Chico Lourant, the Black Sun of Shibuya

Chico Lourant (above, left), star of the 1964 Japanese film, Black Sun, is largely unknown. He may still be alive, though there is little trace of him on the internet. The abandoned church (above, center) that serves as the film’s prophetic setting is equally obscure. Tamio Kawachi (above, right) rounds out this oddball film.

I. Race in Japan

Recent events have pointed a spotlight on Japan’s attitudes towards race. There was the writer, Ayako Sono 曽野 綾子, whose comments on apartheid were widely censured by the English-language internet. There was the “Music Fair” incident: Fuji TV planned to broadcast a blackface ブラックフェイス performance on a musical variety show, scrapping it because of a change.org petition. Or the case of Ariana Miyamoto 宮本 エリアナ, Miss Universe Japan 2015, who faced criticism for being a mixed-race hafu ハーフ instead of “pure” Japanese.

These incidents do not speak for all of Japan; Ms. Sono’s apartheid comments were widely criticized, the blackface segment was abandoned due to public protest, and Ms. Miyamoto has many supporters. But these incidents do say something about Japan.

I’m too cautious to draw broad conclusions about Japan in general; the issues are too complex and I know far too little. However, I am comfortable positing that Japan is more tolerant of other races than it was roughly 100 years ago. Today we are unlikely to witness a massacre on the order of what happened following the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake 関東大震災, in which an estimated 6,000 Koreans, Chinese and Japanese (mistaken for Koreans) were killed by angry mobs reacting to unconfirmed rumors that Koreans were rioting 朝鮮人虐殺事件 (The Japan Times). Similarly, racism was almost certainly a factor during the height of Japanese imperialism.

Japan has seemingly evolved towards a wider acceptance of other “races”, but there is no promise that this trend will continue. As we contemplate Japan’s attitudes towards race, let me provide a rather interesting data point, the 1964 Japanese film, Black Sun 黒い太陽 Kuroi taiyō.

Black Sun is about the complex relationship between a jazz-obsessed Japanese thief and an American soldier on the run from the police. The thief, Mei, is played with abandon by Tamio Kawaji / Kawachi 川地民夫. He inhabits the role completely, joyfully skipping down the street after the purchase of a new album, or closing his eyes and pursing his lips as he listens to tunes in a jazz club. The soldier, Gill, is played by Chico Lourant, aka Chico Roland チコ・ローランド, a black American whose race is a focus of the film. Chico is convincing as the injured and terrified man-on-the-run. Perhaps too convincing. His lines, delivered in English, are breathless gusts, hardly understandable. A rather harsh, but fairly accurate account of Chico is as follows: “Unfortunately, Chico Roland is a terrible actor, and his unconvincing performance is hampered by some of the worst ADR this side of an Italian spaghetti western. For as much as his onscreen actions are exaggerated, his vocal performance cranks it up several notches still.” (source)

Mei lives in an abandoned church and returns home to find the barrel of a machine gun pointed at him. Holding the gun is Gill, who is wanted by the police for the murder of a fellow American soldier. Mei knows this too – he overheard police talking about the murder during his drive home. Instead of being afraid, Mei is giddy. He believes that all black people are closely connected to jazz music. Mei ignores the machine gun and says: “You. You’re Black. Today’s my lucky day.”

The film, directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara 蔵原惟繕, feels wild and subversive. It could be mistaken for the work of a cult filmmaker. But Kurahara is a director of popular works with a career spanning almost 40 years. It is exactly Kurahara’s accessibility that makes Black Sun’s dangerous exploration of racial identity so watchable.

Mei doesn’t speak English, and Gill doesn’t speak Japanese, but Mei assumes his love of jazz will serve as a bond between the two. Mei wants Gill to live up to his fantasy of what a “negro” should act like. Midway through the film, the pair leave their hilltop hideway and drive to a jazz club. To avoid detection, Mei paints himself in blackface and paints Gill’s face white. The scene, around the 54-minute mark, is as uncomfortable as it is memorable:  “Let’s make him dance.”

