Thursday Rethink: Ridley Scott's Black Rain Is a Forgotten Film Worth Remembering

Upon its release in September 1989, Ridley Scott’s American-cop-in-Japan thriller Black Rain was greeted with mediocre reviews. For example, Roger Ebert said the film’s oppressive, gloomy visuals were meant to distract from the “thin and prefabricated” story. More recently, Ian Nathan with Empire magazine has called the film problematic for its treatment of cultural difference: “Americans are defined as individuals bucking the system, their Japanese equivalent systemised drones confined by tradition.” As well, he describes the film as “pulp given the uber-sheen” by Ridley Scott.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Black Rain is actually a masterpiece, but I do want to offer a brief counter-reading of the film. I agree that the movie is largely a by-the-numbers cop thriller, and that the second half turns into a predictable revenge narrative. What I want to suggest, however, is that the film’s visuals are not simply a matter of style over substance—a charge so easy to make in criticism and so frequently levelled against Scott. Rather, the visuals are a key indicator of the fairly serious dystopian subtext of Black Rain, which, once recognized, changes how we should think about Michael Douglas’s tough, unsympathetic cop protagonist and the clash of cultures he participates in.

The Look Isn’t Superficial—It’s Crucial to the Film’s Meaning

As Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) and Charlie Vincent’s (Andy Garcia) airplane descends, we see a sweeping shot of the rising sun over Osaka, but the emblem of Japan has been converted into an image of industrial inferno. The sun burns orange. Factory stacks pour out smoke. Any viewer familiar with Ridley Scott’s masterwork, Blade Runner, cannot help but notice the similarities to shots of future Los Angeles’s cityscape in that 1982 work of dystopian science fiction. The look of future Los Angeles’s streets was inspired by crowded East Asian urban environments, and in Black Rain Scott represents Osaka as a labyrinth of dark streets, neon signs, nightclubs, and fiery factories. Other, more normal, aspects of the city are absent. The visual parallels don’t strike me as superficial or simply the lingering memory of Blade Runner. The imagery of Osaka is so dominant that it demands to be acknowledged as an integral aspect of the film’s meaning, and not simply an intriguing coat of paint over a standard cop thriller storyline. If the city is oppressively gloomy, might that not serve a purpose? If Black Rain’s Osaka recalls Blade Runner’s Los Angeles so strikingly, might that not suggest that we are meant to read Osaka as a kind of dystopia, a place where all is not well?

As many critics have noted, Conklin and Vincent’s journey into Osaka’s criminal underworld is figured visually as a journey into the underworld of hell or hades. The overwhelming imagery of Osaka might lead us to forget, however, that the New York City Conklin and Vincent are coming from is painted rather bleakly during the first 20 minutes of the film. Black Rain’s New York is a cityscape of monstrous bridges, hard pavement, noisy traffic, and meat factories. This is no American Dream (our one image of the suburbs is less frightening but still grey and dour). Cops have to eke out a few bucks in dangerous motorcycle races. Of course, Conklin’s race at the start of the film is so clearly meant to set up the motorcycle race at the climax (Hollywood often emblazons Chekhov’s gun), but the early race beneath the bridge also evokes the sort of lawless gambling and daredevilry common to cinematic post-apocalyptic worlds.

Black Rain fits into Scott’s oeuvre quite well, particularly in its examination of power relations and corruption. It’s another showcase of Scott’s pervading pessimism. Whether in the sci-fi works such as Alien or Blade Runner, or the historical pictures such as Kingdom of Heaven, Scott’s films frequently present a pessimistic vision of a power-hungry world. At one point in Black Rain, Conklin’s Japanese partner, Masahiro (Ken Takakura in an excellent subdued performance), tells him there are no grey areas when it comes to theft. Conklin replies that New York is one big grey area. As the film makes clear, though, despite its rules and traditions, Japan also has plenty of grey.

