The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

(C) Toho 1979

man who stole the sun posterIn the post-Asama-Sanso world, Japanese society had shifted into period of intense calm in which improving economic prosperity was in the process of delivering comfort rather than the creeping acquisitive anxiousness that began to overshadow the bubble era. Nevertheless, in cinematic terms at least anxiety was everywhere and not least among the young who, swept along by this irresistible economic current, were quietly doubtful about their place in a changing society. Co-scripted by an American screenwriter, Leonard Schrader (brother of Taxi Driver’s Paul), The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko) provides a satirical snapshot of this confusing moment as an oppressed, belittled high school science teacher builds an atomic bomb in his apartment just to show he can but then realises he has absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Technically speaking, the science teacher’s name is Makoto Kido (Kenji Sawada) but no one really calls him that. The kids at school refer to him as “Bubble-gum” because he always seems to be chewing on the rather childish confectionary. Not the most conscientious of teachers, he tailors the curriculum to his own interests, teaching the kids all about atomic energy and the bomb, but the kids aren’t interested. They only want to know what’s going to be on the test. To them Kido’s information is irrelevant and so they ignore him, talking amongst themselves while he carries on, preaching to a seemingly empty room.

Meanwhile, Kido is building the bomb at home, for real. As he tells the kids, anyone can build an atomic bomb – you only need the plutonium which is, admittedly, tightly controlled for just this reason. He acquires his through a daring heist on a nuclear plant. Kido never elaborates on what prompted him to begin his bizarre masterplan, but there is certainly a degree of pent up rage inside him born of resentment with his reduced circumstances. “Just” a high school science teacher, who would really think he’d have the capability to build an atomic bomb, alone, using only household equipment (plus the plutonium and a custom furnace purchased after nearly exploding his oven)?

Kido’s problems are the same as many middle-aged men in ‘70s Japan in that he feels intensely oppressed from above and below. What he’s trying to tell the kids is that they have access to this power already – anyone can build a bomb, if you bother to learn how. The only thing that’s being kept from him is the plutonium (and for good reason), which he manages to acquire anyway. A chance encounter with the madness of the age seems to kickstart his plan into gear when he meets his opposing number in police inspector Yamashita (Bunta Sugawara).

Kido, having halfheartedly escorted a group of students on a school trip, finds himself rendered powerless once again when the bus is hijacked by a distressed older gentleman (Yunosuke Ito) armed with a rifle and grenade and wearing a World War II soldier’s uniform. He demands to be driven to see the emperor from whom he intends to demand the return of his son, presumably killed in the war 30 years earlier. Yamashita, clean cut and authoritative, is the gung-ho cop who masterfully brings the hostage crisis to a close by lying to the man that the emperor has consented to see him. During the evacuation the old man is killed by police snipers (despite Yamashita’s too late cries of “don’t shoot” after having dispatched the grenade and disarmed the suspect).

Like Kido, the old man likely didn’t really know what he intended to do, only that he was lonely and desperate. The emperor couldn’t give him back his son (whose uniform he seems to be wearing) and his gesture is one of futile defiance coupled with a suicide bid that has no real goal save making an elaborate protest against the world in which he lives. Kido makes the bomb, lets the authorities know he has it, but then realises he has no demands. He asks them to fix something minor that annoys him, to stop the TV networks pulling the plug on late running baseball games to make way for the news, and finds himself rewarded. He has taken back the power, they believe he has the bomb and they fear him, but he has no further goals or notion of how his society should change. There is no idealised future he is fighting for, all there is is futility and indifference.

Meanwhile, ironically enough, Kido’s desperation provokes a mini revolution in others. A talkshow radio host (Kimiko Ikegami) named “Zero” (in contrast to Kido’s adoption of the codename “No. 9” as the 9th owner of a nuclear device and the only individual), broadcasts his on-air request for ideas, believing it to be a kind of thought experiment. The ideas she gets from the public are of the usual kind – lonely men who want to bathe with naked women, nationalists who want to start a war with America, dreamers who think it might be better not to want anything and just embrace the dream, while she muses that she wants the Rolling Stones concert that was cancelled a few years ago after a band member’s narcotics conviction to be reinstated. That being as good as anything is what Kido goes for in an overture that passes as an odd kind of romance and a suitably ironic kick back against strait-laced authority.

Kido’s war is, in a sense, a war with the fathers of the world as symbolised by men like Yamashita with their suits and neatly trimmed haircuts. Their button-down existence has never offered anything to men like Kido who feel trapped and angry within it. Yet Yamashita is also reacting against his own generation of fathers as symbolised by the old man on the bus, the last remnant of wartime resistance offering a defeated cry against a world which got away from them. Yamashita let the old man die when he prioritised his own sense of heroism, and that annoyed Kido. He can’t help sympathising with his plight which is in a way also his own in being relentlessly silenced and ignored by austere authority figures.

