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Crichton Essay Michael Rising Sun

In Rising Sun, Philip Kaufman’s 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes play two special liaison officers investigating a possible murder in the Los Angeles headquarters of a Japanese mega-corporation. Although, in many respects, Rising Sun is a conventional mystery-thriller, the film also operates as a fascinating juncture on multiple levels.

In terms of cast, Rising Sun boasts the great Connery plus Snipes in his 90s prime. In terms of crew, writer-director Philip Kaufman—a sophisticated American auteur known for sexual arthouse films (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June) and lauded adaptations (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff)—takes on Michael Crichton in his 90s prime. And in terms of story, the fairly standard mystery set-up (an escort girl is found dead during a business party) is spiced up with both a West-meets-East clash of cultures and friction between the two police officers, with their very different backgrounds and expertise.

The adaptation of Rising Sun also exhibits conflict and tension (as the L.A. Times reported in spring 1993). Crichton’s novel ignited controversy when it appeared in 1992, with many perceiving the book as being strongly anti-Japanese, and some even alleging it was racist. Crichton himself viewed the novel as, in part, a political argument for economic war with an ascendant Japan, but he was reported to be genuinely surprised by criticisms of racism. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t judge its content, but the controversy seems to have led Kaufman to make some significant changes in his adaptation. Most importantly, Kaufman made one of the two main police officers an African American (Snipes’ Lt. Webster Smith), and he also changed the identity of the killer. Conflict with Kaufman prompted Crichton and co-screenwriter Michael Backes to leave the project.

As it stands, Rising Sun the movie investigates perceptions of cultural and racial difference, and how they shape not only personal interactions, but also official matters such as business negotiations and police investigations. Rising Sun does this through both the interpersonal friction of a buddy cop movie—between white Connery and black Snipes—as well as the juxtaposition of American and Japanese manners and social structures.

Early on, we witness high-level negotiations between a U.S. tech company, MicroCon, and a Japanese conglomerate, the Nakamoto Corporation. The Japanese side of the long table is neat and tidy, the American strewn with papers; the Japanese calmly insist their offer is final, the Americans chatter and try to stall. The film’s sustained juxtaposition of American and Japanese cultures recalls an earlier America-Japan police thriller, Ridley Scott’s 1989 Black Rain. Like Scott’s thriller, though, Rising Sun offers a more complicated comparison of the two cultures than meets the eye.

Although Rising Sun clearly takes the point of view of its American characters, and the film is framed primarily for U.S. audiences, it doesn’t propagate a simple binary of America=good/Japan=bad. Japan certainly operates as Other in the film, but Kaufman contrasts the U.S.A. and Japan to various effects. Sometimes, Japanese cultural and social norms are seen as being in some way deficient or restrictive. For example, Japanese social hierarchy is criticized when a security manager tries to cover up evidence that is an embarrassment to his corporate superiors. Other times, however, Kaufman uses Japan to emphasize the deficiencies in American culture—its lack of structure, efficiency, intelligence, or rigor in comparison to Japanese hierarchy, discipline, and technological and business proficiency.

Connery’s Capt. John Connor is an expert in Japanese culture. His explanations to Snipes’ Lt. Smith provide a window into Japanese culture for the presumed American audience (remember, this is before sushi became a regular fast food across North America). Connor is also the film’s main voice of praise for Japan and criticism of America. Connor exhibits trappings of the white man who bests the other culture at their own game (a character-type common in Western literature and films, going all the way back, at least, to Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales), but Connor’s virtue and excellence are also tarnished by rumours of corruption and a forced retirement. In other words, Connor is not an unequivocal hero.

Kaufman’s introduction of an African American main character into the narrative further complicates the America-Japan dichotomy, exposing tensions internal to American society as well as different lines of contrast and comparison. Smith is an interesting character. He’s no rookie or fool, has his own tarnished past, knows a fair deal about Japan, and initially bristles at Connor’s assumption of authority in their relationship. There is no doubt, though, that Connor is the senior officer and the greater expert on Japan. As their relationship develops, Smith learns to follow Connor’s lead.

Importantly, their relationship comes to operate along Japanese lines, following the sempai-kohai (senior man-junior man) model. While the film explicitly criticises some racist stereotypes levelled at black people, it missteps at other points when handling the character of Smith. For instance, when Connor and Smith exit the Nakamoto skyscraper as the party disperses, someone assumes Smith is the valet, and Smith calls the guy out on it: “Wrong guy. Wrong fucking century.” However, Smith’s capabilities also trade in urban black stereotypes. For example, Smith is uniquely able to navigate Los Angeles neighbourhoods and enlist the help of old friends, who seem to be gangsters, allowing him and Connor to escape from their Japanese pursuers.  

The film is also notable for some peculiarities in the filmmaking. For instance, I was struck by Kaufman’s handling of a sex scene early on in the film, between the call girl and a mystery character concealed by the shadows. The scene is neither a quick cutaway from the party to show off some T&A, nor an overwrought “sensual” sex scene, which seem to me to be the standard approaches to sex in Hollywood movies. The scene is notable for its visual approach, editing, and content, moving in from primarily long shots to mediums to close ups, and intercutting the sex scene with shots of traditional Japanese drummers at the party. After the shadowy figure advances on the call girl (whose death will initiate the investigation), the film doesn’t offer us, say, a shot showing off her naked body and the man’s macho thrusts from behind. Rather, the shadowy figure performs oral sex on the escort, eventually moving his hands upwards to her throat in an act of erotic asphyxiation (which is ultimately the cause of her death). We do see some nudity, namely her breasts and even some pubic hair, but not straightaway—the camera capturing the heated actions rawly and matter-of-factly, not too smoothly or gratuitously. Overall, Kaufman shoots this scene of sex with an escort girl far more delicately than I had expected to see in a Hollywood thriller from the early 90s.  

In terms of narration, Kaufman introduces strange flash-forwards into the plot, depicting Lt. Smith’s superiors interrogating him about Connor and some unknown events at an uncertain point in the future. These flash-forwards disrupt the typical linear mystery plot, and introduce further shades of suspicion and doubt to our protagonists. The main storyline meets up with this future storyline well before the end of the film, however, and the final act descends into mystery-thriller convention. The conclusion is fairly straightforward and expected, satisfying but not remarkable.

Ultimately, Rising Sun delivers an adequate but not captivating mystery, and it deploys plenty of character stereotypes and conventional narrative structures and markers. However, what makes Rising Sun worth viewing today is how, amidst the fixed and conventional forms, Kaufman introduces fissures, oddities, and points of friction that introduce more shadows and tension than the average Hollywood mystery-thriller.

7 out of 10

Rising Sun (1993, USA)

Directed by Philip Kaufman; screenplay by Philip Kaufman and Michael Crichton & Michael Backes, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; starring Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes, Harvey Keitel, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Kevin Anderson, Mako, Ray Wise, Stan Egi, Tia Carrere, and Steve Buscemi.

(I was finally prodded into writing about this movie, something I had wanted to do for a while, after reading Nathan Rabin’s piece, “The once-controversial Rising Sun”, part of his Forgotbusters series, devoted to colossi of the past whose footprints have washed from the mass unconscious. This column also dealt with another Michael Crichton adaptation, “If nothing else, the cyber-thriller relic Disclosure is better than its source”, which is also given some space below. Rabin is a hilarious and perceptive writer, and his work is superior to what follows. It should go without saying, but: SPOILERS, for both Rising Sun and Disclosure. Though its plot is summarized, that the reader has seen Rising Sun already is assumed.)

RISING SUN:

THE IMAGE OF THE DESIRED JAPANESE

PART ONE PART TWOPART THREEPART FOUR

THE ENEMY WITHIN

A movie that fascinated me because of the tension between the director, Philip Kaufman, and the writer, Michael Crichton, on whose novel it was based. Some of these tensions were obvious and out in the open at the time of its release, though the most striking change in the material, what I perceive as Kaufman’s contemptful laughter at Crichton, seems to have gone entirely unnoticed. So, I write about the movie to discuss this major, though perhaps unnoticed change, but also because the movie gives me avenues to discuss so many other things. The movie also provides a curious lesson, where an incredibly talented director adapts material whose message he is in opposition to, and in altering it for the most enlightened reasons, ends up making it less compelling, because the very heart of Rising Sun, its core, is a kind of racial paranoia that animates something like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and without it, the story ceases to have its power. In order to discern why the book works in ways that the movie does not requires us to discern that the book’s approach is that of a paranoid conspiracist – there is perhaps denial that this might be the novel’s approach because it was a mainstream novel by an extraordinarily successful writer. The book supposedly had a racist edge (and only an edge), but it had to be a work of rational analysis gone awry, its appeal due to national concern over the rise of the Japanese behemoth, rather than the attraction of a lunatic vision. Yet I think this is very much what it is, and when it loses this madness, however contemptible, it loses its very essence.