Michael Douglas’s Tough Cop Is No Hero

Another frequent point of criticism is Michael Douglas’s Nick Conklin, who is described as unsympathetic, overly badass, and prejudiced, as if his character needs to fit the usual rough-around-the-edges-yet-likeable cop mold.

Michael Douglas was coming off the success of Fatal Attraction and Wall Street, and he delivers another full-force performance in Black Rain. He races a motorbike in the first scene, pulls a tie out of his pocket a few minutes before his interview with internal affairs, and headbuts a detained criminal. He smokes, drinks, and provokes people throughout the film. He actually says lines like “Fuck you very much!” His badassery is extreme, coming across just a few shades below parody (unlike in Basic Instinct where it is parody), but it’s still heightened enough to raise interpretive questions.

If Conklin is too in-your-face or unsympathetic, maybe that’s the point. Sure, I smiled when he punches a smug prisoner, but maybe we shouldn’t see this hothead as a hero. Maybe we shouldn’t cheer for his brand of American rebelliousness. He’s not simply a maverick, like so many 80s action heroes: he’s a man without honour. He attempts to justify his misbehaviour with a cynical view of the world (“you do whatcha gotta do”), but, as the film ultimately maintains, you are held to do the right thing even in a world without honour.

The Culture Clash Throws Light on Each Dystopia

With the dystopian imagery and Conklin’s anti-heroism in mind, I would lastly suggest that the film then is not a culture clash that simply asserts American energetic individualism over traditional Japanese collectivism and hierarchy. Rather, each world throws light (or shadow) on the other, and the dual vision that comes through is one of equally dire dystopias, in some ways more similar than we might expect.

I also think Black Rain handles its culture clash pretty well, actually. Conklin’s casual racism and sense of American superiority are hardly endorsed (why do people so often forget that representation does not equal endorsement!). The film rarely goes for easy cultural jokes (the night out drinking at a geisha bar is an exception, but the humour is in the lighthearted nature of drunken banter), and it’s more than a simple fish-out-of-water narrative. The film makes the contrasting social structures of America and Japan a theme, but it’s not a biased critique of Japanese bureaucracy and tradition, nor is it simply a denunciation of American individualism. The dichotomy is even complicated in the film, if we recall Conklin’s complaint about bureaucracy back home, and the main Japanese villain’s roguish flouting of Yakuza hierarchy. And what are we to make of the strange, apocalyptic story of black rain after the atomic blast? Did American destruction give birth to modern Japan?

While the ending may suggest that you need to just “go for it” in the American manner, I believe an earlier scene is the true moral heart of the film (whether the filmmakers intended it as such or not). Over noodle bowls, while they stake out a mark, Conklin’s Japanese partner Masahiro softly castigates Douglas for his prior malfeasance. Masahiro tells Conklin that he dishonours himself and his partners. The scene takes its time and the message sticks. Placing Douglas’s macho-American, screw-the-rules manner in a foreign environment exposes it as the discontented selfishness and self-justification it is.

The tagline for Black Rain reads: “An American Cop in Japan. Their country. Their laws. Their game. His rules.” Osaka is all steel factories and neon, production and pleasure, but it’s not the nightmare version of New York; it’s Douglas’s nightmare—a world just as tough and grim as home but full of encumbering social rules. At least in the dystopia of New York, or so he thinks, he can bend the rules as he tries to play the game. Japan is Conklin’s nightmare inferno, and while this reading suggests problems in Japanese culture, the nightmare also throws harsh judgement on America. The Japanese game may be cumbersome and corrupt, but so is America’s, albeit in different ways, and the problem with Conklin’s rules is that he doesn’t have any.

To be clear, what I’m saying is not the straightforward message of Black Rain. But the sheer oppressive weight of the dystopian imagery and the persistent provocations of Douglas’s antihero are signs that don’t easily accord with the simplistic cop narrative, and instead call attention to a more complicated, pessimistic subtext.

Black Rain (1989, USA)

Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis; starring Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Ken Takakura, Kate Capshaw, Yusaku Matsuda, and Tomisaburo Wakayama.