Many roads are paved with good intentions, but Rising Sun‘s path from page to screen may ultimately follow the famous one. In trying to cool off Michael Crichton’s hot-potato best-seller, director Philip Kaufman — whose $40 million production was scheduled to open amid protests from Asian-American organizations last week — may only have heightened the controversy. His decision to change the book’s narrator (and the movie’s star) to an African-American has unexpectedly carved what could be a troublesome new racial divide.
Rising Sun, Crichton’s dystopian cop-thriller about a murder probe that reveals corporate Japan’s broad and insidious hold over America, has stoked passions since its February 1992 publication. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, current secretary of labor Robert Reich, then a Harvard professor, condemned the novel as ”a crude polemic.” The more conservative Washington Times called it ”a sobering and frightening corrective.” But Crichton’s speechifying about Japan’s trade practices hardly seemed the stuff of boffo box office.
Months before the first copies of Crichton’s manifesto reached bookstores, however, Rising Sun had been launched on a storm-tossed Hollywood odyssey. While the industry made much of the Japanese-owned Columbia, Universal, and TriStar studios’ refusal to bid on the book, Rupert Murdoch’s Twentieth Century Fox scooped up film rights to Sun for $1 million (half of what Crichton received for Jurassic Park) in September 1991, and commissioned a screenplay. The CAA package deal brought together coscreenwriters Crichton and Michael Backes, director Kaufman (The Right Stuff), and executive producer and costar Sean Connery, whom Crichton had in mind as he created the character of Sun‘s Armani-clad Zen cop, John Connor. But Crichton and Backes pulled out after two months of script conferences. Frustrated by Kaufman’s demands for five rewrites of their first 40 pages, they were off the film three months before the book was even published. ”I tried to produce the script that Phil wanted,” says Crichton, ”but I couldn’t get any response in terms of working method.” Adds Backes in tactful retrospect, ”These things are always kind of arranged marriages.”
Left to his own devices, Kaufman (who declined to be interviewed for this article) hired playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) for a script polish and proceeded to cut Sun‘s more strident anti-Japanese attacks. He did add some clichés of his own: The completed film features the Japanese eavesdropping on takeover negotiations, a Japanese playboy eating sushi off a nude blond, and two martial-arts brawls. Still, a script draft, completed before the book’s publication, reveals scant traces of Crichton’s snooze-button econ lessons and pins the murder on an Anglo-American instead of on a Japanese. (The implication that the Anglo-American was doing the bidding of his Japanese bosses was added later.)
In fact, Kaufman’s most dramatic and potentially explosive revision didn’t involve a Japanese character at all. Although the LAPD’s Asian Crimes Investigation Unit in reality has no black officers, Kaufman turned Crichton’s white-bread narrator, Peter Smith, into ”Spider” Web Smith, an African-American former schoolboy hoop star. While Sun was being cast, Joe Roth, the since-departed chairman of Fox, saw and apparently loved rushes of Wesley Snipes (also a CAA client) in the studio’s salt-and-pepper basketball comedy White Men Can’t Jump. Roth wanted to find a follow-up vehicle for his new star quickly. ”[Sun] needed energy, an urban sense, that a black actor could bring to it,” Kaufman told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year.
But Crichton sees a danger. ”Casting Wesley Snipes puts an additional burden on the picture,” he warns. ”In a movie about U.S.-Japan relations, if you cast someone who’s black, you introduce another aspect because of tension between blacks and Japanese.”
At least one scene in Rising Sun seems to play into those fears. As Smith and Connor flee from a gang of Japanese thugs packed into a turquoise, tail-finned Cadillac, they drive into an L.A. ghetto to the sudden blaring of rap music on the soundtrack. ”Rough neighborhoods may be America’s last advantage,” Snipes tells Connery before enlisting a crowd of gangbangers to stall the pursuit. Moments later the yakuza hurtle into the ‘hood, only to be surrounded by a swarm of colorful, bass-thumping lowriders and menacing black faces; after his compatriots slice open the Caddy’s soft top with a machete and steal the Vuarnets off one of its passengers, a local breaks off the car’s windshield wiper and asks threateningly, ”Do your windows, sir?” The Japanese speed away in gibbering terror.
Japanese-born actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who plays one of Sun‘s murder suspects, claims the episode was intended ”as a moment of humor between gangsters.” Kaufman may have had weightier ethnic contrasts in mind. ”When Japanese businesses come to America,” he has said when asked about the scene, ”they won’t set up a factory in L.A. because of these racial problems. But we’re trying to create a multicultural society…In a way, we’re trying to be the future. We take in a lot of people [who] could be considered problems.”
Asian-American community leaders view the film’s black-Japanese confrontation differently. ”The message is that it’s okay to attack Asians,” says Michael Ishii, chairman of the ad hoc New York Coalition Against Rising Sun, ”and that it’s a patriotic thing to do.” Karen Narasaki, Washington representative of the Japanese American Citizens League, calls the scene ”artistically gratuitous with some potential for great harm,” given black- Asian tension in Los Angeles. Naomi Hirahara, English editor at the L.A.-based community newspaper Rafu Shimpo, says simply, ”It was a silly stereotype of Afro-Americans. It’s sophomoric more than anything.”
The concern behind such criticisms has been brewing for over a year now. Last fall representatives from the 100-member L.A. advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) met with Fox executives and asked for an on-screen disclaimer saying that the film wasn’t implying that ”all Japanese people are trying to take over America.” In a letter, Fox president Strauss Zelnick (who has since left the company) rejected the proposed disclaimer as unnecessary and possibly damaging to ”the film’s commercial potential.” He also refused to screen a rough cut for the organization.
”I don’t see any reason,” Kaufman said of MANAA’s demands, ”why I should show a movie to every little small group of people who want to come in and apparently censor the movie.”
Nonetheless, director Kaufman added dialogue not in the book that seems designed to fend off complaint. After a reporter (Steve Buscemi) accuses Connor of Japan-bashing, the detective retorts, ”’Japan-bashing’? What does that mean? Everyone is created equal except the Japanese?” Snipes chuckles, ”Japan bashing? You? What’ll they think of next?” ”Next?” responds Connery. ”Next they’ll call you a racist.”
Although not seeking a boycott of Sun, various Asian-American groups were planning demonstrations in major cities for opening day at press time. ”We’re not trying to defend the Japanese,” says MANAA president Guy Aoki, ”But a lot of people can’t distinguish between Japanese, Japanese-Americans, and Asian-Americans. When you have resentment toward one group, it affects everyone.”
Actor Tagawa concedes that he shares some of the concerns. ”Are there things in this film that I would like to have changed?” Tagawa says. ”I think so, only because I’ve played a lot of stereotypes….But the angst from all the violence, and the fear that we as Asians feel everyday leaving our door in America wondering whether we’re going to come home, all that kind of angst is being dumped on Rising Sun.”
According to a statement released by domestic marketing president Andrea Jaffe, Fox, which has already received a bomb threat linked to the picture, remains ”confident that this is a socially responsible film.” But veteran Asian actor Mako, who plays a tight-lipped Japanese CEO in the movie, admits, ”There aren’t enough Japanese elements in Rising Sun…to lead to any sort of enlightenment about Japanese culture or corporate structure. What you see is a superficial glimpse.” That’s one thing, at least, that wasn’t lost in the translation. — Additional reporting by Melina Gerosa, Frank Spotnitz, and Jane Birnbaum