The plot of Rising Sun is a very simple one, with two detectives trying to solve who was behind the murder of a woman at a corporate party, discovering that the woman was there as part of a scheme to blackmail a senator into approving a Japanese takeover, the woman’s murder a counterattack by a rival corporate group. This plot is almost entirely preserved for the movie, with minor changes such as an American now as the actual killer, a black man as one of the police officers, a more virile Eddie Sakamura, etc. None of these, nor the major change that seemingly goes undetected and which I’ll get too later, are responsible for the extraordinary difference between book and movie. The film Rising Sun, with its focus on these plot elements, is a corporate thriller. This plot, however, is only a small facet of the book, which feels like part of a different genre entirely. Those who are familiar with science fiction will recognise Rising Sun right away as having all the traits of that species, and they will soon note all the tropes marking what sci-fi genus it is: the story of an alien invasion. It is the story of an alien invasion, but one with a small twist, and one that gives the novel a haunting quality: the invasion has been nearly invisible, the invasion is nearly over, and as the novel comes to a close, the only victory the hero is given is a clear vision of this shadow invasion, the only relief because the invasion appears nearly over and the invaders have won.

The book is racist, but not in the way the reader who has only heard the indictment might expect. There are no caricatures, no constant ls instead of rs, no dickless men, no purring concubines, no buck teeth. There are only two major characters that are Japanese, Eddie Sakamura, on whom the murder is originally blamed, and Masao Ishiguro, a Nakamoto executive, who is the actual guilty one. The Japanese, as characters, as concrete people, barely show up in the book. Therein lies the strange quality of Rising Sun, which makes it both like an alien invasion story and the Protocols: the Japanese are entirely a shadow army, almost invisible yet at the same time all powerful. They are able to control the press – the Los Angeles Times and various TV stations – forcing them to drop any in-depth look at the murder1. They control the LAPD, gaining access to evidence, able to dissuade the police into dropping their investigation, attempting to bribe the cop heroes2. They control the American government3. They can tap any phone with ease4. The cops meet a witness at an airport bar and one of them checks the underside of the bar for bugs. This same witness must pass a message to them in secret, on a cocktail napkin, as if they are under constant surveillance5. When a renegade university professor begins an examination of the video of the murder, his department is shut down as if by the gestapo – the exact word is used in the text6. In perhaps the most striking parallel to Protocols, we are told of a secret council of Japanese which meets in order to guide the American economy; the only reason the council has ceased to meet is because the Americans are too hopeless to be guided7. We only see the outward effects of Japanese power, without seeing them ever employ it first-hand, always learning about it secondhand from the explanations of John Connor to his partner, Peter Smith – a man who is everyman, just like his namesake who learns all the features of his dystopian society, Winston.

It is these explanations that, I think, can be properly called racist, a term I often avoid using because it is so broad that it is often useless as an indictment next to a specific citation and analysis of the precise act. The Japanese, in Connor’s explanations, are a single entity, motivated by a single ideal, an army of swarming ants, rather than a people composed of individuals. Just as the dramatic effects of an alien invasion story are effected by the aliens as a homogeneous military force, so the effects of an alien invasion story like Rising Sun require the Japanese to be an unseen, homogeneous army, a phantom power that is almost always spoken of in the abstract. One can imagine a better book with actual Japanese characters, yet it would cease to be this book – just as the effects of War of the Worlds require its aliens to be an indistinct force (as opposed to distinct characters), a single entity of conquest. This invisibility, this abstraction, is intertwined with the book’s racism, but it is also very effective at setting this thriller in an unsettling, fascinating landscape. A good contrast here between book and movie is the capture and killing of Eddie Sakamura: in the movie, we see the yakuza who try to take over the apartment up close, and are given an action scene where Sakamura dies. The book gives us something far more eerie. Sakamura is found in his pool, the marks of his murder barely visible8. After, when the yakuza show up, they are seen only at a distance, and then the neighborhood is ablaze with gunfire as if in the middle of a war, and then they are gone, as if never there9. The press misreports the event, because, as Connor makes clear, they are entirely in the grip of the shadow power10.

This book shares another trope with alien invasion stories: the invading aliens are clearly superior to the inhabitants of the soon to be conquered land. The technology of the Japanese is faster and more efficient than that of the Americans, allowing them to see things that their conquests cannot. They are able to edit and change the video documents of life, thus distorting history itself, with only the alien enemy knowing the true vision of events. They work with a patience and diligence that the Americans entirely lack. They are at all times quicker, smarter, and more efficient than the Americans. Their near invisibility combined with their all-powerfulness makes them into an alien race gifted with cosmic powers – I cannot help but think of the episode of the original “Star Trek”, where the ship is taken over by aliens who move too quickly to ever be seen11. Japan, as depicted in the book, is a vampire planet, buying up the resources of the United States and gaining a permanent, though invisible, foothold in the country, in exchange for their beautiful advanced technology – technologies that are already hilarious antiques on the vampire planet12. The only reason why the vampire planet is briefly stymied in the plot of Rising Sun, and why they are briefly, truly revealed, is like a prelude to Blade: the efforts of two half vampires, John Connor and Theresa Asakuma.

Both characters testify to the completeness of Crichton’s vision in his book. Though he may be lacking in skill or uninterested in some areas, such as character or language, this should not be misunderstood as sloppiness in all places. The conspiratorial world of Rising Sun never slips, with every character and moment serving a purpose. This diligence is what gives the book its sustained, often eerie atmosphere, never broken. That it is there in almost every choice of character and action, the choices serving the book’s ideological vision, only makes these choices more vile. There is Theresa Asakuma, who is part African American and part Japanese, a gorgeous woman with a congenital deformity – her left hand is a stump13. I think there is a symbolism here, and the symbolism is obvious: the American and Japanese cultures cannot be mixed. They produce something deceptively beautiful but lacking a vital element. Smith likes the fact that she uses her english name rather than her japanese one: however much we deny it, we wish people to choose our cultural side rather than the enemy’s14. It is there in the American women of the book, who are various stages of a self-indulgent type, the embodiment of a country’s decline. There is Smith’s young daughter, who falls into a crying fit when she can’t see her cartoons15. The older daughter of an associate who shrieks about the clothes she wants16. There is Cheryl Austin, the murder victim, a lost girl, a prostitute, and a sexual deviant. There is Peter Smith’s wife, a career obsessive who is a lousy, neglectful mother17. I do not think any of these choices were made arbitrarily, but are all well thought out details of the book’s vision. This is especially so with the book’s cultural guide and lode star, John Connor.

The beginning and end of most discussion of this character is that it is a take on a well-known Scottish movie star – a Scottish movie star whom Crichton had written about already with fondness and admiration18. The movie does the most obvious thing and casts this very actor in the part, one of two times the film makes this brazen move – the other is having Cheryl Austin, described as a “Tatjana [Patitz] lookalike”, played by the lookedalike herself19. The casting is both a smart move – I don’t think any movie has suffered from having Sean Connery in it – while missing a crucial aspect. The Connor of the book can only be an American, speaking for the country and its interests. The book portrays a conflict with Japan in binary terms, and in the terms of the paranoid conspiracist – America is a conquered world and there is nothing outside the world. Each time any trade conflict is cited, whether it be the Toshiba sale of propeller silencing technology to the former Soviet Union, or the aborted sale of Fairchild Electronics to Fujitsu, all foreign parties are carefully cleaved out, so that it is a fight between just the U.S. and Japan20. Introducing a larger context to any conspiracist portrait ultimately destroys it – for anyone with an okay knowledge of history, whatever their ideology, Glenn Beck’s screeds hold no allure. Similarly, a Scottish policeman, a hint of a world outside America, immediately demolishes the paranoid vision of Rising Sun, just as a sympathetic alien character from a Jovian moon showing up in the story of War of the Worlds would destroy its dynamic, which must remain binary and simple: the mysterious, cruel alien invaders versus us. Just as importantly, any discussion which focuses only on the connections between Connery and Connor misses a crucial point: Connor may have many of the magnetic qualities of his near namesake, but Connor is far more another man, and that is Michael Crichton.

