The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Man Who Stole the Sun.

Junior high school teacher Makoto Kido attacks a nuclear power plant to steal a plutonium capsule and then succeeds in building an atomic bomb by himself in his apartment. Calling himself “Number 9” and claiming to be a new nuclear power of his own, Kido extorts the government with demands for uninterrupted baseball games and a concert by the then-banned Rolling Stones, even going so far as to appoint his own negotiating partner, hardened police inspector Yamashita. Pitting rock icon Kenji Sawada with legendary tough guy Bunta Sugawara, Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s celebrated Japanese cult film explores the nation’s growing generation gap and the proliferation of nuclear power with black comedy, stylistic invention, and a heavy, controversial premise.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New high-definition digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • The Legend is Lebon Video Testimony, an 84-minute documentary on the making of the film, with interviews and on-set footage
  • Walking With the Movie, a tour of the film’s locations with Japanese singer Masaki Ueda
  • Enthusiasm, Talk, Talk, My “Man Who Stole the Sun,” a 35-minute interview of director Kazuhiko Hasegawa by actor Masatoshi Nagase and special effects director Shinji Higuchi
  • 11 p.m. “Wonderful!! Is Julie a Strong Guy Like Genbaku?!,” a 20-minute edited version shown prior to the film’s theatrical released on September 20, 1979
  • Trailer
  • English subtitle translation supervised by screenwriter Leonard Schrader
  • PLUS: A new essay by Japanese film scholar Tony Rayns

With only two features film to his credit, it may be understandable why Kazuhiko Hasegawa is not a filmmaker widely known outside his native Japan. Having begun his career with Shôhei Imamura and serving on the director’s 1968 film Profound Desires of the Gods as an assistant-director, Hasegawa spent the early part 1970s at Nikkatsu working as a writer and assistant-director on various Roman Porno titles that helped keep the studio afloat following a downturn in sales in the 1960s. Eventually fired from the studio due to an authorized trip to Australia and a lack of union support, Hasegawa wrote scripts for film and television, made his doomed lovers/parenticide drama The Youth Killer (1976), and cemented his legacy with The Man Who Stole the Sun (Taiyō o Nusunda Otoko, 1979), a sui generis blend of atomic anxiety, anti-hero mystique, and absurdist provocation. The film portrays a high school teacher’s construction of a working A-bomb, his haphazard efforts to exploit his nuclear clout, and his quizzical rivalry with a tough-nosed police investigator. The film was a commercial disappointment at its initial release but has become a cult favourite and a critical darling in the years since. The esteemed Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo ranked the film as the seventh-greatest Japanese movie of all time and the film has become a touchstone for numerous Japanese actors, musicians, comedians, and directors, most notably the mind-bending animator Satoshi Kon. Nevertheless, Hasegawa’s classic has no proper release in North America, no high-definition release whatsoever, and its Japanese special edition DVD now seems out of print. The Man Who Stole the Sun is a film that cries out for the Criterion Collection’s seal of approval and for its discovery by countless cinephiles unaware they’ve been waiting to see this hidden gem of Japanese cinema.

THE KID WHO ROBBED JAPAN

As Grady Hendrix observes, The Man Who Stole the Sun might be thought of “as a particle accelerator smashing two electrons into each other at high speeds and charts their destructive paths.” On one side is Kenji Sawada’s Makoto Kido, a long-haired science teacher with a knack for disguises and a compulsion to build his own atomic bomb. On the other side is Bunta Sugawara’s Inspector Yamashita, an iron-hard man of duty, bravery, and unequivocal toughness. The pair provide a study in contrasting star personas. Sugawara was young during World War II and lived through Japan’s evacuation policies requiring that children be moved out of large cities during the conflict. He dropped out of school to work as a model before turning to acting and rising to prominence in a series of tough guy yakuza roles, most particularly in Kinji Fukasaku’s five-part epic, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973-1974). Sawada, born after WWII, was a bona fide Japanese pop star, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, recording songs written by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees with his band The Tigers, and starring in three feature films with his group in a Beatles-like turn. By the time of Hasegawa’s film, Sawada was headlining sold-out concerts and taking provocative license with his public image, sometimes performing in semi-drag and earning himself of moniker of “the Japanese David Bowie.” Sugawara and Hasegawa were drinking buddies and it was the actor that suggested “Julie” for the bomber role (Sawada’s nickname for an admitted admiration for Julie Andrews), although it would take more than a year to match Sawada and Sugawara’s availabilities.

