The Man who Stole the Sun (Japan, 1979)

Flamboyant singer Kenji Sawada playing a reclusive atom bomb-building, high school teacher? Bunta Sugawara, famous for his tough Yakuza portrayals, playing a hardboiled cop? Kimiko Ikegami (the pretty one in cult horror classic Hausu (1977)) playing a vacuous radio DJ? A big budget Toho ‘action’ film with art-house elements directed by independent Kazuhiko Hasegawa? An original screenplay written by Leonard Schrader, the brother of Taxi Driver’s screenwriter? Just from its components, it is clear that you are in for no ordinary film with Taiyo wo nusunda otoko!

Main character Makoto Kido is a seemingly lazy, gum-chewing sleepy science teacher. Ridiculed by his students- he is somewhat socially awkward and lonely, living in a small apartment with only his ill-fated cat for company. The script and Sawada’s excellent portrayal gradually reveal snapshots of his true nature to the viewer.

Overblown but with shifting pace and tone

The film shows the anti-hero’s bomb building and preparation in gripping detail. This first half will appeal to fans of Day of the Jackal (1973). Kido’s exertion and the ominous crackle of the Geiger counter keep the viewer focussed. The serious subject matter is prevented from being depressing by small moments of humour peppered throughout the film. Kido’s (lone!) break into the atomic facility is a stylish sequence with freeze-frame shots and Space Invaders! sound effects. He also hums the Astro Boy theme song while building his creation.

Kido goes by the alias ‘Number 9’ (the ninth nuclear power in the world) and announces his creation to the authorities. This sets in motion a tense battle between him and homicide detective Yamashita. Bunta Sugawara lends his characteristic brand of macho stoicalness to his tough cop. This serves as an excellent foil to Sawada’s eccentric character. Kimiko Ikegami has less to work with compared to her male costars but she is convincing as the chirpy DJ ‘Zero’ who becomes attracted by the mystery of Kido’s bomber.

Subsequently, the film moves on to big budget action fare, complete with an over-the-top car chase and a violent, bloody showdown very typical of Japanese 70s action and revenge movies. Without spoiling anything, the ending shifts back to a tone reminiscent of the earlier half of the film. How much these tonal shifts were a part of the original script and how much was a trade-off between the studio and the creators, it is hard to tell. Either way, the film grasps the viewers’ attention with its unpredictability and changes in pace.

But why?

Some viewers may be disappointed that Kido never makes a grand speech explaining his motivations for becoming a domestic terrorist. Did he even have a goal aside from announcing his successful bomb-building attempt? 

After announcing his creation, he has no idea what to do with his power over the government. His initial requests are trivial- the first being that the news should not interrupt a baseball game. A call in to DJ Zero’s show gives him the idea to demand that the Rolling Stones perform in Japan. The ageing government officials greet this demand with derision. The Rolling Stones are a noisy bunch that they know nothing about. This highlights the generation gap between the young characters and the government.

Disenchantment?

Alternatively, are his motivations political? Yet he displays little interest in organised political protests unless he can use them as a foil for his own agenda. This is evident in the scene when he uses the name of a radical mentioned on the news when booking a hotel room. A large protest in Shibuya also allows him to evade the police.

Maybe he seeks redemption for the school bus hijacker- killed by the police force that Bunta Sugawara’s cop leads? The hijacker, an armed old man dressed in army uniform, demands to speak to the Emperor. He states that Emperor Hirohito is responsible for the fate of his son (presumably killed in the war). Kido stands up to the attacker, leading the media to brand the teacher a ‘hero’. Kido is clearly deeply effected by the ordeal (he fumbles to light a cigarette after witnessing the old man’s death). He later states that he will only talk with Yamashita regarding the bomb. Does he pick Sugawara’s cop to get some kind of resolution for the bus attack? Is it because Yamashita represents the establishment? Or is it a twisted form of admiration?

Kido shows contempt at the government for balking at his demands. He is disillusioned with aspects of his life, yet has no plan for how to change the government. The subjectivity surrounding his motivations makes the film far more compelling to watch than if they were clearly stated.

Tokyo

Tokyo is also very much a character in the film as well. Great use is made of locations, including a tense game of cat-and-mouse between Kido and the police in Shibuya’s Tokyu Department store. There is also a showdown between Kido and Yamashita in front of the Budokan.

When Kido is in control, there are many shots where he dominates the landscape. But as his escape from the authorities begins to spin out of control, he appears small against Tokyo’s towering buildings. When he encounters Zero, he is pushing against a tall building to ‘stop it falling over’. He does this to mock her, but it ends up foreshadowing the radiation poisoning hallucinations that effect him.

Stealing the Sun

Kido may manage to steal the sun (the film’s title referring both to the Rising Sun symbolising Japan and the power of the bomb). Yet ultimately he is consumed by his creation. Mentally by his obsession to build an A-bomb and physically by radiation poisoning. This is beautifully illustrated in the composition shot of him reflected in the plutonium core, naked and curled up foetus-like. At the same time he looks down on his creation. The bomb’s ominous presence is never forgotten- whether it is in focus in the foreground of a scene or ticking loudly in a light green leather bag.

If the bomb consumes Number 9, then Number 9 consumes Zero. Ikegami’s pretty DJ is less of a love interest and more of a tool for Kido to use against the authorities. 

Kimiko Ikegami

Conclusion

Overall, The Man who Stole the Sun is a product of its time. Late 70s Japan with its flashy youth culture, air of rebellion and increased activism. This is set against the wider backdrop of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation. In its crazier moments, it loses some of the chilling seriousness and reality that it tried to build up in the first half. However, this viewer was throughly entertained by the unpredictable ride.

Notes:

The director Kazuhiko Hasegawa first worked as an assistant director to Shohei Imamura and later worked at Nikkatsu on their Roman Porno films. His mother was effected by radiation poisoning from the Hiroshima atomic bomb when she was pregnant with him. There are some interesting interviews regarding his background and the making of this film:

Interview with Kazuhiko Hasegawa/conducted by Kaori Arai and Jerry Turner/July 2011.

Naomi Kawase’s talk with Kazuhiko Hasegawa (Japanese)- where he explains that the realistic cat ‘death’ scene was achieved by using matatabi (silver vine) and high speed filming.

Post Author: RetroRobin

RetroRobin
Into The Retroscope's founder. RetroRobin enjoys pecking out the forgotten classics and little knowns of yesteryear- specialising in cult Japanese films, 1960s Bollywood cabaret songs, British thrillers and old school adventure games.

2 thoughts on “The Man who Stole the Sun (Japan, 1979)

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    Harry Churchill

    (May 6, 2019 - 12:41 pm)

    I have never heard of this film before – having read your review I do hope I can find it somewhere?

      RetroRobin

      RetroRobin

      (May 7, 2019 - 5:57 pm)

      Thank you for your comment! At present, ‘The Man who Stole the Sun’ is only available as a Japanese region 2 DVD (which comes with passable English subtitles). I’m surprised that it hasn’t been released by any distributors that specialize in world cinema in the USA/Europe yet. It would probably make a good addition to the Criterion collection.

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