It is not so simple as Connor often serving as a mouthpiece for Crichton’s opinions on trade between Japan and the United States, though there is that. Despite the often banal characterization in Crichton’s books, where people exist for the purposes of plot or the book’s explicit message, Connor is a fascinating man both in the novel and the movie thanks to a strange twist that is due very much to Crichton’s own perspective. He is a man well versed in Japanese culture, fluent in Japanese (I have read that Connor’s Japanese in the movie, however, is terrible), knowledgeable in obscure L.A. sushi stands, who knows that Kôichi Nishi is a character in The Bad Sleep Well – all this and he still considers the Japanese an enemy21. In the context of the metaphor of an alien invasion, Connor is a half-vampire fighting a vampire planet, yet also, and here is the twist, a half vampire who wishes America to be more like this very vampire planet he is fighting. When Nathan Rabin gave a dismissive re-look of this movie, “The once-controversial Rising Sun”, there was this nasty kiss-off to the writer’s work: “At its reactionary worst, Crichton’s output is singularly loathsome, a toxic, Ayn Randian combination of bad ideas tethered to worse storytelling”. Rabin, a keen eyed and witty writer, is likely correct in every part of his dismissal except one – Crichton’s ideal here is not Ayn Randian. Crichton does not wish America to return to some free market paradise to counter the collaboration of Japanese corporations and government; he wishes it to be more like its enemy. Throughout the novel we are shown a system in decay, with broken roads, hospitals filled with the victims of gang violence, police departments clogged with lunatics who’ve been tossed out on the street22. These are not a result of the fettering of the private sector, but the result of a loss of a common stake in a shared space, the kind of thing that would be considered unacceptable and shameful in Japan. The house party which takes place in a gated community guarded by its own private security is not a happy victory for capitalism, as it would be for an Ayn Randian, but a marker of American collapse23. Connor notes with regret all the constraints the police now have in questioning a suspect – no Ayn Rand anti-statist would take this attitude24. Senator Morton speaks passionately of the sclerosis in middle class incomes as a major issue, an issue for which the Ayn Randians are notorious for their callous indifference25. In an interview promoting the book, Crichton argued for the need for gun control and public health care; these sentiments are consistent with Rising Sun and John Connor, as well as being obviously anti-Ayn Randian and anti-libertarian26. So, when Crichton says that he admires and respects the Japanese he is not being disingenuous, though he leaves out an obvious element very much in the book: he believes trade is war, and America is at war with Japan27.

The image that most came to my mind of what John Connor wants, what Michael Crichton wants, is for America to be a modern day Sparta, its energy devoted to economic, rather than military, war. This, it might be argued, is what modern day Japan represents to Connor and Crichton as well, an entire society mobilized towards a single goal. The irony, for me, is that while Connor has no difficulty portraying the Japanese in the worst possible way, the Japan Connor wishes America to be more like is an ideal Japan rather than the actual Japan itself. This is not a case of my own opinion versus that of Crichton’s, it is a case of one of the books that he cites in Rising Sun‘s bibliography: The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel Van Wolferen. The novel presents the Japanese as a single massed entity, a perfectly disciplined stealth power that works in concert for the benefit of the greater Japanese family. Van Wolferen’s book gives us an entirely different vision, of a dysfunctional System (the capitalization is Van Wolferen’s) of no central power where the government has been captured by a few corporations28. Where in the United States there are oversize state investments in defense, you have the equivalent in Japan with the construction industry. The massive projects in both industries serve not their ostensible purpose, but exist solely to pass money from the state to the business. What is eerie when reading Van Wolferen’s rather old book (it came out a few years before Rising Sun), is that the System Van Wolferen describes, where the state is subservient to a few corporate interests, where the press is often a sea of banalities, where there are shifts in political parties yet any regulation or reform is stymied out of sight by these same corporate interests – is that one is reading not about Japan, but the United States29. This is not to say that many of the things Crichton envies are false – the low crime rate, the low murder rate, the superior public infrastructure, the far better health system – it is that they co-exist with a dysfunctionality that is at the heart of the country’s problems with deflation and its lost years, mirroring the dysfunction that has resulted in the same lost years in the United States.

A trade conflict that is presented as an alien invasion is one side of this book’s strange power; the other are the visions by which the detectives are able to solve the murders. This is the digital video from corporate surveillance cameras giving Connor and Smith secret images of sex and death. The book’s descriptions of this footage – of the camera automatically tracking points of movement, of the images flickering through with rapid speed during periods of inactivity, of a mysterious figure moving through the shadows and his face only caught in a reflection – are easily the best writing of the novel, and the movie does not come close to conveying their strange beauty30. The closed camera footage of the movie feels dated, while those of the book don’t feel dated at all.

That they are unrooted to the time and technology of the book’s writing is because they approach the quality of a mystic vision, which is intertwined with their eerie attraction. That they have this quality is not, I think, accidental; given Crichton’s public image, a reader might think the place given to the video technology comes out of Crichton’s early and lifelong enthusiasm for computers. I see these images through a different lens, coming from an entirely different set of experiences of Crichton’s, which are often downplayed and which I had no knowledge of until recently. They form a large part of Crichton’s only collection of non-fiction, Travels. Though these essays deal with many of the wanderings of Crichton that are geographic, a good half or more of the episodes deal with excursions into what might be called the spiritual or occult. These involve hallucinations, telepathy, telekinesis (spoon bending), and soothsaying. The book ends not with Crichton denying these experiences, but presenting a hypothetical speech where he advocates for research into this field. I describe these experiences as mystic, though Crichton views them as experiences that grow out of a structure that might be modeled, a structure still hidden due to lack of investigation but with as much of a formal order as any physics.

The visions which Crichton relates in this book are its best parts, and they carry the same eerie beauty as the visions of Rising Sun. He goes to see an old fortune teller who suddenly exclaims “What on earth do you do for work?“, when she is seized by a strange image of Crichton in a room filled with wheels that roll with dark snakes – it’s Crichton at work editing a movie31. He puzzles over what visions are true and what are false, and which might be a simple con, however real they might seem, manufactured by the soothsayer. This is the very investigation that Connor and Smith must make, as they are given a series of images all seemingly real, through which only the smallest of details reveal the false ones.

We have then a book that is presented as ostensibly one thing, a corporate thriller involving advanced technology and trade policy, which suggests a rational and grounded novel, when it is nothing of the kind. It is a book about an alien invasion, where the detectives learn of the killer through something akin to mystic visions, a novel that might be likened to a paranoid conspiracy tract where the path to truth is guided by episodes of the occult. That the movie has less presence than the book, is far more generic, is because it loses the book’s madness, a madness that is both toxic and fascinating. There are critiques of Japanese trade policy, but there is no longer an alien invasion. There are surveillance tapes, but this is simple video footage, no magical seering. Crichton may be writing popular fiction, but the madness of his fiction is his own, not an attempt to sate anyone else’s appetites, and he takes his fiction world seriously. Kaufman doesn’t take Crichton’s fiction seriously at all, and throws various wrenches and eye rolls at the works, the movie’s end a nasty sneer at the book, at Crichton, and at the movie it’s supposed to be.

Where the book is told entirely from the perspective of Smith, giving us the perfect setting for the political paranoid, a viewpoint that never moves outside a single mind, the movie shatters this immediately. The opening is Eddie together with Cheryl, alive. The first frames place us both in Japan and America at once, as we move through a movie that Sakamura has shot with himself as hero, a re-creation of both Yojimbo and its re-make A Fistful of Dollars, the movie’s thesis that a heterogeneity of culture and a heterogeneous world is ideal, not one of the future, but one already in existence. This continues on as Rising Sun ends up both an American and Japanese movie at once. We have the screen wipes of Kurosawa, that everyone now associates with the American Star Wars films, which also took some ideas from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, and whose director, George Lucas, would produce Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. The score is by Tôru Takemitsu, the Japanese composer best known for his work with Kurosawa. Smith is now an expert in karate. Where detective Graham, the man clearly opposed to all this cross pollination, was a good cop in the book whose racism was rooted in the Japanese torture of his father during the war32, he is now clearly one of the villains, helping the yakuza kill Eddie Sakamura.

A compilation of movie references in the first two minutes: the insects of The Wild Bunch, the dog with the hand from Yojimbo, the cheroot smoking hero from Fistful of Dollars, the femme fatale in the black dress in Gilda.

The race of Peter (now Webster) Smith has been changed, but he’s also been made from a blindly obedient supplicant to a constantly questioning Watson. The change in race also makes at least some of the reactionary speeches impossible. In the novel, Theresa tells Smith that Americans have no idea what it feels like to be excluded from the larger group, while Connor complains that the Japanese are the most racist people on earth, that when in Japan he felt like a nigger33. It’s impossible to conceive of these speeches being said to a black American without it ending up not only ridiculous, but deeply offensive; impossible not to imagine a reply which questions the certainty of Connor and Theresa in all things American and Japanese. Eddie Sakamura has been made more mysterious, a wealthy playboy who should belong everywhere but perhaps feels like an alien in both worlds of the United States and Japan. We never figure out this character, why he pimps out his girlfriend but also is willing to die in order to save the lives of Connor and Smith. In the novel, the answer is simple: he’s a drug addicted louse. For the film, the problem is not that he is a man of contradictions, but that these contradictions exist in a blank.