Turning down Yamashita’s clumsy attempt at a pickup, Zero affirms that Kido has given her a dream, which no small thing and she feels bound to him because of it. It’s an ironic statement because Kido has no dreams and not only that, he has no future either – he is slowly dying of radiation poisoning despite his precautions during the building of the bomb. In their final confrontation, Yamashita, adopting a paternal authority, neatly summarises Kido’s dilemma. The only life he has the right to take is his own, and his own death is the only thing he really wants, but he’s embarked on this elaborate plan to make his presence felt all the while aware that he will remain totally anonymous. No one will ever see him. He will die, like thousands of others, faceless. A lowly high school science teacher, no terrorist mastermind or bomb building genius. His revenge is as absurd as it is futile. Male inferiority complexes threaten to drown us all in a sea of violent resentment, and as the Earth dies screaming all we will have to reflect on is that we ourselves brought this world into being through our own incurable apathy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Death at an Old Mansion (本陣殺人事件, Yoichi Takabayashi, 1975)

death at an old mansion posterKousuke Kindaichi is one of the best known detectives of Japanese literature. There are 77 books in the Kindaichi series which has spawned numerous cinematic adaptations as well as a popular manga and anime spin-off starring the grandson of the original sleuth. Sadly only one of Seishi Yokomizo’s novels has been translated into English (The Inugami Clan which has the distinction of having been filmed not once but twice by Kon Ichikawa), but many Japanese mystery lovers have ranked his debut, The Murder in the Honjin, as one of the best locked room mysteries ever written. Starring Akira Nakao as the eccentric detective, Yoichi Takabayashi’s Death at an Old Mansion (本陣殺人事件, Honjin Satsujin Jiken) was the first of three films he’d make for The Art Theatre Guild of Japan and updates the 1937 setting of Yokomizu’s novel to the contemporary 1970s.

Beginning at the end, Kindaichi (Akira Nakao) arrives at a country mansion with a sense of foreboding which borne out when he realises that the young lady he’s come to see, Suzu (Junko Takazawa), has died and he’s arrived just in time to witness her funeral. It’s been a year since he first met her, though he did so under less than ideal circumstances. As it happened, Suzu’s older brother, Kenzo (Takahiro Tamura), was married to a young woman of his own choosing, Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara), despite strong familial opposition. On the night of their wedding, the couple were brutally murdered inside a private annex to the main building. The doors were firmly locked from the inside and there was no murder weapon on site. The only clue was bloody three fingered handprint made by someone wearing the “tsume” or picks used for playing the koto. Kindaichi, already a well known private detective, was summoned to investigate because of a personal connection to Katsuko’s uncle, Ginzo (Kunio Kaga).

The original novel was published in 1946 and it has to be said, some of its themes make more sense in the pre-war 1937 setting than they do for the comparatively more liberal one of 1975 though such small minded attitudes are hardly uncommon even in the world today. The Ichiyanagi family live on a large family estate (apparently not the “Honjin” – a resting place for imperial retinues in the Edo era, of the title but the ancestral association remains) and enjoy a degree of social standing as well as the privilege of wealth in the small rural town. Katsuko, by contrast, is from a “lowly” family of well-to-do farmers – mere peasantry to the Ichiyanagis, many of whom believe Kenzo is making a huge and embarrassing mistake in his choice of wife. Kenzo, a middle-aged scholar, has shocked them all with his sudden determination to marry, not to mention his determination to break with family protocol and marry beneath him.

Japanese mysteries are much less concerned with motive than their Western counterparts, but class conflict is definitely offered as a possible reason for murder. Other clues have more menacing dimensions such as the repeated mentions of a scary looking three fingered man who apparently delivered a threatening letter to the mansion on the night of the murder, and Suzu’s constant questions about her recently deceased cat who liked to listen to her play the koto. Suzu is 17 but has some kind of learning difficulties and is arrested in a childlike state of innocence which leads her to utter simple yet profound words of wisdom whilst also believing that her recently deceased cat, Tama, is some kind of god. Suzu’s “innocence” is contrasted with her brother’s coldhearted rigidity in which he’s described as a sanctimonious snob who believes himself above regular folk and treats his servants with contempt. This same rigidity in fact aligns him with his sister as both share an “atypical” way of thought and behaviour. Kenzo’s unexpected romance turns out not to be middle-aged lust for domination but an innocent first love arriving at 40 with all the pain and complication of adolescence.

