Ridley Scott’s career seems to have been defined, at least for the general audience, by his work in two genres: science fiction, with pictures like Blade Runner, Alien, and the recent Prometheus, and historical action/adventure, as with the likes of Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and Gladiator. But he has, of course, done much more that. Matchstick Men and Thelma & Louise come to mind, as well as one of my favorites, Black Rain. It is one of his most overlooked works—perhaps because it’s not as good as his other more prominent works, and perhaps because it’s an action film made in the 80s, set in the 80s, and that reeks of the 80s. There are more than enough of those to go around. But what interests me most about Black Rain is its thematic and visual similarity to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s best film, released seven years earlier. It’s almost as if Black Rain is a simpler successor, a spiritual sequel to Blade Runner.
Andy Garcia stars alongside Michael Douglas, two cops that bust a yakuza boss in New York (the yakuza are essentially the “Japanese mafia”). The Japanese government asks for the boss to be extradited to his homeland, and it falls to Douglas and Garcia to escort him back to Japan. Unfortunately, he escapes their grasp upon arrival in Osaka, busting out with some help from his fellow gang members. The two American crime fighters stay in Japan to try and recapture the yakuza boss, but they must deal with Masahiro, a by-the-book police detective assigned to handle them, as well as with Masahiro’s superiors, even more straight-laced than he.
One predicts that we’ll be treated to a clash-of-cultures drama as Americans try to adapt to Japan, and indeed we are. But Scott and his screenwriters are a lot blunter than we would expect—in fact, viewed today in our more politically correct era, Black Rain can seem quite strident in its approach towards race. We should remember that relations between the U.S. and Japan were strained prior to the 1990s—Japanese electronics were flooding U.S. markets, many “cheap” goods were at that time engineered in Japan, not China as it is now, and inexpensive top-quality Japanese cars were threatening the established American manufacturers. Feelings about the war hadn’t disappeared either, neither on the American side (over Pearl Harbor) nor on the Japanese side (over the use of atomic bombs) for that matter, and indeed the war is explicitly referenced here, both by the characters and in the film’s title. (Toxic “black rain” poured down on Hiroshima immediately following the atomic bombing.) That tension manifests in the form of terms that we wouldn’t use anymore, like “Jap” or “Nip.”
This is not to say that Scott presents us with a great meditation on the war and on our cultural differences with the East; in fact, the issue springs up only at the beginning of the film and disappears as the heroes slowly assimilate into Japanese society. But that tension is important to note regardless, because it is part of a bigger theme that Black Rain shares with Blade Runner—that of isolation. Black Rain communicates this somewhat differently than its predecessor. It is, in a way, a slightly clumsier and brusquer Lost in Translation. Detective Nick Cochran (played by Douglas) is forced into a new system that follows different processes; it has rules, it has no patience for irregular behavior, and it abhors those that place the individual above the group. This goes contrary to all Nick knows, him being a cop that ‘plays by his own rules’ (as all cops in action movies do). So it’s not just that Nick is literally ‘lost in translation,’ that he doesn’t know the language; he is also cut off from himself—he’s not allowed to be who he is, and he is marginalized and isolated as a result.
Blade Runner does things a little differently—there the isolation is more about our loss of humanity to technology. But where Black Rain and Blade Runner converge is in their visual representation of this theme, specifically in the way that director Scott shoots the metropolitan environments. The former takes place in Osaka, while the latter takes place in future Los Angeles. While they’re set on different sides of the Pacific, both films essentially look the same (allowing for Blade Runner’s future technology and architecture, of course—if Blade Runner was set in our time, it would look identical to Black Rain’s Osaka). Both settings are an industrial hell. The cities are dark. The cities are foreboding. The cities are malevolent, ugly, dirty, overcrowded and undersized. And Scott films both in exactly the same way, using sweeping panoramas to show us the full extent of our industrial, manufactured world.
This sight is designed to make us feel as alone and as disheartened as our heroes, and it works. Black Rain is positively depressing at times, and we’re not accustomed to feeling that way while watching an action flick, particularly not one from so bombastic a period as the 80s. Bleakness is like a disease in Black Rain: it spreads all the way from the smoggy city streets to a steel foundry; from the interior of a police station to a parking garage and to a shopping mall. The film’s most pivotal scene occurs in a mall—it’s a murder scene—and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I had to skip past it this time around, because at that moment the film becomes incredibly disturbing. Almost horrific, one could say, at least for that two minute scene, and that’s a feeling that’s not totally out of place, especially considering that Blade Runner’s setting is dystopian—and since Black Rain’s Osaka is comparable to that (indeed, almost identical with the future Los Angeles) one would expect those dystopian feelings to arise here as well.
Whereas Blade Runner is more about the domination of one specific lifestyle, whether it be one specific goal in life or one specific force impacting the world (in other words, everything in Blade Runner is one-track minded—Deckard’s life is all about hunting bounty; Los Angeles is almost exclusively Japanese, and so on), Black Rain is more about how life tends to amalgamate together, and how ‘letting the chips fall where they may’ can be beneficial. We return to the theme of culture here. It’s very simplistic and feel-good, but the film ultimately declares that a mix between the two cultures is better than sticking to either extreme—Masahiro, Nick’s Japanese partner, realizes that not being so by-the-book can help one make progress and build character; by contrast, Nick’s recklessness is tempered when he observes Masahiro’s disciplined and moral ways. Further to that, the Japanese concept of the honor code is particularly important here. Avoiding dishonor usually means doing the right thing, even in the face of defeat. In that way, Blade Runner’s theme of ‘cultural creep’ also returns here, expect where in Blade Runner it was Japan imposing on the U.S., here both sides impose on each other, and the result is markedly more positive.
At times, Black Rain grows so close to Blade Runner that I wonder if Ridley Scott might have intended for them to be related; then Black Rain turns a corner and changes pace, settling back into its action-film styling with shootouts and stunts, and it seems like the two films are very different. I’d wager that if Blade Runner were an action film rather than a drama or a thriller, it would end up being Black Rain, though perhaps bleaker still. What we are considering here are the thematic similarities, not the respective quality of each film or the writing or the characters. In certain instances the two films enjoy complete thematic parity. That’s certainly unusual, and I don’t think enough is made of it. Certainly, Black Rain has never received the same acclaim as Blade Runner, and it doesn’t deserve to. It is a good film, but one that is vulnerable to the same criticisms as most 80s action films—namely, it can be hokey, and it can be gratuitously extravagant. But it is unfairly overlooked. Several films in Scott’s catalog are. Though he skews toward two genres in particular, he does have some range—this man also made Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, and A Good Year, after all. Some of his films will get lost in the shuffle, but Black Rain does not deserve to be one of them.