That Sakamura cannot be made into an actual character perhaps demonstrates the limits of what can be re-made from Crichton’s original conceptions, where the people are simply devices and nothing else. Kaufman can play with these characters by putting them in different contexts, changing traits and names which gives entirely different nuances to the movie, but still do not give any depths to them. Smith now knows karate and Sakamura gives his life to save the detectives, but they remain hints of more fascinating characters. Smith, especially, hints at this – he resents Connor’s patronizing, he feels more alienated from American society than this white foreigner, but he also looks on the Japanese with contempt, and feels a fraternity with Graham not just because they’ve been partners, but because he shares his views. At his best, Kaufman adds a few extra notes which give a complexity to the scene, though not the characters. Sakamura treats Cheryl like an object, the movie’s opening is shaped to bait us to hate Sakamura for this crime, but the bait is poisoned: Cheryl lounges nude, and we the viewers look on her as an object as well. Sakamura freely sleeps with white women, transgressing a color line that is there for Smith as well, and this is played with effectively. Cheryl’s roommate looks seductively on Smith, and we’re uncertain if the attraction is genuine or string-pulling by those behind the murder. In the car, Connor chides Smith for being seduced, Smith denies that he felt anything, and perhaps he hates the fact that this moment meant anything to him.

Later, Smith is shot, the impact blocked by his bulletproof vest, but still strong enough to knock him down, and he falls unconscious; we have his perspective as he floats towards Cheryl calling his name, and it is a moment where he has passed into a spirit netherworld, but it also a sexual fantasy, and a moment where all racial lines have disappeared.

In the book, some of the most inflammatory material is given to the half-Japanese half-African American Theresa Asakuma – this device of giving the most offensive material over to a minority female is done in Disclosure as well, that time with a part Cuban female attorney34. It’s a fairly transparent strategy, and as a side note, is often employed by the contemporary GOP, with toxic arrows slung by Michelle Bachmann or Allan West, as if their gender or skin grants them some immunity. Kaufman chucks most of her material, and perhaps as a riposte to Crichton, the name of this character who spoke all this jingoistic material is now Jingo Asakuma. Where in the novel Asakuma’s defect is a symbol of the impossibility of these two cultures intermixing, in the movie it is simply there, of no weight or consequence. Asakuma is a flawed beauty, yet nothing in her pose or manner reflects this flaw – she has all the invulnerable confidence of a gorgeous woman. Her major importance is in the movie’s ending, entirely different from the book, and which, as said, entirely changes the story.

The book has Ishiguro commit suicide after he is fingered for the murder, his body eventually retrieved from some wet concrete. Again, this scene is more effective in the novel, with Smith and Connor waiting outside and looking through the glass at the meeting room as slowly, very slowly, various people excuse themselves, until Ishiguro is left entirely alone, and aware that he is caught35. The movie, of course, has Smith and Connor in the same room as the office mates of Ishihara (another renaming) move away, far more rapidly, and the effect is ridiculous, a kind of “National Geographic: Japanese Salaryman” edition. The killer turns out not to be Ishihara, but the trade rep, Bob Richmond, who is killed by yakuza friends of Sakamura, his body disappearing in the concrete before it can be removed. The book ends soon afterwards, with Connor leaving Smith at his house, a despondent but wiser man, now at least with the outline of the enemy he must fight, though the enemy is nearly victorious36.

The movie ends in a way that is entirely different, a joke on the early line about Americans and their short attention span “fragmented MTV, rap-video culture culture”. There is a moment between Connor and Smith where the senior detective says “The key…”, and Smith starts to give a possible answer as if it were a mystic riddle, but no, Connor is just asking for the car keys. It is all deliberately like an old cop show where the murder has a simple solution, there is a simple answer to be extracted, and there is a kidding joke about the qualities of the main characters, the wise sensei and his quizzical deputy. We realize how what we’ve seen so closely resembles such old TV shows, and what follows is a send-up of their easy answers and the short attention span expected of their viewers. Connor drives off with the head of the Nakamoto corporation, Yoshida-san, a man for whom he has done favors in the past, and together they’ll be playing their regular game of golf. Connor says he’ll be helping out his old friend again, to attempt to find some way for Nakamoto to extricate itself from the MicroCon deal. Smith drives with Asakuma, and they have a strange dialogue which appears nowhere in the novel:

SMITH
Well, thanks to your help, we were able to find out who did it.

ASAKUMA
Did you?

SMITH
Did we what?

ASAKUMA
Find out?

SMITH
Find out? You mean who did it? Come on!

ASAKUMA
You know in Japan, the one who confesses to the murder…doesn’t have to be the one that did it. It’s an old tradition that, out of loyalty…an innocent man will take the rap for his boss. It’s his duty.

SMITH
That’s not what happened here. That Richmond guy would have done anything to make that deal go through. He was working with Ishihara. A yuppie facilitator, a hustling business samurai. Wave of the future.

ASAKUMA
If you say so.

SMITH
If I say so? Look, I’m a cop. It’s my business to know these things. Besides…what about Connor?

ASAKUMA
What about him?

SMITH
The guy’s always right.

ASAKUMA
If you say so.

SMITH
Did I say something to anger you?

ASAKUMA
No, nothing you said.

SMITH
Then, what is it?

ASAKUMA
Golf.

SMITH
Golf? I don’t get it.

Now, as always when confronted with the cryptic like this, I ask: what the hell is Jingo Asakuma talking about? The person who gave the orders to have Cheryl killed, she implies, has gotten away, letting Ishihara and Richmond to take the fall – the latter more literally than the other. Then we have the bizarre exchange: “Then, what is it?” “Golf.” “Golf? I don’t get it.” The killer who got away has something to do with a golf game, and, of course, the only major characters who we see play this are Connor and Yoshida-san.

I now remind the reader of an obvious plot point in both book and movie, that the man who Cheryl is having an affair with is revealed through his reflection, first the false image of Sakamura, and then the actual image of Senator Morton. That the secret to the movie is a reflection seen is emphasized by the revelation of Cheryl’s death seen as a reflection in Asakuma’s glasses. The first time we see Connor and Yoshida-san together is at their golf game, a cut from one close-up to another, as if one face reflects the other.

The next time we see them together is at a teahouse, a scene which has a very, very strange quality without context: the two men move exactly in tandem, as if mirror images of each other.

Note that Connor sits on Yoshida-san’s right: he is perhaps his right-hand man. We might go back to another detail, very much changed from the book. There, the shadow force of the Japanese offers bribes to both detectives, a house on sale for Smith and a golf membership for Connor. Both men eventually refuse the gifts because they know it is in exchange for ending their investigation37. The movie changes this, with only Connor given this gift, which, according to him, is not a bribe, but an essential part of his relations with the Japanese. Smith replies, “Well, I guess that makes everything all white now, doesn’t it?”38

Since the viewers and the characters have short attention spans, the moment is forgotten entirely when the mystery is resolved. Unlike in the novel, Jingo Asakuma is clearly Connor’s girlfriend; in another change from the book, she is in his apartment at the beginning of the film. The original scheme involved Eddie Sakamura handing off his girlfriend, Cheryl, to Senator Morton, for the purposes of blackmail. This movie’s end parallels this beginning, with Connor handing off his girlfriend to Smith, for what purpose? As a bribe, as a distraction, part of a larger plan?

I give the last exchange between Smith and Asakuma from the movie:

SMITH
Wait a minute. There’s some things here I don’t understand.

ASAKUMA
Yes. Goodbye, kohai.

SMITH
No, no! Now, look. I mean, the guy, he’s playing golf now. You and me, we’re alone. And…(sighs) I know. They say loyalty is important. It all comes down to who you trust. Wait a minute. When he said that line about uh…”Always leave the cage door open so the bird can return”…what the hell does that mean anyway?

ASAKUMA
Who knows? When you figure it out, Web,…let me know.

We, the audience might interpret the line about leaving the cage door open to have something to do with Asakuma now leaving the door open to the building; but I don’t think that’s exactly it. I think it’s very much a case of how the viewer is given a way to see this story and the characters, the simplest one that accords with the conventions of the TV detective show – the mystery has been solved, the murderer has in turn been killed, and now we have a bunch of enigmatic dialogue to add proper flavor to a story with a Japanese American setting. This is the cage, from which we might escape, but which we, the attention span challenged viewer, will be allowed to return to if we find the alternative too discomfiting. Because the alternative is very disturbing, with Asakuma and the movie giving us all the clues. The person behind the entire plot was Yoshida-san, and John Connor, his right hand man, has helped him cover it up. Note that Connor thinks it an excellent idea to send proof of Morton’s affair to the senator, thus triggering his suicide. This is very different from the novel, where Morton commits suicide for honorable reasons, because he does not wish to be blackmailed into changing his position on the Nakamoto-MicroCon merger, and this suicide is something that neither Connor nor Smith want39. The explanation given for their action is “We beat the grass to startle the snakes”, but what the hell does that mean in this context? What does their investigation gain by doing this? It gains them nothing, but it perhaps gives something to Connor and Yoshida-san: they get rid of a witness who might say how he met Cheryl, thus connecting Yoshida-san to the plot. Note also that when they chase Richmond and they are delayed by the yakuza, Connor lets Smith keep fighting long after he himself has stopped and figured out that it’s a feint, resulting in Richmond’s death, another connecting witness gone.