The crowd compels Chico to dance, but he becomes overwhelmed by the humiliation of the situation. This is reflected in the sweaty white makeup that clings to his face. As the music drives forward, Chico swivels and stares at the portraits of jazz greats who adorn the walls. The pictures seem to taunt them, just as the Japanese are taunting him to dance. Like Mei, the Japanese in the club idolize black jazz musicians, but as pictures on the wall, not as real human beings. When Chico proves to be a terrible dancer, the people in the club say “forget it, he’s useless”…

This scene is reminiscent of the opening scene of The Warped Ones 狂熱の季節 (1960) a film also directed by Kurahara and starring Kawaji as Akira, an even more troubled young man. Though not a sequel, Black Sun is considered a spiritual to The Warped Ones because of the similar jazzy scores, visual templates, and nihilistic world view. After watching Black Sun, it is interesting to see The Warped Ones open with Kawaji and Chico sharing a drink in a jazz bar – perhaps the very same bar from Black Sun. Jazz music pulses throughout the scene, and the camera jumps between close-ups of black Jazz musicians on the wall. It is pure speculation on my part, but the idea behind filming Black Sun may have originated in this scene from The Warped Ones.

II. Meet Chico Lourant

Arthur “Chico” Lourant was an American soldier who served in Korea and found steady work in Japanese film and television in the 1960’s. In Japanese he was billed as チコ・ローランド, a decent translation of “Chico Lourant”, though the last name ローランド seems to have morphed into “Roland”, which is a simpler translation of ローランド. Most articles on the internet refer to him as “Chico Roland”. In Japanese, the R and L sound are combined, so the katakana letter ロ can be RO or LO, and ラ can be RA or LA. As a result, “Lourant” and “Roland” would be spelled the same in Japanese.

An Ebony magazine profile from 1963 offers the definitive biography of Chico. Titled “Yank Movie Man of Japan – Virile American Actor Chico-san wins wide popularity in fast action Japanese movie, radio, and television shows”, the article discusses Chico’s rise to fame and mentions many of his film and television projects:

“A Korean combat veteran, discharged in Japan in 1954, Chico batted around the Orient till his money ran out. In Hong Kong, broke and jobless, he met a friend who hired him as a guide because he knew a little Chinese and a lot about Hong Kong. With his earnings, Chico bought a trumpet in a hock shop and taught himself how to play. He saved enough from a night club band job to return to Tokyo where he played trumpet in the Crown club on the Ginza, Tokyo’s glittering main street.”

“One night in 1960, a well known Japanese movie director from Toho Studios mistook Lourant for famed actor Poitier. Learning his mistake, he asked if Chico could sing and dance, and when the answer was no, asked the American to sing anything so he could hear his voice. Lourant remembered the words to When the Saints Go Marching In and sang it spiritedly while the director, camera conveniently at hand, took a number of close-ups of him.”

Chico’s work as an actor seems to have been limited to Japan. His JMDB profile (Japanese) lists 10 film credits, starting in 1961 and ending in 1972. His IMDB profile is a bit longer, with sixteen credits between 1960-1981. Movie-fan.jp has him in 14 films, and MovieWalker has him in 19 productions; the additional roles appear to be bit parts. Overall, Black Sun seems to be his most significant film role, though he also had extensive television work (TV drama database テレビドラマデータベース). For example, Chico appeared in the popular Great Hero Harimau (aka The Fast Thief, Harimao) 快傑ハリマオ (Google hilariously translates “Fast Thief” as “Sassy Girl”). Chico’s face is visible on packaging for DVDs of the series, shown below:

“Harimao also entered Japanese viewers’ home, with the immensely popular Kaiketsu Harimao (The Fast Thief, Harimao) in 1960. This was a domestically produced television series in colour, and the first to have locations overseas, most notably in Angkor Wat. The series was very popular, with a longevity of 65 episodes from April 1960 to June 1961.” – The Many Lives of the Tiger of Malaya

