‘Shizumanu Taiyo’

Japanese films reach for sky, but it's a good bet JAL wishes this one had stayed grounded

by Mark Schilling

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” Gloria Swanson declaimed in “Sunset Boulevard.” In the Japan film industry, though, the pictures are getting bigger — gargantuan, in fact. Examples include the “Death Note” duology, the “20-seiki Shonen” (“20th Century Boys”) trilogy, and “Ai no Mukidashi” (“Love Exposure”). Sion Sono’s 237-minute love comedy. All have intricate story lines to go with their lengthy running times — and were hits.

So the omens look good for Setsuro Wakamatsu’s “Shizumanu Taiyo” (“The Sun that Doesn’t Set”), a turgid and overwrought, if enlightening, salaryman melodrama that runs 202 minutes.

Based on Toyoko Yamazaki’s five-part novel, “Shizumanu Taiyo” is a lightly fictionalized examination of events surrounding the crash of a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Osaka on Aug. 12, 1985. Caused by a faulty repair, this tragedy claimed 520 lives.

Shizumanu Taiyo
Director Setsuro Wakamatsu
Run Time 200 minutes
Language Japanese

The film’s airline is called National, but much else, such as the flight number (123) and the mountain where the plane crashed (Takagamahara, in Gumma Prefecture), is taken from the historical record. Not surprisingly, JAL withheld its cooperation from the film.

The hero, based on a real JAL employee, is Hajime Onchi (Ken Watanabe), an earnest middle-aged salaryman assigned to dealing with the survivors, which includes listening to their outpourings of grief and anger.

His trials did not start on that grim day in August, however. A former union leader, who made enemies among top management by threatening a strike, Onchi was exiled to Third World postings, together with his stoically enduring wife (Kyoka Suzuki) and two children. Alone in Kenya, he discovered the dubious joys of big-game hunting and the spiritually uplifting beauty of the savanna.

Returning home after a decade in the wilderness, Onchi finds that his old union comrades are being methodically bullied, while a former union leader, the smooth, slithery Gyoten (Tomokazu Miura), has prospered by selling out to management. Then comes the crash and the arrival of a new chairman, Kunimi (Koji Ishizaka), appointed by the prime minister to restore public confidence in the airline. Kunimi sees in Onchi a smart, principled veteran who can help him drain the airline’s swamp of malfeasance and corruption. Arrayed against this pair are Gyoten and other canny, weasely execs who have long run the company as their personal fiefdom and cash register.

Veteran TV director Wakamatsu makes it easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys — the latter exchange conspiratorial sneers and eye rolls, while whooping it up at fancy ryotei (teahouses) and clubs. The former, including Onchi and Kunimi, glow with manly sincerity and decency. The few women play familiar stereotypes, be it tear-streaked survivors (Tae Kimura and Misa Shimizu, fine actresses wasted in these bit roles) or guilt-ridden mistress (Yasuko Matsuyuki, whose entire performance consists of breathy whispers).

At the same time, the film’s detailings of corporate rivalries and intrigues, with the lifetime employment system linking enemies together in iron chains of grudges and resentments, have the ring of bitter reality. This was also true of Masato Harada’s “Climbers High” (2008), a better film that examined the Flight 123 crash from the perspective of a fictional regional newspaper. In fact, there is an entire sub-genre, in which Harada is something of specialist, that takes the Japanese organization man, from police bureaucrat to banker, as its subject. Most of these films have “Taiyo” ‘s atmosphere of ulcerating tension, with turbulent emotions bursting through rigid professional facades like steam escaping a lid.

So why do they do it? More specifically, why does Onchi stay with a company that treats him like a pariah? Ken Watanabe, Japan’s gift to Hollywood (“The Last Samurai,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”), conveys Onchi’s inner turmoil more insightfully and realistically than the histrionic local norm, but to many a Western eye, his loyalty will look absurd and even perverse. (I was reminded of the immortal Johnny Paycheck’s advice: Take this job and shove it.) Once the crash survivors enter the picture, however, his mission becomes as clear-cut and righteous as Ken Takakura’s in a yakuza pic — stand up for the unjustly wronged, whatever the personal cost.

Onchi’s real-life model, Hirotaro Ogura, died several years ago, but I think he would be pleased with Watanabe’s performance, which endows Onchi’s struggle with a certain nobility. But JAL probably wishes that, instead of bursting forth in a blaze of box-office glory, “Shizumanu Taiyo” had never seen the light of day.