A jazz-obsessed homeless delinquent named Mei (Tamio Kawaji) lives in the tower of a derelict Tokyo cathedral, and spends his days engaged in petty theft and hot-wiring cars. Returning home one night he discovers an injured American G.I. (Chico Roland) hiding out from the police after apparently murdering a fellow soldier.
Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones remains one of the most iconic and creatively successful Japanese films of the 1960s. Black Sun, produced some four years later, shares much of the same cast and crew. Indeed Tamio Kawaji’s character Mei is so close to Akira, the protagonist of The Warped Ones, that many viewers assume they are one and the same character. The two films share a lot in stylistic terms as well: loose, handheld camera work, a jazz musical score, amoral characters and a markedly non-judgemental attitude towards them. However while the earlier film is a bravado creative success, Black Sun feels a lot more shaky and uncertain. There is some excellent material in here, but it is scattered across a weak story structure and a very problematic attempt to tackle Japanese attitudes to race.
The film broadly splits into two halves. In the first Mei discovers Gil hiding in his improvised tower apartment. Gil is suffering a gunshot wound to his thigh, and in a panic holds Mei hostage with a machine gun. Mei’s entire experience of African Americans comes via jazz, which took over Japanese youth culture in the 1960s in the same manner that rock’n’roll took over youth culture in the USA. At first he’s excited to meet Gil, and pressures him to play a trumpet. When Gil violently assaults Mei, and accidentally kills his dog, Mei turns the tables and holds Gil hostage instead.
Once he has Gil at his mercy, Mei paints both their faces: Mei in blackface, and Gil in white paint. He then drives through Tokyo, Gil playing a trumpet, with the American MPs failing to recognise Gil due to the facepaint. In a local jazz club Mei introduces Gil as his slave and the crowd bullies the injured soldier into dancing for them. The entire sequence leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, but in all honesty it is difficult to tell whether this discomfort is intentional on Kurohara’s part or if the film is actually slightly racist. Giving the director the benefit of the doubt, Black Sun paints a remarkably troublesome picture of Japanese race relations in the early 1960s. A flashback sequence for Gil depicting both American infrantry and the civil rights movement feels well-intentioned, but is crudely presented.
In the film’s second half Mei chooses to help Gil escape to the coast. By this stage Gil is suffering delusions from his festering leg wound, and his cries to ‘return to momma’ via the ocean do not make any logical kind of sense. It is here that the relationship between the two men shifts and becomes something much more closely aligned with the traditional road movie narrative.
Both lead performances are wildly over the top. Tamio Kawaji plays Mei with a child-like enthusiasm bordering on mania, whereas Chico Roland – a limited actor by any measure – plays Gil with a combination of incoherent muttering and angry roars. There is not a lot of realism in the characterisation, and the percussive score (by jazz legend Max Roach) and stark, striking photography keep everything feeling oddly stylised and heightened.
There is an energy to Black Sun that keeps it moving along at a fast pace, but it is a thorny, troublesome movie at the same. A lot of what is apparently attempted does not appear to fully work. For viewers who have already seen The Warped Ones and are keen to see more of Kurohara’s work, there is plenty here to digest. For viewers new to this work, or 1960s Japanese cinema generally, there are much more coherent and entertaining works to sample.