As the Nakamoto Corporation celebrates with a lavish gala in a prestigious Los Angeles office building, a woman is found murdered in an empty board room. So begins Rising Sun by Michael Crichton, one of his most controversial novels.
LAPD Lieutenant Peter Smith is called in to investigate, mainly because he is the Japanese cultural liaison for the Japanese community, but soon finds he’s in over his head. Assisting him is the veteran officer and Japan expert John Connor, who teaches him the ropes of Japanese culture and intrigue. Together they weave through an elaborate conspiracy involving competing Japanese companies, corporate takeovers, perversions, and political corruption.
Rising Sun is a competent crime thriller. It moves briskly and all the pieces fit. However, like Crichton’s infamous State of Fear, the purpose of this novel is not so much to entertain but to educate. Well, maybe “lecture” is a better word. Michael Crichton’s novels tended to be disguised screeds about the latest things that fascinated him. DNA in Jurassic Park, time travel in Timeline, sexual harassment in Disclosure, and global warming in State of Fear. Rising Sun is Crichton’s attempt to set the record straight about the “Japan-bashing” of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Ironically, Rising Sun came out the year the Japanese Bubble Economy burst in 1992, sending the country into a deep recession dubbed “the Lost Decade.” But in the 1980s, Japan became one of the world’s most dominant economic powers. Throughout the 1970s, Japanese electronics and cars continuously outsold American competitors, partly due to superior quality and partly from an unfair trading advantage. In 1985, America pressured Japan to weaken the yen against the dollar to compete better, but in doing so, Japan slashed interest rates, resulting in a tsunami of cheap loans.
Flush with cash, the economy skyrocketed, real estate prices became inflated, and Japanese companies went on a buying spree, purchasing many notable pieces of American property. This led to a xenophobic backlash, evidenced in books and films like Rising Sun.
The novel has enough twists and turns and simple prose to breeze through it. Smith and Connor come up against Ishiguro, an executive with the Nakamoto Corporation, determined to keep the woman’s murder hushed up as to not embarrass the company. A big emphasis is placed on how loyal the Japanese are to their companies, which has some truth to it. In fairness, Japanese companies are more loyal to their employees than American companies are to American workers, so loyalty is not cultural brainwashing.
The murdered woman is revealed to be Cheryl Austin, a wayward beauty from Texas who now services important men in LA. She’s the mistress to Eddie Sakamura, something of a playboy/pimp, who keeps her and other girls in a pseudo-brothel frequented by Japanese businessmen. We learn that Eddie was a pretty jealous guy, along with being rather shady, so suspicion falls on him pretty quickly. He’s also the son of a top official in a keiretsu –Japanese business conglomerates and the successors to the infamous zaibatsu of prewar Japan – which is a rival to the Nakamoto Corporation.
Ishiguro later delivers security footage to the LAPD, confirming Eddie Sakamura’s murder. Connor and Smith raid Eddie’s house, but he’s seemingly killed during a high-speed chase, his body charred beyond recognition after a car crash. Any reader of thriller novels can spot that twist a mile away.
Throughout the novel we’re treated to a litany of unfair Japanese business practices along with their encroachment into America’s sovereignty as if the United States was becoming an economic colony of Japan. These are usually delivered through the lectures of Connor, while Smith just listens and digests the information. The characters in Crichton’s novels are usually pretty shallow and exist merely to either spout off or receive information. It’s not hard to see Smith is a stand-in for the reader, ignorant about the looming Japanese threat, and Connor is Crichton himself, eager to share all this new information he’s learned.
Crichton kept abreast of the latest technology, and Rising Sun treats us to digital editing, which in 1992 was still relatively new and unheard of. Of course, since Eddie’s death happened about halfway through the novel, you can guess he isn’t the killer. Thanks to a video specialist – Theresa Asakuma – we learn the true identity of Cheryl Austin’s murderer – one Senator Morton.
