While some of the earlier atomic bomb films are on a theme of fear, as nuclear weapons expanded beyond the USA and USSR several films turned to the theme of proliferation. In this essay, we’ll take a quick look at how one Japanese film, Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko, and one American film, The Manhattan Project, on this theme were promoted. Both feature an individual who builds their own atomic bomb. Turning first to the Japanese film, below is a small poster issued by the production company, Kitty Films, in 1979 upon the release of Taiyo in Japan. Note what appears to be a quote at the bottom from actor Kenji Sawada (who plays the bomb builder Makoto Kido) that says: 'Even in Japan there is a man making an atomic bomb!’
The poster displays the relationship between Kido and Inspector Yamashita as adversarial, even tragic, while there is also a small picture of Kido and the supporting character 'Zero' Sawai about to kiss. At the centre, although not easy to see at first, is a small picture of Kido dressed in black stealing the plutonium cylinder from the nuclear power plant. Along with this visual material, the promotional materials billed the film as an 'action' movie, featuring the 'rising star' Kenji Sawada, along with Bunta Sugawara, who is 'irreplaceable in a masculine role.' The materials continue: 'By making an atomic bomb, Kenji Sawada threatens the country's security,' while Bunta Sugawara tracks him down until 'an aggressive battle ensues between the two men.' The process of building the bomb is then described in some detail, including the refining of the plutonium, after which it is noted that, 'Makoto Kido loses himself in the bomb, and asks, "What am I doing in making this bomb?"' Not giving away the ending of the film, the promotional pamphlet concludes with Kido asking for money and suggests that there is therefore a chance for him to come face to face with his adversary, Inspector Yamashita.
Although describing it as an action movie, the materials seem to emphasise the relationship between the main characters Kido and Yamashita. Both actors later went on to win awards for their performances in this film, Kenji Sawada for best actor and Bunta Sugawara for best supporting actor. We could perhaps see this film as simultaneously character driven and plot driven. This might help explain the unusually long running time of Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko, which may have been necessary for developing the characters as well as the genre bending plot with elements of action, science fiction, police drama and even a little romantic comedy combined. For its 35 year anniversary this past summer, the film aired on the Japanese TV station Nihon Eiga, and it was rated as one of the all time best films in Japanese cinema that has now become a 'cult classic.' Interestingly, while the music of the Rolling Stones is not actually heard in the 1979 film, even though one of Kido’s demands was to allow the then banned Stones to perform in Tokyo, the summer 2014 television advertisement for the film's airing on Nihon Eiga featured the opening guitar riff from the Stones classic 1969 song, 'Gimme Shelter.'
The item at the right is the cover for the 'Ultimate Premium Edition' of Taiyo, released on DVD in 2001. The film was digitally remastered, including making repairs to the original as well as cleaning up the image and the soundtrack. In addition to a plot synopsis and information about the actors, which we have already seen, the DVD notes added that, 'At the end of the 1970s it shined as a magnificent ornament, but even now in the 21st century this movie is still a miraculous work.' To celebrate the occasion, several new features were produced, including a documentary about how the film was made and a short video visiting some of the shooting locations to see how they look 22 years later. Some archival materials were included as well. A TV promotional program from 1979 about Kenji Sawada, who was a pop music star at the time, proclaimed that he was 'awesome' and that 'Julie' (his stage name, adopted in homage to American actress and singer Julie Andrews) was 'as powerful as an atomic bomb.'
All of these materials remind us that these films are produced by an industry with the intention of selling a product. It doesn't demean the films to recognise this, but it does help take us out of the dream world created by cinema and make connections to the real world. By looking at the promotional materials for films, as we are doing here for Taiyo, we may gain some insight into their intended audience in particular times and places, and perhaps also learn something about the amount of work that goes into creating these products, along with marketing and distributing them. Ultimately, of course, it is really us--the audience--who decides if this has been successful. Given the promotional materials above, we might reflect on whether there is anything 'miraculous' and 'awesome' about the film, or whether it deserves to be called a 'classic'
On the same theme of nuclear proliferation, and also featuring an individual building their own bomb, the 1986 American film The Manhattan Project evokes the historical Manhattan Project, which was the code name the US government gave to the development of the atomic bomb in the early 1940s. In the 1986 film, while the main character, Paul Stephens, builds his own atomic bomb, Manhattan also refers to a science fair in New York City where he enters the bomb to compete with other young scientists for an award, but also to raise consciousness about a secret nuclear facility in his hometown. The film appeared as part of a trend of 'boy genius' films and TV programs produced during the mid-1980s, such as War Games and Whiz Kids.
The photo at the left was distributed to journalists as part of a packet of promotional materials for the film upon its initial release to American theatres in 1986. The photo includes two black and white stills from the film, even though the film itself was in color. The caption on the bottom right reads: 'Nuclear scientist John Mathewson sees a younger version of himself in Paul and tries to help him when his science fair project--a homemade atomic bomb--gets him in trouble with the authorities.' Several lobby cards, featuring color stills from the film, were also distributed to movie theatres that would be showing the film.
Printed promotional materials included with the above photo billed the film as 'a suspenseful contemporary adventure' about a 'resourceful high-school student who builds his own atomic bomb.' The promo adds that by so doing, the student, Paul Stephens, 'sets out to join the most exclusive club in the world... one whose members now include the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China.' (Note the omission of India, South Africa and Israel, which were mentioned in Taiyo and also part of this 'club' in 1986). Paul is referred to as a 'young hero' and 'inquisitive young man' in the promotional materials.
While Taiyo and Manhattan have in common the shared scenario of an individual building a nuclear device, the films differ considerably in how they portray the bomb and their central characters, Kido and Paul. Even before viewing the film, we can see from the promotional materials for Manhattan that Paul is introduced as a 'hero,' so we need to consider how the film makes him into a hero. While Paul is briefly treated by the American authorities as a 'teenage terrorist,' he has wide-ranging support and even respect among his family, friends and broader social circle. In Taiyo, Kido is treated throughout as a 'radical' by the authorities (the term 'terrorist' did not emerge until the 1980s) and he is portrayed as a loner with no family and friends, and with only the quirky radio DJ 'Zero' Sawai as an admirer. Sawai, of course, is ultimately doomed by her admiration of Kido, who moves from being a hero to a sort of 'anti-hero.'
Beyond the different ways that the bomb-building main characters are treated in these two films, we should also consider their broader messages about the bomb. Both films appeared toward the end of the Cold War, when tensions were mounting between the nuclear armed US and USSR, and they refer to the ongoing problem of nuclear proliferation as the number of nuclear powers was increasing. The films also question authority in various ways, including government and the police. But beyond these thematic similarities, we might also pay closer attention to what the films ultimately say about proliferation by having an individual build a bomb and whether or not the films were promoted with a broader message about nuclear proliferation in mind.