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.