Judge Paul Corupe seriously considered seppuku an alternative to this wretched Japanese drama.
"The opium…it's…it's driving…everyone…crazy!"—Lian (Diane Lane)
Nikkatsu Studio's The Setting Sun is one of the most infamous Japanese films of the 1990s—an epic love story that spans 20 years and two of the most important military conflicts in Japan's history.
Facts of the Case
In the late 1920s, nightclub singer and secret rebel force leader Lian (Diane Lane, The Outsiders, Under the Tuscan Sun) falls in love with Kaya (Masaya Kao, Godzilla), a Japanese soldier that defends her from some obnoxious businessmen. When their lives are drawn together many years later in war-torn Manchuria, Lian finds that Kaya has been drawn into selling opium against his principles to fund the puppet government the Japanese have installed. Unfortunately, the Chinese mafia is also seeking to take over Manchuria's illicit drug trade. The malevolent Mr. Du (Biao Yuen, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain) is willing to stop at nothing to achieve his goal of total control, even if it means killing Kaya. It is up to Lian and her small army to save the people of Manchuria from the ravages of the opium war, and also to uphold the love she shares with the Japanese soldier who once stood up for her.
This was it—the big-budget film that represented a fresh start for Japan's oldest production house, Nikkatsu Studio. Massively popular in the 1950s and early '60s, hard times had since befallen Nikkatsu, and the last four decades had brought a mix of diminishing box office, heartache, and embarrassment. After they tried to compete with the influx of American pictures, things started to get really desperate, and as the 1970s rolled around, Nikkatsu had turned into a grist mill for "roman poruno" (romantic porn) just to make any profit at all. Low-budget skin flicks like Castle Orgies and Uniform Girls: The Fruit Is Ripe, were business as usual well into the 1980s, when economic pressures once again forced Nikkatsu to consider another direction.
In 1989, Nikkatsu curiously announced they intended to concentrate on mainstream films with blockbuster potential. Their first project was The Setting Sun, a $23.7 million historical saga based on a book by Rou Tomono, starring Diane Lane and former model Masaya Kato. It seemed like a good strategy on paper, but when The Setting Sun was finally released to theatres in the fall of 1992, it was such a spectacular failure that Nikkatsu was forced to file for bankruptcy protection just 10 months later. The Setting Sun is now looked upon as one of the biggest bombs ever to grace its native country. So what happened? The studio felt that The Setting Sun's biggest obstacle to success was that audiences couldn't help associating their new film with the lewd trash of their past. But I suspect there's another reason Nikkatsu might not have considered—The Setting Sun is an absolute fiasco. It's a monstrously confusing, tedious affair riddled with incompetent production and even worse acting.
Nikkatsu's first mistake was hiring novelist Rou Tomono to adapt his saga The Setting Sun into a screenplay. Their second mistake was letting him direct. Instead of whittling the complexity of his novel down into a more digestible plotline, Tomono seemingly just picked his favorite scenes in the book and started shooting them without any consideration of how they might fit together dramatically. From the very first scene, the characters are so busy jumping through Tomono's intricate plot hoops that they aren't even introduced properly, never mind developed. Ten minutes in, I was already having a hard time keeping track of who was who and what their motivations were supposed to be. Adding to the confusion, Tomono periodically throws the audience into breakneck plot exposition with hastily narrated stock footage. Trying to keep track of the convoluted plot in addition to the a condensed history of Japan is no easy task, but Tomono never lets up from his exhausting pace of brisk explanatory montages interrupted by agonizingly sluggish scenes of political coffee talk. I felt totally lost while trying to get anything of value from The Setting Sun.
Interestingly, Nikkatsu can't totally suppress its shady past, and within the first half hour, the film is already flashing a little skin. Before long, ninjas and heavy machine guns join the party, but even when the action does start to pick up, it never rises above the level of a bad made-for-cable flick. The few kung fu action sequences, choreographed by the usually reliable Biao Yuen are laughably bad, with all the energy stolen by poor camera placement and amateur editing. This also makes for one of the strangest scenes in the film, when Lian and a group of colorfully-clad female killers enter a bathhouse for some high flying assassination antics. It isn't uncommon to have martial artists in Asian films defying gravity and shooting ribbons from their sleeves, but because the rest of the film is a historical drama with absolutely no fantastic elements, I felt like I was watching a scene stolen from an entirely different film.
The $23.7 million dollar budget was a considerable sum for a Japanese film at the time, but very little of it seems to show up the screen. Even in 1992, few "blockbusters" would cop to such a dirty trick as stock footage, but The Setting Sun is certainly not shy about relying on public domain filmstrips. Scratchy establishing shots of Japanese buildings, running horses and the Great Wall of China frequently make appearances, and give the film a cheap B-movie quality. I was able to laugh the first few off, but by about the fourth insert shot of horses storming a wide open plain, I was ready to start shouting "Pull the strings!"
Being a fan of low budget movies, I'm used to seeing technical incompetence, but The Setting Sun has earned a special place in my heart. The overdubbing is obvious and absolutely terrible, as is the exaggerated foley work. One night scene is lighted so poorly that you can barely make out any action at all—it just seems like one big dark blur. The editing is consistently off, including one scene where Maurice Jarre's bombastic score awkwardly ends several seconds before the shot begins fading out. One scene even had me lunging for the remote in astonishment, as a shot of a horseback soldier being lassoed is interrupted by a jarring cut, and he suddenly appears on the ground as though several frames of film were missing!
To be fair, Diane Lane is not a terrible actress, but this is far and away the worst performance of her career. I'm willing to bet a large part of that is due to the language difference, but even still, I was literally cringing at her over-the-top delivery, her misty eyed stares into oblivion, and her stiff jazz singer act that couldn't locate "sexy" even if it was given a map, a flashlight, and a guided tour.
I noticed that the original Japanese version of this film runs a mind-blowing 150 minutes, while the version on this DVD has been pared down to 120. This is the part in the review where I usually complain if a film isn't presented uncut, but under the circumstances I'd like to personally thank Pathfinder for taking the initiative to save the audience from that potentially deadly additional half hour. In fact, I'd like to suggest that future editions could even be cut further—45 minutes sounds about right.
The transfer of The Setting Sun is generally soft and hazy, with slightly washed out colors and occasional discoloration. It is not up to par for a film that is barely a decade old. The stock footage is in much worse shape than the rest of the film, sporting significant grain and distracting artifacts that clearly indicate those pieces of film are from another source. The Dolby stereo track is clear, but a little flat.
There are two features on this disc that I hesitate to deem "special." First up are a couple of "talent bios" for some of the actors, which are basically cut and paste jobs from the IMDb. Next is a still gallery of shots from the film, just in case you want to relive the pain.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Donald Sutherland, billed fourth in the credits, makes a brief two-scene appearance 70 minutes into this film, and he is fantastic—just a professional, hard-working actor wrangling whatever he can from his tiny cameo. When Donald opens a car door and reveals himself, the movie suddenly comes alive and he absolutely owns those three minutes. In fact he is so good, all the other actors just stare at him dumbfounded, like there was a finite supply of acting skill in the room and Donald just used up the whole lot with one curl of his giant mustache. The producers were obviously trying to buy some credibility by hiring Mr. Sutherland, and I hope they paid through the nose for it.
The Setting Sun is a completely sub-par, amateur affair from start to finish. I wouldn't even consider recommending this film in any shape or form. You have been warned.
For exhibiting flagrant disregard and contempt for its audience, The Setting Sun is banished to the opium fields for life, where it is not to come within 700 yards of human eyeballs. Donald Sutherland and his mustache are ordered to not stoop to such levels again.
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