Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Nation's Pride


Thoughts on a film: Black Rain (1989) [Mild SPOILERS]


Interior/night.  A heavily guarded compound somewhere in suburban Osaka.  Against the windows, the rain falls hard in staccato rhythms, streaking down, across the surface.  It creates impressions, like the bars of a prison cell, to suggest the idea of characters meeting outside the law; hidden, furtive; a clandestine tête-à-tête.  By firelight, two men, flanked by armed enforcers, sit stoically across from one another.  On the right, the American, on the left, the Japanese.  The Japanese man - his hair greying; eyes hidden behind a veil of cigar smoke - opens his mouth to speak, and the words form louder than bombs.

"I was ten when the B-29 came..." he remembers.  "My family lived underground for three days.  When we came up, the city was gone!  Then the heat brought rain.  Black rain.  You made the rain black, and you shoved your values down our throats.  We forgot who we were.  You created Sato and thousands like him.  Now I'm paying you back."

The dialogue in this scene is spoken by the aging Yakuza crime boss Sugai during his third-act confrontation with the film's protagonist; disgraced NYPD detective Nick Conklin.  It's a fascinating monologue, not just because it's well written (IMO) and well delivered by the actor Tomisaburô Wakayama, but because it encapsulates the main themes of the film; the implied "plague" of American post-war imperialism as it filters down through the generations, breeding corruption, loss of tradition and the debasement of cultural identity.

It adds a balance to the commentary - which might otherwise be perceived as exceedingly xenophobic (if not actually racist) - by giving the Japanese characters a chance to justify their own attitude of antagonism and hesitancy regarding this American "influence", while at the same time acknowledging the still-visible scars of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how the reality of such atrocities changed the social and economic landscape of the country, irreparably.


Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Crime boss Sugai muses on the loss of respect and tradition in the younger generation more influenced by the west.


Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Rising lieutenant Sato mocks tradition, flaunting his attitude of disrespect and superiority.

This subtext - where the central conflict between American cop and Japanese criminal gestures towards the horrors of the Second World War - is interesting, but also problematic.  Through the development of the narrative - in which the aforementioned Conklin and his partner, Charlie Vincent, are required to transport a low-level lieutenant of the Yakuza (the abovementioned Sato) back to the authorities in Japan - the film presents a kind of ethical conflict between the meek, officious, bureaucratic nature of the Japanese (personified here by Inspector Matsumoto) and the brash, reckless, ultimately heroic attitude of Conklin...


Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Contrasts between the stoicism of Matsumoto and the irresponsibility of Conklin; who will prevail?

In his partnership with Matsumoto, the unfurling drama becomes more about the unashamedly corrupt Conklin bringing the Japanese characters down to his level of hostility and moral ambiguity.  Smirking behind aviator sunglasses, while lighting a cigarette with a (counterfeit) hundred-dollar bill, Conklin embodies the very worst traits of the post-Lethal Weapon (1987) "maverick cop with an attitude" cliché, as the American will soon coerce the previously 'whiter-than-white' Matsumoto to break his suspension before leading an illegal raid on a secret gang meeting, where both men brandish their firearms with an almost phallic reverence.

This degradation of Matsumoto - where the character is forced to "think American" in order to catch the bad guy and to restore order to a system that already worked (after all, it was the failings of the American characters that created these difficulties in the first place) - suggests a rather uncomfortable message, wherein an otherwise right (or righteous) character must become more corrupt and more underhanded than the people he's trying to defeat.  The true innocents, like Charlie, suffer because they attempt to see the good in people, while Conklin, with his prejudice, greed and lack of respect, becomes the hero, despite being a mirror to the more intentionally villainous enforcer, Sato.


Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Theme: America (as symbol) against the world.


Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Theme: Capitalism (dirty money) and corruption.

The idea that Conklin, in a way, is metaphorically re-staging the conflict of the Second World War - as he attempts to reclaim American pride and American dominance over "the nips" (as the character puts it) - is most evident in the final face-off between the detective and his Japanese aggressor.  Shot on U.S. soil but masquerading as rural Osaka, Scott and his production designer go to great lengths to evoke the landscapes of Iwo Jima.  The black soil, mud slides and ghostly mist recall the Kurosawa of films like Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961) and Ran (1985), as if the spirit of Kurosawa's art and its own debt to the Hollywood films of John Ford is somehow being filtered through the slick, glossy, highly commercialised gaze of Scott's earlier features, such as the landmark Blade Runner (1982), as well as the arguably more commercial films of his younger brother; for instance The Hunger (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987).