We might take this thinking to the furthest possible extent. The night Eddie is killed, we see him surrounded by yakuza but he is able to hold his own, and when we last see him alive, he has the upper hand. Smith and Connor have split up, and Smith arrives to help out Eddie, only to find him dead, his throat neatly cut, as if at close range. Smith rises to shoot at the departing yakuza, when he is hit by bullets from behind. Who could this be? The yakuza are all already in the car. Immediately after Smith falls, Connor shows up, from behind Smith. Shouldn’t we hear Connor try to stop Smith’s shooter, maybe shoot at him, if they’re passing each other through the same space and so close to each other? Connor fires once at the fleeing car, and the most terrible possibility I lay out is this: Connor helped kill Sakamura, then moved back into the shadows to make sure the yakuza got away without being questioned, and when Smith got ready to shoot at the yakuza, knocked his own partner down to make sure they got away, finally giving a show of firing at the car but aiming nowhere near it, or firing his gun after the car had driven away. I add that there is no evidence of that possibility, except for the absurdity of the situation as it’s presented to us.

Notice that Smith, in the movie as opposed to the book, is left with nothing by the story’s end: he remains suspended from the force and he’s lost visiting privileges with his kid. That he is happy at the end, despite this, is because the movie follows the contours of an old TV detective show, where all the major characters must end in a state of happiness, whatever the actual events they’ve experienced.

The cage itself is a delusion, one which Smith is given the possibility to enter again, to enjoy the comfortable delusion of an affair with this woman, handed off as a distraction just as Sakamura employed his girlfriend for his own purposes. The movie ends with an open door, and a choice in how to see what has just taken place. “Besides,… what about Connor?” asks Smith, “What about him?” replies Asakuma, and then the exchange goes: “The guy’s always right”, to which Asakuma gives the sarcastic reply: “If you say so.” The position he is supposed to have in the book and the movie, the truth telling hero, is not how she sees him at all. It is, I think, Kaufman’s own sneering take on this kind of movie and Crichton himself. This story itself is a distraction, a part of short attention span culture, positing an enemy outside as a distraction from the man who held the strings. Connor, the voice of Crichton, the ostensible guide, is a false one, just another power behind the throne pointing to the rogue on-stage, the enemy without, to keep us from looking at him as he truly is, the enemy within.

DEMI MOORE’S BODY: A DIGRESSION

The only Michael Crichton movie that might be easily grouped with Rising Sun is Disclosure. Both are set in a world that requires no new scientific discoveries, no science that is fantastic – the virtual record room of Disclosure and the video editing of Rising Sun, are both now plausible, their implementations in these movies now archaic. They might be considered to be part of an unacknowledged genre, stealth cyberpunk, mainstream drama whose plots hinge crucially around heretofore unknown computer technology. Though the necessary role new technology plays in these movies is obvious, they are tellingly not classed with cyberpunk because this same technology has become so common as to be mundane. Both movies were far more successful than explicitly cyberpunk movies like Johnny Mnemonic, The Net, or Hackers, which treated this same technology as if it were some exotic aspect of life, rather than an aspect so innate as to be almost congenital. That they were so successful is arguably because a more casual approach to this technology ultimately felt the truer one, treating it not as an exotic circus, not a portent of a future world to come, but a mundane instrument that overlaps all activities, as it does now.

Both books on which they’re based on are polemical works. In the case of their movie adaptations, I imagine Crichton as a kind of Jigsaw, who’s trapped a talented director in a filthy bathroom, handcuffed to his work, forced to choose how much of the novel and how much of himself he’ll chainsaw off in order to produce something that isn’t toxic garbage. Kaufman gets out of the bind by making a movie which makes fun of the movie itself and the book it’s based on, turning its lecturing hero into one of the villain conspirators. One can at least perceive an actual relevant issue underlying Rising Sun, the U.S.-Japan trade deficit, while no such issue exists in the other novel.

One root of the book might be the essay “They” from Travels, written in the 1980s during yet another tumult over gender roles which posits the following thesis: “The best way to think about men and women is to assume there are no differences between them.”40 The theory is stated without qualifier, and no woman is allowed into the essay to offer dissent. That women can talk as explicitly about sex as men, that they have fuck buddies just as men do is the ample proof offered in support of the idea. Without getting into the contentious matter of whether men and women approach sex in the same way, it’s a strange approach to the issue – as if the only thing to talk about women in relationship to society is sexual activity, and nothing else. It is one of those ideas that Crichton seems to have been magnetised by, without giving it any skeptical examination whatsoever. Another notion he presents in Travels is the following: “We cause our diseases. We are directly responsible for any illness that happens to us.”41 This strikes me, and might most people, as utterly ridiculous. We no doubt put ourselves at risk of cancer if we smoke, at risk of diabetes and heart attacks if we eat nothing but junk food, but any illness? The cancers caused by toxins in water that we didn’t know were there, the congenital diseases of small children, the virii transmitted through every day casual encounters?

That men and women are entirely equal is one possibility to explain a sexual discrimination story where the genders are reversed, and a gorgeous woman harasses a man. That the situation becomes ridiculous, that despite Crichton’s insistence you cannot treat the genders as entirely the same, has been noted by many – most hilariously by the late comedian Robert Schimmel42. That the harassment issue is simply a ploy in a larger corporate plot is, I think, irrelevant – the book treats the idea of such harassment very seriously, and very much a legitimate issue, arguing that with the rise of women in the workplace you’ll see a corresponding rise in such harassment of men by women. This is intertwined with the second basis for the book’s focus, though I have no doubt Crichton would have denied it: the writer has a hang-up about what might be called sexually aggressive or sexually forward women.

Cheryl Austin of Rising Sun is such a woman, and she is described as a demon and insane. She likes being hurt and choked to the point of near death43. A trait indicating that Jennifer Malone is Airframe‘s villain is that she likes casual sex. At the end of the book, she is rocked about in an airplane craft to the point of vomiting44. Meredith Johnson, of Disclosure, is nicknamed the “manmuncher” in the book, a woman with many bedpartners, who speaks clinically of a past lover’s penis while in bed with another man45. She is a manipulative, self-pitying bitch who, when the corporate ploy fails, compares it to being raped46. In both Airframe and Disclosure, the single, sexually voracious women are defeated by mothers with children. In Rising Sun, Peter Smith’s wife is one of his opponents, and it’s made clear that she’s a disgrace as a mother47. This, I should emphasize, has nothing to do with Crichton’s own overall attitude about sex or promiscuous sex; again from Travels, we have “Psychiatry”, where he writes of a period of singlehood in Los Angeles: “Later I began to get interested in my secretary, a cute blonde with large breasts. I’d never been involved with a large-breasted girl before.”48 One instance of the sexual woman as the enemy is a plot point; twice is a lack of imagination; three or more, and I think it’s a pathology. And I believe in this case, Crichton is correct when he writes of pathologies and personal responsibility.

Kaufman perhaps makes fun of this fear in a moment from Rising Sun, when the police raid Eddie Sakamura’s house and run into two of his girls. In the book, the nude women are still there, the heavy firepower and the drawn guns are not:

Barry Levinson and Paul Attanasio, the director and writer of Disclosure, attempt to transform Crichton’s screed into a more ambiguous piece on cutthroat corporate in-fighting. In the novel, we are given, without irony, the story of Tom Sanders persecuted after he accuses a beautiful woman of sexual harassment. When Tom Sanders speaks in the movie of his persecution because he’s a member of the white patriarchy, his wife looks at him like he’s out of his mind. His wife does not wish him to press his legal case, arguing that there are certain things that you just have to abide – the implication being that there are far more things that women have to abide than men, whatever Crichton thinks of the lack of differences in gender. Where Crichton always has plenty of wrath for those who focus on images and the tabloidization of culture, the movie re-makes Tom Sanders’ idealistic attorney into a camera hungry one, her constant TV appearances a running joke. She is simply a very expensive, very good lawyer, something different from whether her point of view is morally just or not. Though they introduce ambiguity, Levinson and Attanasio do not divorce themselves from the material entirely – they hold onto the central scene in the office which lets us see what actually happened, rather than keeping us off kilter over who is right and who is wrong.

These are some ways the material is transformed, and another is by casting Demi Moore as Meredith Johnson. To the extent that anyone can be conveyed in a celebrity profile, it might be learned that she is someone who arose from very difficult circumstances to extraordinary wealth49. That she must have had a fierce will to do so goes without question, and that she may have had to be incredibly tough to pull it off goes without question as well. Yet if one looks at the best known movies from her career peak – A Few Good Men, Ghost, Indecent Proposal, Striptease – she does not play parts with these qualities at all, but rather, victim women, weak women. There are only two roles where she gets to display the same qualities she has in life, with one of them Disclosure, and here she’s the villain. The movie ends up more of a paradox then it sets out to be, because Meredith Johnson, as played by Moore, might be the enemy but she more fully embodies the corporate ideal than anyone else there. You can’t conceive of why such a driven woman would ever have hooked up with a dope like Sanders in the first place. She is stronger, more steely, more canny than anyone else, and that the win has to go to Tom Sanders feels like a fixed zebra: of course, Sanders has to win, though we know well that in real life he’d lose. “She could kick both our asses,” says Sanders to a friend, and we don’t doubt it. She has all the qualities that society wants in a corporate executive, all the qualities that might attract a man, yet we cannot admit to the attraction of these qualities, and so she must be the enemy. We want these things, yet we cannot be seen wanting these things, and this is the very thing that takes place in the movie, with Tom Sanders starting to have sex with her before he catches sight of his reflection, and stops.