Throughout the novel, we get bits of information that the Nakamoto Corporation is angling to buy MicroCon, an American tech company. The sale would give the Japanese company access to critical technology vital to America’s defense, leaving its military at the mercy of Japan. Opposing it, and representing the “Japan-bashing” side, is Senator Morton. Turns out that Eddie is “friends” with Morton, and he introduced Cheryl Austin to the Senator. After all, Eddie Sakamura might not be part of Nakamoto, but he is aligned with a rival keiretsu which might want MicroCon in the future. Having the Senator in his pocket is just good business sense. Eddie turns up alive and presents all the evidence they need. Turns out a Nakamoto security guard named Tanaka was in the car that crashed, frying him and not Eddie.
After presenting the evidence to Morton in person, Smith and Connor don’t anticipate his suicide, but the case seems to be wrapped up. However, the Nakamoto Corporation still wants the altered tape, and begin playing hardball. They dig up an old scandal from Smith’s past, where he was falsely accused of child molestation. This sends his ex-wife into a fury who demands custody of their daughter.
Eventually, Asakuma discovers a second person on the tape, who is revealed to be none other than Ishiguro, the Nakamoto executive. Cheryl Austin was into erotic asphyxiation, and while having sex, Senator Morton went a bit too far. Horrified, Morton stumbles out in a haze, but unknowingly leaves Cheryl still alive, but barely. Watching nearby, Ishiguro enters and finishes the job, strangling what little life out of her still remained.
Ishiguro proposed a deal to Morton – stop the opposition to the MicroCon sale and he would edit the footage to implicate someone else. What better patsy than Eddie Sakamura, the son of a rival keiretsu? But in the climax, Ishiguro is unmasked by Smith and Connor, who jumps to his death off the Nakamoto Building. Everything is wrapped up, but Smith expresses a pessimistic view of the future, economically dominated by Japan.
Of course, that future never happened, and China stepped into the role of the economic giant of Asia once the Japanese bubble popped. That didn’t stop the movie from being made a year later, just as the economic recession had begun to grip Japan.
Starring Wesley Snipes as Peter Smith and Sean Connery as John Connor, the movie is a mostly faithful adaptation. The main difference is a new racial dynamic with the Smith character. In making him black, the movie touches on race relations in America, which is largely absent from the novel. Smith is also given more character in the movie, nicknamed “Spider Web Smith” and having come from LA’s South Central neighborhood, still maintaining contact with his roots. There is some racial tension between him and Connor, e.g. questioning what senpai means (“Is that anything like massa?”) but on the whole, they get along well.
The movie condenses some plot points and characters, but it also adds elements, for the better, I’d say. We open with a shot of cowboys in the desert and you’re thinking, “Did I put the Tombstone VHS in by accident?” but no, it’s just Eddie singing at karaoke, played by the indomitable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. We also get to see Cheryl Austin alive, played by Tatjana Patitz who speaks with probably the worst imitation of a Southern accent ever put to film.
From there, the movie follows the book’s plot pretty closely, so I’ll just highlight a few changes I noticed.
- Ishiguro is renamed Ishihara. Not sure why and it always irritates me when characters are renamed for arbitrary reasons. Even masters like Kubrick did that.
- The sale of MicroCon is introduced much earlier in the movie, and one of the first scenes shows the Nakamoto Corporation engaging in negotiations with MicroCon. But not all is as it seems since the office is bugged, giving Nakamoto an edge by listening in to the private conversations of MicroCon executives. A reminder that the Japanese are cutthroat businessmen.
- The head of Nakamoto – Mr. Yoshida – is played by the veteran actor Mako, known for such roles in Conan the Barbarian, RoboCop III, and Samurai Jack.
- There is a framing device for the book which is partly incorporated into the movie. The novel begins with LAPD inquiry with Smith giving the details of the case. However, in the movie, the framing device is introduced several minutes in. It’s a jarring scene since you immediately think “Wait, is this a flashback?” Furthermore, the framing device ends with about 30 minutes left in the movie, with the story picking up from there. Ultimately, it could have been dropped and nothing would have changed.
