When Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb appeared in theaters, there were more than a few critics who hated the movie on principle; after all, nuclear war was nothing any sane person could laugh at. Except, of course, that black humor and comedy are precisely how people have always dealt with the cruelest and most horrible of subjects. Today, complaining about Dr. Strangelove seems almost quaint—perhaps not so much a sign that we are desensitized to the whole apocalypse thing (when does the end of the world ever really stop being scary?) as that we have stopped wasting time with silly grousing about art being in bad taste.
That said, I have no idea how people today are going to respond to Kazuhiko Hasegawa's 1979 film The Man Who Stole the Sun, cowritten by Leonard Schrader, brother of Paul (see: Mishima). It is to nuclear terrorism as Dr. Strangelove was to nuclear war, and may even be the more absurdist of the two films — a black-comedy rendition of a homebrew doomsday scenario. Its sheer outlandishness threw me off to such a degree that it took me two screenings to just get the movie’s tone nailed down. I remembered how people had described William S. Burroughs’s unclassifiable Naked Lunch as “failed science fiction”. Sun feels at first like a failed thriller, until you realize the movie’s weird, off-kilter humor is entirely the point, and is meant to be as grimly ironic as it is funny. You laugh, and then you feel a chill wind blowing through you for laughing. The movie knows exactly what it’s doing.
Getting with the nuclear program
Sun’s antihero is Makoto, a high school science teacher (played by then-teen heartthrob Kenji Sawada) who has been making plans to steal fissionables from a local nuclear power plant and brew up his own atomic bomb. He's a shaggy-haired, unassuming fellow who lives alone in a cluttered apartment with his cat and is made fun of by his students. His personality quirks—like the mad-dog way he runs the school obstacle course at recess—make him less endearing than puzzling. One day while on a field trip with his class, his bus is hijacked by a gun-wielding lunatic, and he's rescued by a tough-as-leather detective, Yamashita (Bunta Sugawara, veteran of countless yakuza movies). Yamashita and Makoto are honored as heroes.
Right after this, Makoto wastes no time squeezing himself into black fatigues and doing his Mission: Impossible routine to steal the plutonium. The movie telegraphs its satirical intent in this scene by switching to a hilariously stylized editing method that isn't reprised elsewhere in the film, a series of comical freeze-frames that reduce his tussling with the plant’s security guards to a Keystone Kops two-reeler. Pu-239 in hand, Makoto heads home, uncorks the isotopes, and brews up enough fissionable material for two bombs. The first is his; the second, a deliberate dud with just enough radioactive material in it to show up on a Geiger counter, he dumps in a public lavatory as his calling card. “I’m returning some of what I stole,” he gleefully tells the cops, “but in a different container.”
The police are of course deeply alarmed, and as luck would have it, Yamashita himself is appointed to the case. He has no idea Makoto is the whacko behind the whole thing—the few times they speak on the phone, Makoto is disguised behind an electronic voice scrambler—but he approaches the job with the straight-arrow zeal you’d expect. Makoto, on the other hand, has a different problem: now that he has the bomb, he can’t think of what to use it for. The best he can come up with is blackmailing the powers that be into doing faintly boorish things—like actually showing televised baseball games all the way through, instead of cutting them short after the seventh inning stretch. Like other tyrants who suddenly come into power, he never thought about what to actually do with it except wield it like a club.
Infamy and indecision
Another plot develops as well, this one involving a female radio DJ that Makoto decides to use as his mouthpiece. She’s spunky, a touch airheaded, but basically well-meaning, and like many people who come into contact with someone who’s gone off the deep end, she finds Makoto fascinating rather than appalling—maybe only because he hasn’t actually killed anyone with his bomb yet. Yamashita approaches her as well and tries to deal with her like a competing lover: there’s a scene on a rooftop with him, and a scene at the waterfront with Makoto, that play out like parodies or dark reversals of the exact same sorts of scenes in romances. She sees Makoto as her way to make herself all the more famous, and only too late does Makoto realize she’s perfectly sincere about that.
Sun devotes a surprising amount of time—almost a solid half-hour—to watching Makoto derive his fissionables and assemble the bomb itself out of household parts he’s scavenged in Tokyo’s tech-trendy Akihabara district (although I suspect many key steps in the bomb-making process have been omitted for the sake of public safety). This sequence plays out with no dialogue and very little actually happening on-screen, but the suspense it generates is unflagging. It's not broken even by a telling early clue to Makoto’s fate — the first batch of plutonium metal to be melted down catches fire in his oven, spews radioactive dust through his apartment, and makes his Geiger counter crackle like a bag of Jiffy-Pop.
Then, in the next scene, he takes out a massive short-term loan that he clearly never intends to repay (“Don’t waste it gambling”, the loan shark tells him), and buys an electric kiln to finish the job. If he’s a dead man walking, he might as well not wimp out. When he’s finally done, he idiot-dances around his apartment with the stereo blasting out Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up”, and pours out a beer over his head like a marathon runner as the image grows white and washed-out—like film exposed to a nuclear blast. (In another no-less-goofy shot, he cuddles up to his freshly-stolen canister of plutonium in bed like it's a teddy bear; while assembling his bomb, he hums the theme from Astro-Boy.) Tellingly, the only person who calls out Makoto on his nascent death wish is Yamashita himself, and at the last possible moment. Why would someone steal PU-238 and cobble together a basement nuke unless they wanted to die as infamously as they could? Killing other people, or even extorting things from them, is just a fringe benefit.
What's so funny about that?
Funny that I should come back to this movie right as Iran and North Korea, and their respective nuclear ambitions, are back in the headlines. Current events don’t just make the movie relevant again; they give it a fresh new set of interpretations. Makoto is his own “rogue state” — stealing fissionable material, using knowledge that’s now publicly available, and then blackmailing other countries with the finished product (or the threat of same). But there's more imagination in the lead-up to the crime than there is in anything after. The most Makoto can come up with after his baseball blackmail is to get the Rolling Stones to come perform in Japan despite their drug bust, and it’s not clear he even particularly cares about seeing them. And he even admits as much: one night he calls up the DJ and admits he has no idea what to do with his creation. She, being all the more naïve, thinks she can give him that much more purpose.
One of the things I admire most in a movie is when it creates a broad range of reactions in its audience, and when even the negative responses are instructive. I showed Sun to several friends of mine, and their responses to it were in every sector of the map. One loved it immediately; another admired it but had no idea what to make of it; a third hated every second of it, especially the movie’s calculatedly over-the-top climax. The strangest thing of all was that every single one of these incredibly divergent responses stemmed from the same sentiment: Who in their right mind makes nuclear terrorism a laughing matter? Surely no one who takes it seriously. Then again, sometimes the only way to get perspective on the worst things in our lives is to laugh at them, fearlessly and shamelessly. That’s this movie’s philosophy.