That Johnson has such presence, that Moore is so convincing in this role, is perhaps because many of Johnson’s qualities are her own. The character gives a speech during a mediation hearing which is most definitely not in the book, and which the other characters cannot entirely absorb, as if they’re caught off guard by a villain who might be manipulating them, but whose manipulations cut so close to the truth. The speech is too complex for the movie to absorb either, and it is something like Shylock’s speeches, which ultimately break the conceit, forcing us to re-see the villain, and the very conceit that they’re the villain. Because it is larger and more complicated than the movie which contains it, the speech feels like it belongs not just to the character, but to Moore as well. The speech is as follows:

You wanna put me on trial here? Let’s at least be honest about what it’s for! I am a sexually aggressive woman. I like it. Tom knew it, and you can’t handle it. It is the same damn thing since the beginning of time. Veil it, hide it, lock it up and throw away the key. We expect a woman to do a man’s job, make a man’s money, and then walk around with a parasol and lie down for a man to fuck her like it was still a hundred years ago? Well, no thank you.

Johnson is defined by her body, and Moore’s career has been defined by her body as well. Indecent Proposal had it sold as property, Striptease had it bared, it was one kind of weapon in Disclosure, and another kind in G.I. Jane. Her first burst of superstardom might be linked to Ghost, but it might also be to her nude appearance on Vanity Fair, first pregnant, then a year later in astonishing post-pregnant form, clothed only in body paint. Moore is physically exposed utterly in both covers, while revealing nothing. I only learned of the difficulties of her early life while researching this post, and was completely gobsmacked on discovering them: she has the confident pose, in her movies and in these famous photos, of someone born to privilege. When thinking about how only a physical truth is conveyed about the subject – Moore looks great pregnant, Moore looks great in body paint – I was reminded that I’d once read “What Celebrity Looks Like: The Annie Leibovitz Aesthetic” by Gina Bellafante, and in the context of these pictures and my limited memory of Leibovitz’s work, I thought its thesis very sound. Her photos, though memorable and technically superb, reveal nothing of the subjects, but only give us a tautology of fame and power. Moore is powerful, and that is why this photo is taken, this photo which makes obvious her body perfection even at seven months pregnancy, and this perfection makes clear her power, which is why this photo was taken. We might also take some very false lessons from such pictures as well: Moore reveals nothing, even when all that she has on is body paint, because she has no vulnerabilities, and therefore is invulnerable.

Moore is often an erotic figure, this eroticism a central point and a selling point of many of the mentioned movies, yet it’s not a casual eroticism. The famously husky voice is accompanied not just by a beautiful body, but one which appears sculpted into a hard, unbreakable machine – her very will in every taut inch of it. You could liken it to those of past female beauties, but it was far more akin to those of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the body as irrefutable evidence of the star’s drive and power. Yet given this ever present eroticism, there is something striking about the movies Demi Moore made at this time: she is erotic, yet it is eroticism alone. In Ghost, her husband is dead. A Few Good Men has her devoted entirely to her work as a military lawyer. Indecent Proposal has her with a weak husband and a man who wants to buy her favors. In Disclosure, she’s trying to force a man to have sex with her (I have a low quota of exclamation marks, and this is the space where I would use them all) as part of a larger corporate game, while Striptease has her as a single mom surrounded by buffoons. It is a less complicated sexuality, one unentangled with the desire of someone her character might be equally in thrall with. Her erotic appeal is solely for the man off-screen looking on, rather than any enraptured and enrapturing co-star by her side.

I emphasize that it is a man looking on, because Moore never seemed to attract a sizable female audience. Her story of rising from difficult circumstances to wealth and fame should have made her a female heroic ideal, just as Stallone and Schwarzenegger were heroic ideals for men (Moore’s beginnings, in my opinion, were more trying than theirs), yet this was not the case. The casual geniality, openness, and I-couldn’t-give-a-shit that some stars can affect so well, whether it be Schwarzenegger or Jennifer Lawrence, she could not. She played single moms and women vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a world of men, and you can imagine her seeing herself as these characters – I wasn’t born on a fucking throne, okay? I could have been these people, I am these people. But women didn’t believe her50. That she had women who disliked her was an excuse to give way to an uglier feeling – just as it has recently with Anne Hathaway. She would be listed among the conspirators in “The Great Bimbo Conspiracy” (NSFW) by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, though you had to be more than a little sharp and more than a little tough to get to the multimillion peak in Hollywood. This same feature opened with nude photos out of an old photoshoot from early in her career, as if these were part of the indictment – though Schwarzenegger and Sean Connery also did nude work early on. You could take issue with the projects she chose, but she could say in return, I wanted big money roles and what were my other choices? “Women are our own worst enemy most of the time,” Janeane Garofolo would be quoted as saying, “Of course men like looking at Jamie Lee Curtis in her underwear. But until we say, “I’m not going to dance in my underwear,” nothing’s going to change.” Garofolo would later take a part in the reactionary pro-torture 24, and she could ask the same question: what were my other choices?

So much of what I’ve tried to write about here culminates in the last of the movies of this part of her career, G.I. Jane. It was the last film she did before a hiatus, a movie that marks the end of one phase of her career which also feels like a portent of the future. It was made after Striptease, a small comedy about Florida corruption burdened by the fact that Moore actually took off her clothes during the dance scenes. This was an event treated with the publicity equivalent to the unveiling of a public monument – which perhaps it was. Where Striptease was light, G.I. Jane is heavy. Where the Vanity Fair covers are a tautology of power – the person on the cover is powerful because they are on the cover, Jane is a kind of tautology of importance – it’s important because every moment is designed to demonstrate its importance. The film’s opening is framed with elements that suggest something of pressing significance, overhead shots of the Capitol and a beating, ominous score, perhaps leading up to a piece of daring espionage or high level chicanery – but no, it’s just one of the least exciting spectacles on the planet, a Senate Committee hearing. As a side note, the music continues on like this, never building, always short bursts made up of elements of the “War is Serious Shit, Yo” toolkit – a noble horn, warrior chants, ominous drums. You’re certain that CNN or FOX have borrowed this movie’s music for their own world crisis programming, and it could no doubt serve as a good background track for a self-important youtube confessional, or its parody: “My Girlfriend: Relationship on the Brink”.

The story, about an attempt to integrate the military by having a woman join the Navy SEALs, lacks any actual excitement or tension because it is entirely unrooted from the real. There are scenes involving an obstacle course and a training mission which feature stunning production that doubtless required incredible effort, but are reduced to a clutter of incoherent images. The movie seems designed for an audience that it believes no longer wants stories, just pavlovian cues. The unwatchable scene in Rising Sun where Connor and Smith get rid of a tail by driving through a ghetto makes you briefly doubt the abilities of Philip Kaufman; the entire movie of G.I. Jane makes you doubt Ridley Scott’s as well, for a lot longer51. The only thing to emerge from the movie is Moore herself, and the only sense you can make out of the mess of images is a metaphor for Moore in Hollywood.

The extraordinary will that was implied by her body in other roles is explicit here, a creature whose ambition cannot be broken, will not be broken; she will make herself into a piece of iron to get what she wants. The writers do not give sufficient grounding for this character’s own drive, why being a Navy SEAL is so important to her, so the fierce drive becomes entirely Moore’s. The movie becomes about a determined woman thrown in a world of men, Demi Moore in Hollywood, negotiating with a mass of male anger and hunger to get what she herself wants. She has a boyfriend in this film, but their relationship is barely felt – other than a scene where they’re together in a bathtub, there’s nothing to suggest that he’s anything other than a distant associate. She has a far stronger connection with the Master Chief, a sadistic disciplinarian whose sadism always has the excuse of instructive purpose. By the film’s end, he has given her his most precious memento, a war ribbon, and she has such a strong connection with him that she can intuit what path he’ll travel to escape from an enemy. The crescendo of their relationship is a war game simulation where he beats her without mercy, hitting her in the face, throwing her against a wall, sinking her head in water till she chokes, until she finally fights back, breaking his nose and kicking him in the balls. Given that the movie feels like a series of disconnected attempts at reaction, I see the scene as an attempt to give the audience what they want, the narrative justifications an afterthought. It is something like the same dynamic of Disclosure: Demi Moore is a woman with all the qualities of beauty, confidence, ambition, and strength that we want, but we also hate her for it as well. Disclosure deals with this by making her into the villain; G.I. Jane deals with it by kicking the shit out of her.

