February 7, 2017
With La La Land nominated for fourteen Academy Award nominations and likely to dominate movie chatter in the coming weeks, I wanted to track down some lesser known uses of jazz on film, for those seeking alternatives. Looking through FilmStruck, I came upon Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun (1964) on the Criterion Channel, which is about a jazz-mad squatter living in the rubble of post-war Japan, with a score performed by the Max Roach Quartet. The Roach Quartet is playing squalling compositions by Toshiro Mayuzumi, indicative of how East and West headbutt each other throughout the feature. The Japan as shown in the film is still in ruins after WWII, a ghostly, emptied out space filled with rubble and sewage.
It’s a movie that burns with the violent energy of the obsessed fan – focusing on Mei (Tamio Kawachi), a worshipper at the bebop altar, his bedroom in a bombed out church plastered with album covers of Coltrane, Mingus and Rollins. He even named his dog after Thelonious Monk. This music represents an outsider culture and a model for living, but this intense devotion is also an essentializing one. When Mei finally meets a black man for the first time, he assumes he is, if not a musician, than a jazz enthusiast. Neither are the case, as Gill (Chico Roland) is an American GI on the run for killing a fellow soldier. Gill is in no mood for chatter or the latest Abbey Lincoln platter. With a bullet in his thigh and the MPs on his tail, he croaks out instructions with the beleaguered intensity of a man on death’s door. Mei cannot speak English, and considers Gill’s rejection a personal affront, undermining as it does his vision of black Americans. So the two men battle and bicker across Tokyo as they flout their mutual bigotry and begrudging respect. For as much as they cannot comprehend the other’s background, they both recognize their unsuitability for living in the mainstream of American or Japanese life. They have both been rejected, for their race, their class or their favorite Miles Davis recording period. So they stick together as the cops close in and the dragnet tightens. All they have is each other.
Black Sun is something of an informal sequel to The Warped Ones (1960), a youth-in-revolt jolt that had Tamio Kawachi playing a similarly jazz-besotted and criminally minded character for director Kurahara. In The Warped Ones, Kawachi played Akira, a thief and a thug who mainlines bebop to get him through the day. It was something of a sensation in 1960, and a prime example of the sun tribe, or taiyozoku, genre of youth films. Sun tribe referred to the rebellious generation of post-war Japanese youth, coined from Shintaro Ishihara’s 1955 novel Season of the Sun. Michael Raine further elaborated for Criterion:
The word taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) referred to a postwar generation before it was applied to the cinema. It was coined to describe the rich, bored, and vicious characters populating the pages of writer Shintaro Ishihara’s books, such as Season of the Sun (1955) and Crazed Fruit (1956). Those characters embodied all that Japan’s postwar disillusioned youth desired, and that Japan’s new conservative government feared: absent parents and an excess of money, leisure, and sex.
In Black Sun, which has the same director, writer (Nobuo Yamada) and cinematographer (Mitsuji Kanau) as The Warped Ones, Mei doesn’t have much money, but certainly chooses a life of leisure, spending his days in an abandoned, crumbling church with his dog Monk, listening to the latest jazz albums. The film opens with Mei buying a copy of the new Max Roach album – which he then drops and is immediately stomped on by a haughty bourgeois wife in high heels. That is the closest we get to middle class Japanese society. The rest of the film is set on the fringes, either in Mei’s hidey-hole, a dank jazz club or the industrial zones outside of town.
Mei’s whole life seems to wrapped up in the music. He named his dog after Thelonious Monk, and built him a little home out of an oil drum, complete with concert posters. His squat is plastered with images of his heroes: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus – these men seem to be his ideal of humanity. Mei is wracked with nervous energy when he is not listening to jazz. It is the only thing that can calm him. So when Gill enters his sacred space – a black man in his jazz shrine – he is shocked to discover he is nothing like the men on his walls. Gill is wounded physically and mentally, speaking in gasps and wails, and has no time or interest in the music. Mei is less offended by the machine gun Gill points at him than the fact that Gill does not like jazz. An outrage! Kurahara and his DP Kanau try to convey Mei’s manic energy in the 2.35 frame (which bows a bit at the edges), with bird’s eye views, jittery handheld and fusillades of montage (especially of magazine cutouts of jazz greats – I think this is the only time Charles Mingus’ “The Clown” album cover has received screen time).
Having no reference point for black life outside of the culture of jazz, he cannot process Gill’s individuality. So Mei brazenly uses the “n” word – a racism brought readily to the surface at any undermining of the blackness he had in his head. But since Mei or Gill have no one else to help them, they stick together. At first it is out of inertia and happenstance, but eventually they find common ground in wanting to stay alive. To do so they both embrace and undermine the racial animus in the city. In the most shocking sequence in the movie Mei paints himself in blackface, and Gill in whiteface. Then they drive through town with Gill playing the trumpet to distract the MPs from recognizing him. It is a burlesque of a minstrel show, and disturbing in how impossible it is to parse. Gill is being used as a mascot, playing trumpet in clown makeup (after seeing that Mingus cover art for “The Clown”), so he is both employing and clowning the stereotype of blacks as “natural” musicians.
The film continues on a dizzying trajectory, sinking into the sewers and rising into the sun. Director Kurahara depicts postwar-Japan as a decaying mess of bombed out buildings and burning trash. The world outside them is literally filled with garbage (Mei’s dad is shown burning refuse in the beginning of the film), while their escape leads them through a landfill which is leaking into the nearby canal. Mei digs out a bullet from Gill’s thigh in an underground tunnel below the landfill as the cops search for them above, but it’s a brief respite. The film ends with a bitter image of freedom – Gill floats up, up, and away on a hot air balloon, curling around the sun as the life bleeds out of him. The film doesn’t end as much as burn out.