The cinematic fission that Hendrix outlines arose only out of an earlier creative fusion between Hasegawa and screenwriter Leonard Schrader (brother of writer-director Paul Schrader). “Goji” (Hasegawa’s nickname) befriended Len while visiting the US on assignment for Playboy Magazine Japan, although Schrader had already been living in Kyoto for five years teaching English at Doshisha University, avoiding the American military draft, and marrying a Japanese woman named Cheiko. Back in Tokyo, Schrader shared his idea for the film, a premise based on an article in Assassin magazine titled “Become the First Guy to Produce an Atomic Bomb in Your Town!” and his impression of Japan as “a very strange country where nobody makes any complaints even if everything, head to toe, is red-taped by bureaucratic rules and regulations.” Hasegawa, who was exposed to the radiation of the Hiroshima blast in utero, felt a kinship to Schrader and his concept, approvingly describing it as “so stupid, so good.” Schrader’s first draft of the script (translated with help from Cheiko) was titled The Kid Who Robbed Japan and imagined a 20-something student as its bomb-builder. Hasegawa’s first change was to replace the student with a 30-something teacher with whom he could identify. Also scrapped was the title as Japanese had no equivalent term for “Kid,” although the term found a home in the teacher’s name – Kido.

LAUGHING A-BOMB

The Man Who Stole the Sun introduces Kido as a lazy and unconventional high school science teacher nicknamed “Bubblegum” by his own students. We see him case a nuclear power plant and rob a policeman of his firearm, however before he begins his actual bomb construction, he and his students are taken hostage during a field trip by an elderly man who commandeers them and their bus. The old man demands an audience with the Emperor to discuss the fate of his son who served during WWII. With the help of Kido, Police Inspector Yamashita resolves the situation, saving the kids, handling a live grenade, and subduing the elderly man into custody. The sequence introduces Yamashita and Kido and also illustrates a clash of generations that motivates the film going forward, contrasting Kido (the son) with Yamashita (the father) and the old man (the grandfather).

Kido’s construction of his homemade A-bomb takes up nearly half of the film’s runtime. The teacher steals a police officer’s pistol, robs a power plant of plutonium, and gradually builds his fissile core and apparatus in such extended detail that key steps had to be removed from the movie for public safety. The film’s interim title, Laughing A-Bomb, was Hasegawa’s favourite although Toho hated it and refused to release the movie under any title including the term “A-bomb.” Schrader expressed concern over the potential heaviness of film’s content but Hasegawa embraced it, responding with excitement, “Asshole, how can a movie about a nuclear weapon not be heavy? It definitely should be super-heavy, and at the same time it needs to be super-hilarious and striking in a way never imagined!” Schrader likely didn’t anticipate the formal diversity and wildness of tone Hasegawa would load into The Man Who Stole the Sun. The director periodically utilizes montages of still images, sequences of step-printing, and even educational documentary. More significantly, The Man Who Stole the Sun regularly revels in the absurdity of Kido and his nuclear folly – his disguises, his Tarzan yell, his Taxi Driver homage, his humming the Astro Boy theme while building the bomb, his celebration to the sound of The Wailers’ “Get Up, Stand Up.” The onscreen world is a fitting reflection of the catch-as-catch-can approach Hasegawa took to the shoot, frequently working without permits and filming on the streets guerrilla-style. Hasegawa’s assistant director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even went so far as to nearly get himself arrested for throwing fake money off the roof of a downtown building.

PLUTONIUM LOVE

Having built his atomic bomb, Kido makes himself known to the government. He dubs himself “Number 9” (eight other countries having already become nuclear powers) and appoints Yamashita as his point of contact with authorities. As “9,” he successfully forces television broadcasts of baseball games to run to their conclusion rather be preempted by the news. (Schrader found the strict enforcement of TV time slots at the expense of baseball games to be the perfect symbol of “red-taped Japanese society.”) Stumped at what else to do with his newly achieved power, Kido reaches out to radio DJ Zero Sawai (Kimiko Ikegami) and gets the idea to demand a concert performance by the Rolling Stones as the band had consistently been denied visas due to Mick Jagger’s misdemeanor pot bust in the late ’60s. Kido and Sawai’s actions are notably non-political, acting without an agenda or manifesto. Righting systemic wrongs never enters their minds. Their actions involve rebellion without ideals, making Sawai’s nickname of “Zero” seem particularly apt. When Kido eventually settles on trading his bomb for cash, the decision seems to made from a lack of better options; and when the pair recover the bomb from the police, no real reason is apparent other than Kido feeling it is his and Sawai wishing to report on the outlandish story for a while longer.

The film’s next working title was Plutonium Love. Hasegawa was not a fan of it, finding it excessively sweet and melodramatic. In a sense, the title does ring true, as Kido and Zero never feel particularly united in the film. Hasegawa’s film is more preoccupied with the destructive, technophilic romance between Kido and his A-bomb – it is, after all, the canister of plutonium that he spoons with in his sleep. Death and absurdity are always present in The Man Who Stole the Sun and become particularly prominent in the film’s latter portion. Increasingly aware of his own radiation poisoning, Kido steals back his bomb wearing a rubber Frankenstein mask, sets off a deadly car chase, and may even intentionally poison a public swimming pool depending on your interpretation of the sequence as a dream or not. Kido’s final confrontation with Yamashita is a bitterly brutal contest of wills that verges on the absurdity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Black Knight or the concluding shoot-out of Dean Hargrove’s The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery.