Though I think it’s a fool’s game to find the pulse of a country from the novels and movies of a particular time, I play that game now. In the novel Rising Sun, it is implied several times that if Japan does not soon reform its trade policy, and if the U.S. leadership does not obey the popular will, the country might soon be driven to mad action. Senator Morton jokes about dropping another nuclear bomb, and Connor explains that such feeling arises out of the desire to do something when nothing is done52. Graham is full of anger at his country being taken over and wants payback53. Keep pulling our chain, you fuckers, the novel implies; just you wait. Though I think Crichton is sincere that the problem is first with America’s own policies, at no point is any of the local policy responsible for such things as crime, smog, or crumbling infrastructure ever raised. All these problems are connected with the external enemy, to be solved by seeing clearly that Japan is at war with the U.S., and that the U.S. must fight back. The tone of Jane is entirely martial, from the humorless portentous score that accompanies the ridiculous title to the unambiguous view that every cruelty the hero suffers is a necessary education, to the idea that her transformation into an anonymous weapon is an undoubtable achievement. The movie ends with the SEAL unit stumbling on a military mission, maybe Iran, maybe Iraq, but no – it’s off the coast of Libya. The purpose of the mission is never clear, but several people die, the Master Chief is wounded, then saved by the hero, for which she gets her medal.

All these things and others I’ve mentioned – the desire for a Sparta like America in Rising Sun, the focus on an outside enemy whatever the local problem in the same novel, photos of the powerful which reveal only power, Demi Moore’s body which has forceful discipline of a military machine and which finally plays exactly that, worship of that same body without the complications of sex or relationships, a movie that ends looking for a battle, any battle, that might complete the characters – all these things feel like a hunger for a war, a desire for a war that will annihilate this old order and its clutter of problems, giving birth to a new and better world. The body of G.I. Jane is made into gorgeous condition not for the petit mort of sex, but this great death, utter annihilation, pining for this simple great annihilation that will re-make all things, a great death that in 1997 was only six years away. Just you wait.

(Images from Rising Sun copyright Twentieth Century Fox. Images from G.I. Jane copyright Hollywood Pictures. Images from Disclosure copyright Warner Bros.)

(On October 4th, an edit was made fixing many things for aesthetic purposes and clarity. On April 12, 2015, this post underwent a session of copy editing. On May 21, 2015, the various gifs were added as supplements to ideas in the text. On May 29, 2015, the gif compiling the various film references was added.)

RISING SUN:

THE IMAGE OF THE DESIRED JAPANESE

PART ONE PART TWOPART THREEPART FOUR

FOOTNOTES

1 From Rising Sun, on the influence of the Japanese on the Los Angeles Times:

“I tell you, I can’t find out. But you know, the Japanese have a powerful influence at the paper. It’s more than just the ads they take. It’s more than their relentless PR machine drumming out of Washington, or the local lobbying and the campaign contributions to political figures and organizations. It’s the sum of all those things and more. And it’s starting to be insidious. I mean, you can be sitting around in a staff meeting discussing some article that we might run, and you suddenly realize, nobody wants to offend them. It isn’t a question of whether a story is right or wrong, news or not news. And it isn’t a one-to-one equation, like ‘We can’t say that or they’ll pull their ads.’ It’s more subtle than that. Sometimes I look at my editors, and I can tell they won’t go with certain stories because they are afraid. They don’t even know what they are afraid of. They’re just afraid.”

“So much for a free press.”

“Hey,” Ken said. “This is not the time for sophomore bullshit. You know how it works. The American press reports the prevailing opinion. The prevailing opinion is the opinion of the group in power. The Japanese are now in power. The press reports the prevailing opinion as usual. No surprises. Just take care.”

A conversation between Smith and Connor early on, about the influence the Japanese have over local TV stations:

“I want to look at some tape that was shot tonight.”

“Just look? Not subpoena?”

“Right. Just look.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I said. I was thinking I could call Jennifer Lewis at KNBC, or Bob Arthur at KCBS. Probably Bob.

Connor said, “It has to be somebody you can approach personally. Otherwise the stations won’t help us. You noticed there were no TV crews at the crime scene tonight. At most crime scenes, you have to fight your way past the cameras just to get to the tape. But tonight, no TV crews, no reporters. Nothing.”

I shrugged. “We were on land lines. The press couldn’t monitor radio transmissions.”

“They were already there,” Connor said, “covering the party with Tom Cruise and Madonna. And then a girl gets murdered on the floor above. So where were the TV crews?”

I said, “Captain, I don’t buy it.”

One of the things I learned as a press officer is that there aren’t any conspiracies. The press is too diverse, and in a sense too disorganized. In fact, on the rare occasions when we needed an embargo-like a kidnapping with ransom negotiations in progress-we had a hell of a time getting cooperation. “The paper closes early. The TV crews have to make the eleven o’clock news. They probably went back to edit their stories.”

“I disagree. I think the Japanese expressed concern about their kigyo – image, their company image, and the press cooperated with no coverage. Trust me, ko-hai: the pressure is being applied.”

2 From Rising Sun, Graham on the influence the Japanese have with the LAPD:

“And Christ they have juice now,” Graham said. “The heat on my ass is terrific. I got the chief calling me, wanting this thing wrapped up. I got some reporter at the Times investigating me, hauling out some old shit about a questionable use of force on a Hispanic back in 1978. Nothing to it. But this reporter, he’s trying to show I’ve always been a racist. And what is the background of his story? That last night was a ‘racist’ incident. So I am now an example of racism rearing its ugly head again. I tell you. The Japanese are masters of the smear job. It’s fucking scary.”

3 From Rising Sun, Graham on Japanese influence over the government:

“I don’t know,” Graham said, shifting his bulk. “Personally, I think it’s not worth it. They’re turning this country into another Japan. You’ve already got people afraid to speak. Afraid to say anything against them. People just won’t talk about what’s happening.”

“It would help if the government passed a few laws.”

Graham laughed. “The government. They own the government. You know what they spend in Washington every year? Four hundred million fucking dollars a year. That’s enough to pay the campaign costs of everybody in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. That is a lot of fucking money. Now you tell me. Would they spend all that money, year after year, if it wasn’t paying off for them? Of course they wouldn’t. Shit. The end of America, buddy. Hey. Looks like your boss wants you.”

4 From Rising Sun, a group of yakuza call Peter Smith after he gets off the phone with Connor about the tape:

Then it was quiet.

The phone rang again.

“Lieutenant,” the heavily accented voice said, “there is no need for backups.”

Christ, they were listening to the car phone.

“We want no harm, Lieutenant. We want only one thing. Will you be so kind, to bring the tape out to us?”

“I have the tape,” I said.

5 From Rising Sun:

Cole said, “What was that all about?”

“I just asked him what company he worked for,” Connor said. “But he didn’t want to talk. I guess he wanted to get back to his friends.” Connor ran his hands under the bar, feeling. “Feels clean.”

“Well,” Connor said. “You’ve been very helpful, Mr. Cole. We may want to question you again-”

“I’ll write down my phone number for you,” Cole said, scribbling on a bar napkin.

Outside, beneath the crackling neon sign, Connor said, “Come on, time is wasting.”

We got in the car. He handed me the bar napkin. On it was scrawled in block letters:

THEY STOLE THE TAPES

6 From Rising Sun:

“Sure. Listen, at the University of California at Irvine, there’s two floors of a research building that you can’t get into unless you have a Japanese passport. They’re doing research for Hitachi there. An American university closed to Americans.” Sanders swung around, waving his arms. “And around here, if something happens that they don’t like, it’s just a phone call from somebody to the president of the university, and what can he do? He can’t afford to piss the Japanese off. So whatever they want, they get. And if they want the lab closed, it’s closed.”

I said, “What about the tapes?”

“Everything is locked in there. They made us leave everything.”

“Really?”

“They were in a hell of a rush. It was gestapo stuff. Pushing and prodding us to get out. You can’t imagine the panic at an American university if it thinks it may lose some funding.” He sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe Theresa managed to take some tapes with her. You could ask her.”

7 From Rising Sun:

I remembered the Saturday meetings. On the video we had seen at the newsroom, Sakamura had grabbed Cheryl Austin and said: You don’t understand, this is all about the Saturday meetings.

“And did they tell you?”

Connor nodded. “Apparently they began a long time ago,” he said. “Nineteen eighty or so. First they were held in the Century Plaza, and later in the Sheraton, and finally in the Biltmore.”

“For several years, the meetings were a regular event. Prominent Japanese industrialists who happened to be in town would attend an ongoing discussion of what should be done about America. Of how the American economy should be managed.”

What?”

“Yes.”

“That’s outrageous!”

“Why?” Connor said.

Why? Because this is our country. You can’t have a bunch of foreigners sitting around in secret meetings and deciding how to manage it!”

