


KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the Japanese film "The Unbroken."


The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 in 1985 remains that country's worst air disaster. It has been the subject of multiple films including "The Unbroken" (opening October 15 at Reading Gaslamp 15 Theaters).

"The Unbroken" begins like a formula disaster picture. A diverse cast of characters is introduced and loaded aboard plane only to have disaster hit. Shortly after taking off, Flight 123 encountered problems and crashed into a mountain ridge. Five hundred and twenty people died and public confidence in Japan Airlines dropped considerably. These facts serve as the starting point for the new Japanese film "The Unbroken." The film fictionalizes events changing Japan Airlines to National Airlines as it focuses on the internal corporate disputes and politics surrounding the crash.

One of the key figures the film focuses on is Hajime Onchi (played with somber conviction by Ken Watanabe), a vocal union leader. Onchi gains some victories for his union but when he tries to use the crash as an example of why things need to improve, he's transferred overseas by the airlines, that way he's out of the country and out of the media spotlight. But Onchi returns to Japan and to his battle for improved safety. As he struggles to effect changes, the film moves from disaster film to corporate thriller.

Directed by Setsurô Wakamatsu, "The Unbroken" is a wildly uneven three-hour-plus epic. It begins like "Airport" then treads dangerously close to "assume the crash position" spoofery of "Airplane." By focusing on the last minutes of life on the plane, the film hits so many clichés that it almost becomes comical. Especially when one man spends his last moments frantically writing in a journal.

Then there's the crash. I've seen better effects in "Godzilla" movies. But then maybe making the film without the support of Japan Airlines made creating believable airplane and crash footage more difficult. But once the film moves past crash and the disaster film elements it develops into more of a corporate thriller along the lines of "the Insider." It takes us inside a large Japanese company to show us all its inner workings. Onchi's attempts to promote change are something of a David versus Goliath battle. He encounters ruthless office politics, corporate spies, and even uncovers illegal financial practices involving the purchase of hotels.

We become engrossed by the behind-closed-doors politicking. The film provides a fascinating glimpse into Japan's corporate culture even if that view is limited to one company. In responding to the crash there is a quick and very public display of sympathy for the victims. We see airline representatives politely bowing and apologizing to a gathering of the victims' families. It is not the kind of public display we are used to seeing here in America. Yet "The Unbroken" shows that while the company was quick to make a public show of sympathy it was unwilling to actually admit liability or make changes to improve air safety. So although driven by similar motives of greed and the bottom line as their U.S. counterparts, the corporation depicted in this film reveals a different strategy about how to actually conduct business.

But even as the film develops a compelling narrative, director Wakamatsu can't resist melodramatics. He his choice of music often punctuates scenes with such obvious emotional cues that you don't need the dialogue translated to know what's going on. His approach lacks subtlety. Take an earlier juxtaposition between the tragic crash of the jumbo jet and Onchi downing a massive of elephant with a single bullet. As the elephant falls we hear the sound of the plane crashing. These heavy-handed moments pull you out of the story and make you aware of Wakamatsu's attempts to manipulate you.

"The Unbroken" (in Japanese with English subtitles) scored big wins with the Japanese Academy Awards and there's no denying that it tries to make a thorough examination of the worst air disaster in Japanese history. But the film lacks the kind of polish and consistency to probably find a wide audience here in the U.S.

Companion viewing: "United 93," Airport," "Airplane"

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