The circumstances under which you watch a film invariably affect the experience. Watching Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979) in the middle of America’s COVID-19 pandemic as well as the race protests certainly shaped how I viewed what is, at first glance, a critique of Japanese culture’s tendency to blindly obey. Written by an American ex-pat and directed by a Japanese rebel filmmaker, it is a fascinating cultural hybrid. The two perspectives elevate the film to a breezy, angry and universal meditation on power and obedience.
The film follows Makoto Kido, a bored high school science teacher who seems to be sleepwalking through a lonely life in an overcrowded Tokyo. We first meet him with his face smashed against the window of an overflowing subway car. A bit of a Japanese Travis Bickle, one might say. Early on in the film we see him fiddling with an idea for what will eventually become his diabolical plan but based on the man’s lazy attitude, it feels like mere daydreaming.
He is suddenly shaken out of his ennui when, on a field trip, he and his students are taken hostage by a veteran of the Imperial Army who demands a meeting with the Emperor. Kido assists Yamashita, a square-jawed detective in taking the hijacker down and the two are hailed as heroes in the process. This act of rebellion proves contagious and Kido puts a plan in motion to build his own atomic bomb. Following a ridiculous action sequence wherein he steals plutonium, the film settles into a proto-Lo-Fi Hip Hop mood of hanging out with Kido as he crafts an unholy weapon of mass destruction, dancing to Bob Marley and even kicking the bomb around like a soccer ball.
The rub occurs when he announces what he’s done to the authorities. They ask for his demands and Kido finds himself at a loss. The only things he can think to demand are fixes to the small annoyances like having the local tv station let the baseball game play uninterrupted by nightly news. The government concedes and Kido’s confidence grows, next demanding The Rolling Stones play Tokyo for the first time. This draws the attention of a plucky radio DJ named Zero who finds the story novel enough to inject herself into the action and play it out for the ratings. At the request of Kido, Detective Yamashita is assigned to the case and the rest of the film plays out as an ever-ratcheting-up series of cat and mouse between the three.
Screenwriter Leonard Schrader, brother of Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader, had moved to Japan in the 1960s in order to avoid being drafted. He taught English, married a Japanese woman and even wrote the Sydney Pollack film The Yakuza with his brother. He came up with the story for Sun by observing the Japanese’s tendency to follow the rules without pushback, even when things rarely worked the way they should. This was in stark contrast to America’s knee jerk reaction to question authority, though I suspect he was also venting some of his frustrations about his strict Midwest Calvinist upbringing. There’s an undeniable irony to the fact that Leonard’s act of draft-dodging rebellion in America brought him to a nation known for its rule-following.
Apparently Dustin Hoffman originally showed interest in the script but Schrader wisely went with Kazuhiko Hasegawa. A large part of Schrader’s decision had to do with Hasegawa experiencing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, albeit inside his mother’s womb at the time. In much the same way that Mary Haron was the perfect woman to tow the line between horror and humor in her adaptation of the notoriously misogynistic American Psycho, so too did Hasegawa understand the dark humor of a homegrown Japanese A-bomb. He was a veteran of iconoclast auteur Shohei Imamura as well as the Nikatsu Roman Pornos. As such, the film toes the line between pulp and near-avant garde.
Hasegawa was responsible for many of the film’s most crucial and daring elements. Chief among them was the decision to have Kido contract radiation poisoning in the process of his bomb-making. Given the fantastical action-movie nature of the second half of the film, the stark reality of the hero’s slow decay feels truly subversive. The lighthearted tone about a terrorist is reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson’s satirical If…. in the wake of so many school shootings. Yet, somehow it all works, perhaps because of these sharp tonal contrasts.
The film’s most incisive note is that once Kato possesses the same power as giant nation states, he’s unable to wrap his head around what to do with it. While Schrader’s original idea was a humorous jab at Japanese culture, Hasegawa focuses on a larger existential problem faced by most people in a modern, globalized world. Kato is so starved of any real power in his life, that when he is actually able to affect change, all he can think to demand are trivial things. Even the Stones concert is something Kido has to crowdsource with the help of Zero.
Speaking of Zero, although she becomes Kido’s ally and even helps him recover the bomb, she and Detective Yamashita suffer the same inner emptiness. Yamashita leans into the old-world virtues of blind duty and obedience. So much so that by the end of the film he’s morphed into a comically unstoppable Terminator-like justice enforcer. Zero, on the other hand, is a slave to the ratings and is willing to assist in a potential nuclear holocaust, all with a smile and looking great without any clear human reflection on what her actions enact.
In a way, the character arc of Kido is a man who, in creating this weapon, finally sees just how large the power vacuum is in his life and the rest of the film is him inching closer to this edge of self-realization. For this reason, the bomb itself is viewed as a rather positive entity. That which gives Kido power, but also a life straight out of a spy-thriller. Imagine an American film framing a terrorist and his weapon of mass destruction in a positive light and you start to see just how radical The Man Who Stole the Sun was at the time and still feels.
Watching it from my shut-in room in Los Angeles, police helicopters constantly zooming overhead, the film had a powerful effect. Watching my country buck and fight on both sides of the political spectrum, Hasegawa’s commentary on power still rings true. Americans can buck and scream about freedom all we want, none of that means anything unless you know what to do with it.