“They decided to lend the money back to us. Our government was running a budget deficit, year after year. We weren’t paying for our own programs. So the Japanese financed our budget deficit. They invested in us. And they lent their money, based on certain assurances from our government. Washington assured the Japanese that we would set our house in order. We would cut our deficit. We would improve education, rebuild our infrastructure, even raise taxes if necessary. In short, we would clean up our act. Because only then does an investment in America make sense.”

8 From Rising Sun:

The pool lights were on outside. They cast a green rippling pattern on the ceiling. Connor went outside.

The body lay face down in the water, naked, floating in the center of the pool, a dark silhouette in the glowing green rectangle. Connor got a skimmer pole and pushed Eddie toward the far edge. We hauled him up onto the concrete lip.

The body was blue and cold, beginning to stiffen. He appeared unmarked.

“They would be careful about that,” Connor said.

“About what?”

“About not letting anything show. But I’m sure we can find the proofs …” He got out his penlight and peered inside Eddie’s mouth. He inspected the nipples, and the genitals. “Yes. There. See the rows of red dots? On the scrotum. And there on the side of the thigh…”

9 From Rising Sun:

The air was cold on my sweating face and neck.

I took two steps forward.

Now I could see the men. They stood about ten meters away, beside their cars. I counted four men. One of them waved to me, beckoning me over. I hesitated.

Where were the others?

I couldn’t see anybody except the men by the cars. They waved again, beckoning me. I started toward them when suddenly a heavy thumping blow from behind knocked me flat onto my face on the wet grass.

It was a moment before I realized what had happened.

I had been shot in the back.

And then the gunfire erupted all around me. Automatic weapons. The street was lit up like lightning from the gunfire. The sound echoed off the apartment buildings on both sides of the street. Glass was shattering. I heard people shouting all around me. More gunfire. I heard the sound of ignitions, cars roaring down the street past me. Almost immediately there was the sound of police sirens and tires squealing, and the glare of searchlights. I stayed where I was, face down on the grass. I felt like I was there for about an hour. Then I realized that the shouts now were all in English.

10 From Rising Sun:

“I tell you, I can’t find out. But you know, the Japanese have a powerful influence at the paper. It’s more than just the ads they take. It’s more than their relentless PR machine drumming out of Washington, or the local lobbying and the campaign contributions to political figures and organizations. It’s the sum of all those things and more. And it’s starting to be insidious. I mean, you can be sitting around in a staff meeting discussing some article that we might run, and you suddenly realize, nobody wants to offend them. It isn’t a question of whether a story is right or wrong, news or not news. And it isn’t a one-to-one equation, like ‘We can’t say that or they’ll pull their ads.’ It’s more subtle than that. Sometimes I look at my editors, and I can tell they won’t go with certain stories because they are afraid. They don’t even know what they are afraid of. They’re just afraid.”

“So much for a free press.”

“Hey,” Ken said. “This is not the time for sophomore bullshit. You know how it works. The American press reports the prevailing opinion. The prevailing opinion is the opinion of the group in power. The Japanese are now in power. The press reports the prevailing opinion as usual. No surprises. Just take care.”

11“Wink of an Eye”:

The Enterprise responds to a distress call from the planet Scalos, but when Kirk and a landing party beam down to the planet they find no living beings. It turns out that the Scalosians live at a much higher rate of acceleration, rendering them invisible to the human eye. One of the Scalosians, the beautiful and seductive Deela, accelerates Kirk so they can interact, where she tells him he cannot return to his normal life. For the crew, Kirk has virtually disappeared before their eyes. The Scalosians want to turn the Enterprise into a cryogenic storage facility for the crew. Kirk learns that at his current state of acceleration, they are subject to cellular degeneration and rapid aging should they suffer the slightest cut. He leaves a message for the crew but it is left to Mr. Spock to find a way to decipher it.

12 Two excerpts from Rising Sun on the way the United States is looked on as just another undeveloped country and only useful for its raw materials:

“That’s the word. It won’t be easy, because all the emotional indicators are down. The balance of payments with Japan is dropping. Of course it only looks better because they don’t export so many cars to us now. They make them here. And they’ve farmed out production to the little dragons, so the deficits appear in their columns, not Japan’s. They’ve stepped up purchases of oranges and timber, to make things look better. Basically, they treat us as an underdeveloped country. They import our raw materials. But they don’t buy our finished goods. They say we don’t make anything they want.”

“See here,” one of them said, “this is what I was talking about. This is the shot we end with. This one closes.”

I glanced over, saw a view of wildflowers and snow-capped mountains. The first man tapped the photos.

“I mean, that’s the Rockies, my friend. It’s real Americana. Trust me, that’s what sells them. And it’s a hell of a parcel.”

“How big did you say it is?”

“It’s a hundred and thirty thousand acres. The biggest remaining piece of Montana that’s still available. Twenty by ten kilometers of prime ranch acreage fronting on the Rockies. It’s the size of a national park. It’s got grandeur. It’s got dimension, scope. It’s very high quality. Perfect for a Japanese consortium.”

“And they talked price?”

“Not yet. But the ranchers, you know, they’re in a tough situation. It’s legal now for foreigners to export beef to Tokyo, and beef in Japan is something like twenty, twenty-two dollars a kilo. But nobody in Japan will buy American beef. If Americans send beef, it will rot on the docks. But if they sell their ranch to the Japanese, then the beef can be exported. Because the Japanese will buy from a Japanese-owned ranch. The Japanese will do business with other Japanese. And ranches all around Montana and Wyoming have been sold. The remaining ranchers see Japanese cowboys riding on the range. They see the other ranches putting in improvements, rebuilding barns, adding modern equipment, all that. Because the other ranches can get high prices in Japan. So the American owners, they’re not stupid. They see the writing on the wall. They know they can’t compete. So they sell.”

“But then what do the Americans do?”

“Stay and work for the Japanese. It’s not a problem. The Japanese need someone to teach them how to ranch. And everybody on the ranch gets a raise. The Japanese are sensitive to American feelings. They’re sensitive people.”

The second man said, “I know, but I don’t like it. I don’t like the whole thing.”

An excerpt Rising Sun on the technology gap:

We saw scenes from the party on the forty-fifth floor: the swing band, people dancing beneath the hanging decorations. We strained for a glimpse of the girl in the crowd. Jenny said, “In Japan, we wouldn’t have to do this by eye. The Japanese have pretty sophisticated video-recognition software now. They have a program where you identify an image, say a face, and it’ll automatically search tape for you, and find every instance of that face. Find it in a crowd, or wherever it appears. Has the ability to see a single view of a three-dimensional object, and then to recognize the same object in other views. It’s supposed to be pretty nifty. But slow.” “I’m surprised the station hasn’t got it.”

“Oh, it’s not for sale here. The most advanced Japanese video equipment isn’t available in this country. They keep us three to five years behind. Which is their privilege. It’s their technology, they can do what they want. But it’d sure be useful in a case like this.”

Another excerpt:

“Probably digital to analog converter,” Sanders said. “Very neat. So small.” He turned to me, holding up the box. “You know how the Japanese can make things this way and we can’t? They kaizen ’em. A process of deliberate, patient, continual refinements. Each year the products get a little better, a little smaller, a little cheaper. Americans don’t think that way. Americans are always looking for the quantum leap, the big advance forward. Americans try to hit a home run-to knock it out of the park-and then sit back. The Japanese just hit singles all day long, and they never sit back. So with something like this, you’re looking at an expression of philosophy as much as anything.”

“Frankly I’m not surprised they gave you copies,” Sanders said. “The Japanese are extremely cautious. They’re not very trusting of outsiders. And Japanese corporations in America feel the way we would feel doing business in Nigeria: they think they’re surrounded by savages.”

“Hey,” Theresa said.

“Sorry,” Sanders said, “but you know what I mean. The Japanese feel they have to put up with us. With our ineptitude, our slowness, our stupidity, our incompetence. That makes them self-protective. So if these tapes have any legal significance, the last thing they’d do is turn the originals over to a barbarian policeman like you. No, no, they’d give you a copy and keep the original in case they need it for their defense. Fully confident that with your inferior American video technology, you’d never be able to detect that it was a copy, anyway.”

13 From Rising Sun:

“Sure, I guess,” the woman said. She started to shut down units on the desk. Her back was turned to me, and then finally I could see her. She was dark, exotic-looking, almost Eurasian. In fact she was beautiful, drop-dead beautiful. She looked like one of those high cheek-boned models in magazines. And for a moment I was confused, because this woman was too beautiful to be working in some basement electronics laboratory. It didn’t make sense.

“Say hello to Theresa Asakuma,” he said. “The only Japanese graduate student working here.”

Sanders held one out to her. She took it in her left hand and held it to the light. Her right hand remained bent at the elbow, pressed to her waist. Then I saw that her right arm was withered, ending in a fleshy stump protruding beyond the sleeve of her jeans jacket. It looked like the arm of a thalidomide baby.

14 From Rising Sun:

“Hi, it’s Theresa,” she said. I liked the way she used her first name. “Listen, I’ve been looking at the last part of the tape. The very end. And I think there may be a problem.”

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