THE MAN WHO STOLE JAPAN

Hasegawa’s second film was nearly titled The Man Who Stole Japan. Seeing the title printed on the cover of a script along like a drawing of an A-bomb, Hasegawa noted how the device resembled the sun and changed the film’s name accordingly. The revised title brought to mind the myths of Icarus and Prometheus for the director, and surely the association of Japan with the rising sun brought a double-meaning that could not have been lost on Hasegawa, particularly given that the rising sun is one of the movie’s first images. Initially, The Man Who Stole the Sun did not steal Japan. The film performed poorly outside of major centres and underwhelmed at the box office. It did receive various awards with Hasegawa most valuing Kinema Junpo’s award for “Best Movie Selected by its Readers,” and the film eventually became a Japanese cult classic alongside Sōgo Ishii’s Crazy Thunder Road released the following year. Fast forward a few decades and The Man Who Stole the Sun comfortably sits in Kinema Junpo’s top ten Japanese films of all time, rubbing radioactive shoulders with Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1950), and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973).

Part of resonant power of The Man Who Stole the Sun must reside in its atomic subject matter and Kido’s position as both an originator and a victim of his own nuclear threat, something that seems all the more poignant now following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Reflecting on his film, Hasegawa remarks, “[N]ow, after the tragedy of 3/11 in Fukushima, the fact is people all over the world are slaves and victims of nukes without exception.” Taken from this perspective, Kido’s lack of motivation for building, leveraging, and using his A-bomb is less concerning. Kido is less a man and more an impassive force of nature or the inevitability of fate personified. He is a long-haired tsunami or a miniature Godzilla in casual dress, a return of Japan’s repressed atomic fears bursting the nation’s closely held nuclear safety myth 32 years before the emergency generators failed at Fukushima No. 1 and 36 years before the International Atomic Energy Agency delivered its report on the consequential triple meltdown.

Aside from adding to its catalogue a major work of Japanese cinema little known outside its domestic market, a Criterion Collection edition of The Man Who Stole the Sun would connect with existing CC titles like Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), which also featured a role for Kenji Sawada and was co-written by Leonard Schrader, and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977), which starred Kimiko Ikegami. And with Hasegawa’s second career as a founding member of The Director’s Company, attention to “Goji” might even lead to interest in significant works of that production company like Sōgo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (1984) and Shinji Sōmai’s Typhoon Club (1985). MMC! would love to see graphic artist Kilian Eng tapped for a cover treatment. The Swedish illustrator has distinguished himself with his highly detailed, vaguely surrealistic works in fantasy and science fiction. Looking at the colours and content of that original poster for The Man Who Stole the Sun, it seems like Eng could find easy inspiration for an astonishing commission.

Credits: The four featurettes and Schrader’s supervised subtitles included in this imagined edition are taken from the now out of print Japanese Special Edition DVD. Tony Rayns was chosen to provide an essay given his brief description of the film as an “agreeably offbeat thriller” in his contribution to the book Akira Kurosawa: Interviews.

This post drew heavily on “Kaiju Shakedown: The Man Who Stole the Sun,” Grady Hendrix’s article for Film CommentEigagogo’s extensive interview with Kazuhiko Hasegawa, and RetroRobin’s post at Into The Retroscope.

3 thoughts on “The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

  1. moviefanman June 18, 2020 / 10:12 am

    I’ve read about this film on the IMDB, and it’s definitely worthy of a boutique label release. I think Arrow Video or Arrow Academy might be the more logical choice, unless Criterion brings back the Eclipse series, though that would be sans the special features. Nice choice.

    • spinenumbered June 18, 2020 / 10:32 am

      I see Criterion and Arrow Academy as essentially working from the same library. And it could work as an AV title too. It’s a surprisingly big deal in Japan relative to its profile elsewhere, so I lean toward a Wacky “C” in this case.

  2. RetroRobin July 18, 2020 / 7:53 am

    Lovely write-up of this film and thank you so much for the credit back to my site- Into the Retroscope. The Man Who Stole the Sun really does deserve a release outside Japan. It could also do with some redone subs as well, like you mentioned. The English subtitles on the Japanese DVD release are serviceable but there are a few off bits- for example, the ‘I created her’ subtitle isn’t even said! In Japan, this film is not very well known but it does have a bit of a cult following, and I have met one other person who really likes it.

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