Review: Rising Sun (1993)


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.