In a decrepit wasteland of rubble, detritus, and debris, a crumbling Christian church shivers in the Japanese morning sunlight. In its lone spire, a car thief named Mei relaxes and plays a jazz record. Though the artist sings in a language he doesn’t understand, he feels a desperate, inner connection with them. His walls are plastered with photos and clippings of jazz musicians and the floor is hidden by a layer of albums. He plays with a dog affectionately named “Thelonious Monk.” Life is hard, but enjoyable.
At least until he discovers a wounded machine-gun toting American GI hiding in his room. What’s more, he isn’t an ordinary American GI. No...this man happens to be black.
On a totally unrelated side-note, I got these screencaps from Hulu. I have no idea how to take them without that "Buffer" bar at the upper top showing up.
Ecstatic at his discovery, Mei tries to communicate and calm the GI who is screeching for help: “Today’s my lucky day! . . . All black men are my friends . . . Negro jazz! . . . I love you!” But the GI ignores him. He is on the run from the military police, having been involved in an incident where two other GI’s were shot and killed. What follows is a brilliantly unsettling examination of cultural boundaries and racial tensions in post-war Japan. Such is the world of Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun.
Black Sun is one of those special films that could only have come into fruition under the right historical and cultural circumstances. Set in the Japanese post-war reconstruction years, Kurahara’s film is more than just a crime drama; it is a kind of anthropological time capsule. Kurahara’s film perfectly captured the atmosphere of his time and all of its inherent contradictions, such as how Japanese society was experiencing an unheard of level of economic and social freedom while living under the suffocating presence of American occupiers. While jazz clubs and bars flourished and gave birth to a new form of wild night life, many still lived in the remains of bombed-out buildings and collected scrap for a living. And, most importantly, how the unprecedented level of intermingling with another foreign culture managed to entrench racist sentiments and xenophobia.
For example, despite Mei's love of jazz and black musicians, he is openly and virulently hostile and racist to white GI's.
Take Mei. Mei openly idolizes black jazz musicians. But he had probably never seen one before his run-in with Gill. Even the GI’s that he sees on the street are white. As a result, Mei doesn’t just worship black jazz musicians, but black people in general, lumping them together into an autonomous whole separate from other white Americans. As Gill writhes in pain, Mei eagerly offers him a trumpet and asks him to play.
But the misguided sentiments don’t end with Mei’s assumption of Gill’s musical prowess. When Gill accidentally kills “Thelonious Monk,” Mei calls him a nigger, runs to a bar, and starts to complain about how worthless black people are. Even after he gets over his depression concerning his dog, he introduces Gill to a bar full of friends as his "slave."
In any case, Mei decides to help Gill escape from the police. In order to get through military roadblocks, Mei paints Gill’s face white and his own black. When the roadblock officers begin to interrogate Mei, mistaking him for a black GI, they soon realize that he is just a Japanese in blackface and let him through. Why Gill needed to be in whiteface is left unclear.
But together they embark on a quest to reach “the sea.” For some inexplicable reason, Gill, desires to reach “the sea” so he can return to his “mama.” A bond begins to grow between the two, reminiscent of the one found between the two on-the-run white and black prisoners chained together in The Defiant Ones (1958). As Gill slowly loses his mind to the pain and infection from his bullet wound, Mei begins to risk life and limb to get him to “the sea.” In a hauntingly surreal scene, Gill straps himself to a giant balloon and begs Mei to shoot the rope holding him to the ground. With the police quickly closing in, Mei tearfully obliges and sets Gill free, shouting, “Go back home to your mama!”
Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun is a loud, ugly, gritty, and gripping film. It is a tortured shriek of post-war anguish from one of Japan’s leading filmmakers of the 1960s. Every aspect of the film is a visceral assault on the senses. Cinematographer Mitsuji Kanau delivers bleak, jagged black-and-white cinematography the likes of which would make Sven Nykvist and John Alton proud...and jealous. Max Roach, one of Mei’s idols whose album provided the title of the film, provided a blood-curdling soundtrack reminiscent of “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” from his We Insist! - Freedom Now Suite. Chico Roland’s performance as Gill is so intense and unsettling that it can only be likened to a doctor torturing a naked nerve during a root canal.
But most of all, Black Sun is terrifying for its unflinching glare into Japanese society. I lived in Japan for a few months during my Junior year at college, so I know first hand how even today the Japanese have a tendency to rely on stereotypes for their interactions with foreigners. This is not the symptom of some in-bred hatred, but rather a side-effect from a culture that for centuries prided itself on isolation from the rest of the world. As such, Mei’s story can be interpreted as symbolic of the cultural shock that all Japanese people faced at the end of World War Two when the world imposed its will upon them. Regardless, Black Sun is unequivocally a treasure of Japanese cinema that hasn’t lost a single bit of power over the years.