Photo sources: Amazon.co.jp (1) 怪傑 ハリマオ 第5部 風雲のパゴダ篇 全4巻セット [レンタル版] [DVD] (2) 快傑ハリマオ 風雲のパゴダ篇 3 TVH-019 [DVD]

Chico’s film credits also include a turn as a beleaguered priest trying to save the soul of a wayward prostitute in Gate of Flesh 肉体の門 (1964). Chico can’t seem to get away from abandoned churches in 1964. The film stars Joe Shishido 宍戸 錠, a WW2 returnee who befriends a clan of brazen prostitutes and comes to grips with a defeated Japan. Directed by the iconoclastic Seijun Suzuki 鈴木 清順, Gate of Flesh is more well known than Black Sun, and provide Chico with a smaller, but equally strange and memorable role.

In Genocide 昆虫大戦争 (1968), aka War of the Insects, abandoned churches are the least of Chico’s worries. The following clip has a fair amount of Chico’s acting. This appears to be a pretty awful film, but I can’t wait to watch it.

Part III. Meet Shibuya, again

Chico Lourant and Tamio Kawachi are the stars of Black Sun, but the abandoned church that serves as their hideaway is a solid supporting actor. The church, which appears to be a real structure rather than a movie set, is perched on top of a slope, giving the characters a psychological distance from the suffocating streets of Tokyo. In an excellent review of the film, David Blakeslee writes (emphasis added by The Tokyo Files):

“Besides the swingin’ soundtrack and the bizarre fascination stirred up by Gil and Mei’s interactions, Kurahara’s unique eye for composition and his camera’s free-flying movements supply the other compelling reason to give Black Sun a spin. I’m assuming that the blasted husk of a church was a real location, not a fabricated set, but even if it wasn’t, Kurahara’s exploration of the building’s desecrated interior and rickety assembly of ladders and staircases is quite marvelous to behold. The angles are so acute and unusual that it often takes the eye a few moments to decipher what it’s looking at, lending the film some decent replay value.”

Just as the story of race in Japan is complex, so too is the role of Christianity. There is no exact analogy between jazz music and Christianity, but I suspect that the filmmakers set Black Sun in an abandoned church precisely because of its complex history in Japan, from its introduction in 16th century Nagasaki, the “hidden Christians” Kakure Kirishitan 隠れキリシタン of the 17th century, and the role of Christian missionaries during Japan’s Westernization of the Meiji era (Waseda University 早稲田大学, for example, is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Japan).

So where is this church? I was surprised to find that it is located just 500 meters (a 5-minute walk) from the preposterously busy Shibuya Scramble crossing 渋谷スクランブル交差点, next to Shibuya Station. The station is is surrounded by several slopes, as seen in this elevation map, which centers on Shibuya Station at the center of the green “Y”. South of the crossing, to the west of the Yamanote Line train tracks, is the slope where the church was located, one of the steepest slopes in the area. (source)

I couldn’t find anything written about the church’s location, so I resorted to using visual clues, a favorite hobby of mine. There is one scene that provides most of the clues: around the 51-minute mark, the camera starts with a close-up of the church, then zooms out to reveal that the church is perched close to a wide set of train tracks. The camera then pans down and to the right, zooming in on a busy bus station. I took screenshots of these images and created a merged photo, seen here, with annotation:

Below is a Google Earth aerial image taken from above Shibuya Station, looking towards Ebisu, followed by a map of the route from Shibuya Station to the church’s location.

Black Sun church Shibuya map 2014

I spent several hours searching for an image to match the scene from Black Sun, using search terms such as “1960s Tokyo Train station”. The winning photograph came from the Shibuya Photo Museum「渋谷フォトミュージアム」, a project of the Tokyu Corporation 東京急行電鉄株式会社. Below, left, is a stitched image from Black Sun, next to a 1963 photograph showing the construction of the Shibuya Tokyu Building「渋谷東急ビル」, now Tokyu Plaza Shibuya 東急プラザ 渋谷 (map, Wikipedia, photo source: Shibuya Photo Museum).

[Update: as of end of year 2015, the Shibuya Tokyu Building was demolished.]