- In the book, Theresa Asakuma has a deformed arm, which is dropped, mainly because she’s played by the stunning Tia Carrere, who had all the Asian female roles on lockdown in the early 90s.
- Again, there is a racial dimension between Smith and Connor that isn’t there in the book. Smith’s race is never explicitly stated, but the movie makes his blackness a plot point. While being chased by some of Eddie Sakamura’s goons, Smith leads them into South Central. When Connor protests, Smith counters with, “Rough neighborhoods may be America’s last advantage.” After calling in a favor from old friends, Eddie’s goons are delayed by the roughest of LA’s inner-city thugs, scaring them off.
- Given this movie came out a year after the LA riots and a year before the OJ Simpson case, the implication appears to be – black and white – Americans should unite against this insidious Yellow Peril threat from the East. Even more so, there’s a hint of black and white against all Asians, whether or not they were born here.
- In the book, Eddie Sakamura is murdered and dumped into a pool, stark naked. In the movie, he dies in a fight with some Nakamoto goons and the Police. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has a quote which goes something like “If I had a choice between playing a wimpy Asian businessman or playing a villain, I’d go for the villain because I’d like to play a badass.” His version of Eddie goes down fighting.
- In the movie, Smith and Connor stupidly fax incriminating photos to Senator Morton (played by Ray Wise of Robocop and Twin Peaks fame), instead of confronting him in person. Both results are the same – i.e. he blows his brains out – but why on earth would you let the suspect know you’re onto him without physically being there, thus giving him the opportunity to escape? At least in the book they went to arrest him in person and he just happened to be quicker on the draw.
- The biggest change is the ultimate identity of the true killer. As mentioned, Ishiguro’s movie counterpart Ishihara plays essentially the same role, but he isn’t the one who strangles Cheryl Austin after Senator Morton has his way with her. Instead, it’s Bob Richmond, an American underling at Nakamoto, eager to impress Ishihara and advance in the company.
- Bob Richmond is in the book, but is pretty unimportant. The movie version of him is pure yuppie scum, and making him the killer was perhaps an attempt to soften the anti-Japanese sentiment throughout the film. “Hey look, the real killer is a white guy!” Still, he’s working for the Japanese, so there the added layer that Richmond has been “corrupted” by them and not “one of us” any longer.
- Bob Richmond also meets his end in a different way. Ishiguro jumped to his death, whereas Bob Richmond – yuppie scum that he is – makes a run for it. Smith and Connor chase him through a construction site, where he’s found by Eddie’s goons, eager for revenge against the man who set their boss up.
- The ending reveals that Connor and Asakuma have had an on again/off again relationship for years. When we first see Connor’s apartment, complete with Japanese knickknacks like a weeaboo’s dream house, we see the silhouetted figure of a woman behind a paper screen, later revealed to be Asakuma. Smith drops her off at her apartment, but she leaves the door open just in case he wants to come. Abruptly, Connor’s voice pops out of nowhere saying “Kohai?” as if he is inside Smith’s head.
All in all, I have mixed feelings toward Rising Sun. As said, it’s a competent crime thriller, moves briskly, and was one of the first “adult” novels I ever read as a teenager. However, it’s a product of its time, when Japan-bashing was at its height which is evident in the film’s Orientalist imagery. For example, the Nakamoto gala is stuffed with Japanese women in kimonos and geisha makeup, emphasizing their exoticism, while the ominous rumble of taiko drums bang away in the background. At one point, Eddie Sakamura’s affairs with various white women are compared with “stealing our natural resources.” As if there’s something inherently sinister with an Asian man pursuing white women.
The movie and novel are largely forgotten today, and the cast and crew don’t mention it much. I’ve never heard Wesley Snipes or Sean Connery talk about it at Q&As, nor its director Philip Kaufman. However, Rising Sun is valuable as a time capsule when America experienced its second round of anti-Japanese sentiment, and when the future looked like it would be dominated by the Land of the Rising Sun.