Kindaichi arrives to solve the crime and makes an instant partner of the police inspector in charge who’s glad to have such esteemed help on such a difficult case. Putting two and two together, Kindaichi soon comes up with a few ideas after rubbing up against a mystery novel obsessed suspect and numerous red herrings. Once again coincidence plays a huge role, but the business of the murder is certainly elaborate given the pettiness of the reasoning behind it. Takabayashi never plays down the typically generic elements of this classic mystery, but adds to them with eerie, occasionally psychedelic camera work, shifting to sepia for imagined reconstructions and making use of repeated motifs from the fire-like imagery of the water wheel to a shattered photo of Kenzo shot through the eye. Strangely framed in red and gold the murder takes on a theatrical association that’s perfectly in keeping with its well choreographed genesis, and all the more chilling because of it. A satisfying locked room mystery,  Death at an Old Mansion is also a tragedy of out dated ideals equated with a kind of innocence and purity, of those who couldn’t allow their dreams to be sullied or their name besmirched. Perhaps not so different from the world of 1937 after all.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Panic High School (高校大パニック, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

Panic High SchoolSogo (now Gakyruu) Ishii was only 20 years old when Nikkatsu commissioned him to turn his smash hit 8mm short into a full scale studio picture. Perhaps that’s why they partnered him with one of their steadiest hands in Yukihiro Sawada as a co-director though the youthful punk attitude that would become Ishii’s signature is very much in evidence here despite the otherwise mainstream studio production. That said, Nikkatsu in this period was a far less sophisticated operation than it had been a decade before and, surprisingly, Panic High School (高校大パニック, Koukou Dai Panic) neatly avoids the kind of exploitative schlock that its title might suggest.

Back in 1977, though sadly little has changed in the intervening 40 years, schools are little more than pressure cookers slowly squeezing out every inch of individuality from the young people trapped within them as they cram for tests in subjects they might not actually understand. When a pupil commits suicide, the head master offers a few words of condolence over the tannoy system which the form tutor later backs up by emphasising that no one knows why the boy did this and that it probably has nothing at all to do with the school, exam pressure, or his performance in the recent mock exams. The school expect a line to be drawn here and for everyone to forget about it and get back to work.

However, when the teacher, Ihara, starts going on about the league tables suffering if the kids don’t buckle down some of them have had enough. One young man, Jono, looses it completely and takes a swing at the teacher only to miss and run out of the school in a panic. Whilst wandering around town he passes a gun shop and swipes a rifle before returning to the classroom and assassinating the maths tyrant. Not knowing what to do next, Jono hides out in the school building taking some of his friends hostage and then all hell breaks loose.

At its core, Panic High School is satire laying bare the crisis in Japan’s educational system which places undue emphasis on one particular set of exams which will determine the entirety of a person’s life. The teachers are cruel and heartless, little more than cogs in a machine. They don’t care about the kids, they only care about the statistics and the prestige associated with being the top high school in the area. All of these kids are bright, they already passed the stressful middle school entrance exams to get here, and the school just expects them to succeed but offers no support if they can’t.

Indeed, Ihara isn’t even teaching them anything. At the beginning of the film he asks a female student to solve an equation on the board. When she can’t, not only does he not explain the solution to her, he sends her outside adding to her original humiliation in front of the entire class and preventing her from actually learning how to solve the problem. When the next boy can’t solve it either he simply berates him for not studying, saying a “student at this high school should be able to solve this problem”. When the boy points out he did study but just doesn’t understand all he gets is abuse, no actual teaching at all.

Even when the police have been called, all anyone cares about is the reputation of the school. The headmaster keeps harping on about their status as the top school in the area and how “unfortunate” it would be if a student is killed inside the school – which is completely ignoring the fact that a teacher has already been murdered by a shotgun toting teenager right in the classroom. The police bungle the entire affair, starting by tearing apart Jono’s desk for clues including going right through his lunchbox and pointlessly cutting a hole in the bottom of his schoolbag. Bringing even more guns and riot police into the school to deal with one frightened boy who doesn’t want to shoot anyone else but is only trying to effect his escape (so he can take his entrance exams next year) is far from a good idea.

The kids are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take this anymore. The pressure is extreme and in the face of adult hypocrisy, it’s unsurprising that Jono and the other young people like him find themselves lashing out in extreme ways. Their teachers see them only as products, or even as components in the building of a “future” but never as people. Even if some of them start out wanting to help Jono, by the end even a teacher is trying to grab a gun screaming “That kid! I hate him now – I’ll kill him, he’s abandoned the most important thing – his education! He should never have come here in the first place!” putting the blame firmly on the boy and not on the system. In fact, the other teachers are busy in a huddle talking about how this is going to raise questions about the educational establishment and how they intend to mitigate that (they do not intend to address the “problems” in themselves).

While not as loud or as dynamic as some of Ishii’s later work, Panic High School displays much of his punkish sensibility even if it takes a form closer to ‘70s youth drama complete with all the zooms, whips and pans associated with the exploitation era. However, perhaps because Ishii’s own age is so close that of his protagonists the film is firmly on the side of youth. Far from a “youth in crisis” film, Panic High School places the blame firmly at the feet of the system which forces its young people into extreme and absurd situations. Notably different from Ishii’s later work in terms of tone and style, Panic High School is nevertheless an impressive studio debut feature and a strong indicator of the director’s continuing preoccupations.


Climatic scene from towards the beginning of the film (unsubtitled)