This photograph clearly places the church in Shibuya. As far as the specific location two pieces of evidence are helpful. The first comes from a scene filmed at dawn, at the 36-minute mark. Starting from the dull, crampled buildings in front of the church and panning east towards Tokyo Tower and the rising sun. Here’s a stitch from this scene, taken from the perspective of the church, looking northeast.

Here is roughly the same scene, taken in 2014 (map).

Virtually nothing from 1964 is the same today, with the exception of one building. Below, left, is a detail from the dawn scene in Black Sun. The  building at left has a thin square vent or smokestack at top. This building seems to have survived until today, despite the notoriously short lives of buildings in Japan. It is the Second Oka Yamazaki building 第二岡﨑ビル (map).

Another helpful scene is around the 9:30 mark. Mei is driving his car from the Shibuya Station up the hill towards the church. The camera is mounted on the front of the car and there is only one cut during this scene. Below, left, is a frame from Black Sun, making note of a tiled-roof house to the left of the street.

Here is a photo from roughly the same location today. This may just be a coincidence, but today a tiled-roof house sits in the same location. The church is long gone, having apparently been demolished during filming of Black Sun in 1964. Today, the location is home of Yamaha Electone City Shibuya ヤマハエレクトーンシティ渋谷 (Streetview; map), which is a Yamaha concert hall.

Although the church from Black Sun is gone, another church is located on the hill, two doors away from the Yamaha building. It is Nakashibuya Church 中渋谷教会 (website, Wikipediamap). This church was built in 1975, and the location was purchased in 1935. It is possible that this is the actual location of the Black Sun church, but the evidence suggests that the neighboring Yamaha building (or the Japan University of Economics, Shibuya campus 日本経済大学 渋谷キャンパス 都築育英学園), which sits between the two (map).

United Church of Christ in Japan Naka Shibuya church 日本基督教団中渋谷教会

I’d like to learn more about the history of the Black Sun church, but for now I’m content knowing its location. Similarly, I wonder whatever happened to Chico Lourant. Did he return to the United States and ride into the Tucson sunset? Or is is still in Japan, haunting the hills of Shibuya, trying to recapture the time when he starred alongside Japan’s greatest stars?

Links & References:

Race in Japan:

The Warped Ones (1960), also directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara 蔵原惟繕

The Warped Ones was first marketed in the United States as a sexploitation film called “The Weird Love Makers”. The Warped Ones 狂熱の季節 (1960), is part of the “sun tribe” movement (taiyozoku 太陽族), characterized by hedonistic youth, and often associated with sunglasses, Hawaiian shirts, and the seaside. The sub tribe is a Japanese analogue to the rebels typified in America by James Dean. In The Warped Ones,  Tamio Kawaji stars as an even more troubled young man named Akira. Reviewers of Black Sun, including the Wikipedia entry, often list Kawaji’s character in Black Sun as Akira, though other sources, including my watching of the film, indicate that his character in Black Sun is named Mei.

Chico Lourant / Roland & Black Sun

* Chico’s last name, Lourant, translates phonetically as ローランド. In Japanese, lo/ro and la/ra are the same sound. And translating ローランド to English will more often result in ‘Roland’ as opposed to ‘Lourant’.

Chico in Detective Bureau 23: Go to Hell Bastards 探偵事務所23くたばれ悪党ども:

Chico in “Genocide” / “War of the Insects” Konchū daisensō” (1968)

In the French poster, he is credited as “Chico Lourant”, and is shown at the bottom right of that poster. His face also appears on the Japanese poster. In the trailer to the film, below, his unflattering close-up is the result of a killer bee attack.