Sweeping Inland, Iwo Jima [Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, 1945]:
Scott turns Northern California into a miniature Iwo Jima, as once again Japan and America face-off.


Throne of Blood [Akira Kurosawa, 1957]:
The characteristic "charred" landscapes of Kurosawa, 
where two exhausted warriors find a moment of contemplation.


Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Scott's filmmaking at its roughest and most disorganised; 
violence and hatred expressed in the anarchy of the frame.

The stylisation becomes an audacious though possibly poorly judged expression of pure jingoism, as American masculinity wins out against Japanese nobility.  However, it also suggests something ultimately more edifying about the '80s American psyche as it relates to the Conklin archetype.  Like the character played by Lee Marvin in the John Boorman film Hell in the Pacific (1968), Conklin is the American soldier who still thinks the war is raging.  His lack of awareness, subtlety and cultural sensitivity makes it impossible for him to enter into this world and to view it as anything less than a score that needs to be settled.  Scott and his screenwriters (Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis) are each on the side of Conklin; viewing his "man of action" exterior as genuinely heroic, but also making his final act of revenge and his campaign to restore respect in the eyes of his forebears justified (or justifiable) by showing Sato (and his gang) to be almost two-dimensionally sadistic.

When Sato takes his revenge on one of the film's more likable supporting characters, this fuels Conklin's desire to get even; to once again destroy the Japanese aggressor (symbolically) before restoring American supremacy against the country's greatest economic rival.  However, it also gives the audience reason to identify with Conklin and to support his more underhanded methods.  Where the Japanese are shown to be condescending, cold and generally only sympathetic if they've been taught how to be "human" by their American guests, Conklin is impulsive, emotional and entirely clear.


Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Charlie will pay the price for attempting to understand the culture - to become a part of it, to work within
the parameters of this world - while Conklin remains on the outside, looking in.

In this respect, the actual storyline - the attempt by Conklin to redeem himself (and his honour) by bringing Sato to justice - is coloured by the murky treatment of race and the previously noted WWII subtext.  However, in Sugai's lament and the corruption of Matsumoto by Conklin, the implications of the film seem to relate very clearly to the role that American history played in Japan's ultimate rise to power.  By levelling parts of the country with atomic bombs, the American's obliterated the Japanese spirit.  The immediate occupation of the country by the Allied powers saw the inevitable rise of democracy and the end of Japan as a legitimate Imperial Empire, while the subsequent "economic miracle" made the country one of the most powerful manufacturers and creators of consumer technology in the entire world.

This socio-political power struggle is explored in the film on a rhetorical level.  America - personified by Conklin - created this scourge that now threatens to usurp capitalist control from the previously prevailing North American states, while the Japanese are left to reconcile the loss of identity (and the ideals that once defined them, culturally) with the growing wealth and privilege that this economic boom made real.  As such, Conklin's attempts to re-assert dominance over the characters speaks to this necessity for the protagonist - again, as a personification - to regain power; to reinforce (for the mainstream Hollywood audience) a sense of moral superiority at a time when Japanese product was flooding the American market, leaving countless native manufactures closed or out of business.

Along with the above-quoted dialogue from Sugai, the inference of this subtext - the way that it "reads", in context - redeems the film, wrestling it away from the Hollywood machismo and clichés of generic '80s action cinema, and instead creating a provocative and perhaps even intelligent counter-point to the film's somewhat contentious point of view.  It suggests a link between the shared histories of the two nations; the hypothesis, that the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War became the black rain of capitalism; that really, what the film is about, is cultural imperialism, as personified by the Conklin character, as a genuine force.

The film and how it presents Conklin (as somehow educating the supposedly ineffectual Japanese in the ways of the west) seems, in spirit at least, to be an attempt at mainstream propaganda on the same level as Joe Rosenthal's iconic image, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945), where the filmmakers reinforce the idea of U.S. authority and control in the context of something as accessible as a Hollywood thriller.  By the end of the film, Conklin (like the posed soldiers in Rosenthal's work) will have proven, physically, if not psychologically, how much more effective American force can be in comparison to Japanese bureaucracy; effectively claiming (or reclaiming) pride and power on a national scale.