More pictures of Chico Lourant / Chico Roland from the 1963 Ebony magazine profile:

Chico in an add for the candy Nachiguro 那智黒 (photo source)

Soundtrack from Black Sun:

More about “Great Hero, Harimau”

 “This paper aims to draw some contours of Japanese nostalgic Asianism in Kaiketsu Harimau (Great Hero, Harimau, 1960-1961). Amongst the cultural products that engaged with the memories of the war, Kaiketsu Harimau, one of the earlier television drama produced in Japan, expressed Japan’s nostalgia for a Southeast Asia and Mongolia in which the Japanese were the saviours, heroically fighting against Western colonial authorities and Chinese villains. The reproduction of a Japanese hero in Asia was deeply related to the historical context of the 1950s and1960s. Faced with the challenges of the new international environment, this drama functioned as compensation for the loss of Japan’s national pride, and for an emasculated Japanese male identity within the U.S. hegemonic order. The re-imagination of Japan as a leader in Asia worked to a great extent in the settings of Southeast Asia and Mongolia, which seemed to have less contention with Japan over the memory of war than its closest neighbours, China and Korea.” – Nostalgic Asianism in Postwar Japan: The TV Drama Kaikestu Harimau, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese studies (ejcjs)

Shibuya:

Other films from Director Koreyoshi Kurahara 蔵原惟繕:

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18 comments

  1. I photocopied the Ebony article for you. And I have many photos of Chico. I can mail them to you. Or if you live in the Tokyo area, perhaps we can meet during Golden Week.

  2. Hello Clark,
    Very glad to hear from you. I would be pleased to show you the photos of Chico. Cliff has a large archive of Nikkatsu shots. Perhaps you could help to identify people and the films being made. Also on the set shots of “The Yakuza” etc. Cliff wrote a memoir of his movie extra experiences in Japan. I think you will enjoy this:

    Allan in ikebukuro

    • Hi there!

      Thank you so much for all of your hard work putting together Dad’s photos! Unfortunately, I live in Az, so I wouldn’t be able to meet with you..If you can email those photos to:
      pklourant@yahoo.com, I would greatly appreciate it.

      Yesterday was the 9 month anniversary of his passing..still can not believe he is gone..

      Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.
      You are to kind Allan.

      ♡Love,
      Pearl Lourant-Misner & Family

  3. Ooops, I clicked the wrong button and my message disappeared.
    I was very pleased to find your website. I am researching the archives of Clifford Harrington. Cliff wrote the Ebony article. I have at least a dozen photos of Chico and Katsuko Nagano and on the set shots with Akira Kobayashi, etc.
    I sill be leased to share them with you and the Lourant family.
    This is Cliff’s project so far:
    http://www.finelinepress.co.nz/harrington-a-memoir.pdf
    Best wishes
    Allan

    • Thank you very much for sharing this information! I took a quick look at the project, but will go back to read more. The film, “The Yakuza”, is one that I watched before ever visiting Japan, and is one of the films that initially made me interested in visiting.
      Best of luck,
      Clark

  4. Hi there..I’m Pearl Lourant. Arthur’s only Daughter..We didn’t know until recently how many people still enjoyed my Father’s movies..Sadly, my Father took his last breath on 7/20/2015 in Tucson, Az at the age of 86..He his now with the Lord. I’d like to thank everybody who stayed loyal to him; fans, friends, associates & fellow actors..God Bless you All!💞

    Thank You Deeply,
    The Lourant Family

    • Hi Pearl, I am sorry for your loss, but at the same time, I’m glad to hear that you’ve seen that there are so many people who have enjoyed your father’s films! I wish you and your family the best.

      Kind regards, and deepest condolences,
      Clark

    • Dear Pearl,
      Very sorry to hear about your loss. I’ve only just discovered Clark’s site. I have about a dozen unpublished photographs of Chico at a movie studio in Tokyo. They were taken by his friend Cliff Harrington who wrote the Ebony article. Will get the photos to you asap. Am sure they will warm your heart.
      sincerely
      Allan

  5. This is great! It is my dream to curate a retrospective of Chico’s films. Gate of Flesh is terrific and you should watch it. He is also known from getting castrated by Sonny Chiba’s bare hands in The StreetFighter and Genocide. I tracked down his son years ago on My Space and he was living in Arizona and very sick back then. His son lives in Japan and is also named Chico Lourant so you may be able to get more information from him.

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