The highlight of BIFF 2014 for me was the retrospective of films directed by Nomura Yoshitaro. Five films, all adapted from published stories by the celebrated crime fiction writer Matsumoto Seicho, were screened ranging from Stakeout (Japan 1958) to The Demon (1978). Festival director Tom Vincent worked with Nomura’s studio Shochiku and its international representative Chiaki Omori to bring prints to the UK with the assistance of the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. The five prints will also be screened in London at the ICA from 18 April.
I’ve blogged on each of the five films on our sister blog: http://globalfilmstudies.com/tag/nomura-yoshitaro/
The final Nomura film in Bradford’s retrospective was described initially as bringing an element of horror into its crime melodrama. I’m not sure that is an appropriate description (it might have been more appropriate for The Shadow Within). The title ‘Demon‘ certainly suggests horror but I would argue that this is a melodrama featuring ‘extremes’ of cruelty and despair. Certainly there is nothing supernatural. Possibly it could be argued that the behaviour exhibited by some characters is ‘abnormal’ – but then many crimes might be the result of abnormal behaviour. The literal translation of the title is more revealing, suggesting the kind of character we eventually meet as ‘brutal’.
The earlier Nomura films based on Matsumoto stories have referred to various social issues and in this case it is the issue of marital relations and childcare coupled with low income. The central character is a married man, Sokichi (Ogata Ken, also a leading player in Castle of Sand) who fathers three children with a mistress. His own marriage is childless and he works alongside his wife Oume (Iwashita Shima) in a small-scale printing business. When money becomes tight in the failing business he can’t afford to pay for the upkeep of his children. As a consequence, the mistress appears one day, dumps the children (6, 3 and an infant) at the printshop and disappears. Oume is furious and refuses to have anything to do with them.
Sokichi has a complicated problem – what to do with his children when his wife doesn’t want them. I don’t want to reveal what happens (a Region 1 DVD is available) but suffice to say his increasingly desperate attempts to rid himself of the children become more unbearable as the narrative progresses. Sokichi at first seems to care for his children (who love him as their father) but eventually he is driven to actions which deny this. At one point I thought I was going to find it difficult to watch the narrative unfold. I was then quite surprised to find that the last third of the film was gripping and in a strange way it ended as a humanist melodrama. Nomura re-visits the Noto peninsula which featured at the end of Zero no shoten for the climax of the film. Although the police do become involved, like The Shadow Within, The Demon is essentially a family drama. The film won several awards in Japan, including best actor for Ogata and best director. Ogata’s performance is extraordinary, making us feel for a man despite his despicable behaviour. Shima is equally good as a woman who has become almost the equivalent of a wicked witch in a fairy tale. I don’t think we learn whether she is actually infertile or whether she has chosen to remain childless. Certainly she shows no maternal instinct.
Like many of Matsumoto’s stories this appears to be based on a true story. Such stories are all too common in the press and on television news. It’s hard to imagine how a family story like this can be adapted so successfully but Nomura and his scriptwriter (in this case Ide Masato, who worked with Kurosawa on three films) manage the task. The film was screened on a digital format and perhaps lacked the colours of a film print but Kawamata Takashi’s camerawork is up to the same standard as in the earlier films. I didn’t notice the music because I was so engrossed by the story. I’m not sure that this was my favourite film of the five Nomuras, but the more I think about it, the more of an exceptional artistic and commercial achievement it becomes.
This was presented at Bradford as the biggest hit for Nomura Yoshitaro, surprising his studio Shochiku since it was thought to be an old-fashioned film. The film is much longer than the others in the retrospective at 143 minutes. It’s an adaptation of Matsumoto’s 1961 novel. The English translation of 1989 gives the novel a new title – ‘Inspector Imanishi Investigates’. It also suggests that the direct translation of the Japanese title is ‘Vessel of Sand’. Nomura illustrates the title with a sequence in which a boy makes small castles of sand which crumble as they dry in the sun.
In one sense the film goes back to the straightforward police procedural found in Stakeout. Once again the narrative is full of train trips – criss-crossing the main island of Honshu from the North-East to the West and then to the South and the city of Ise before coming back to Tokyo. The length of the film is a result of a long final sequence in which the main suspect is engaged in playing his own composition for piano and orchestra in a public performance. As in the other films I was reminded of a Hitchcock film – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – with a grand set piece. But I didn’t get quite the ending I expected.
Inspector Imanishi is an unconventional character in the Matsumoto book who is made slightly more conventional in the film as played by Tanba Tetsuro, though he retains the book character’s doggedness and still writes poetry. He and his young assistant are called to a railway yard in Tokyo where a body has been found without any form of identification. The only clue comes from a bar assistant who had earlier heard the man talking to a second man in a ‘North-Eastern accent’. What follows is a satisfying procedural sequence in which the detectives eventually place the name the victim is supposed to have spoken in the bar and linked it to the accent, but this actually sends them West to a remote region. Another long slog, a slice of luck and good observation coupled with imagination leads them eventually to a possible suspect, a concert pianist played by Kato Go from The Shadow Within, but this time with fashionable sunglasses and looking quite suave. But still the detectives struggle to make links between their different sets of evidence. In the end it is Ryu Chisu, the great actor from Ozu’s films, who in the role of a village elder remembers a part of the long story of the murdered man that enables the detectives to finally make the breakthrough.
As in Matsumoto’s other crime stories, there is an important social issue at stake in the narrative. This time it is a particular form of social exclusion that still operated in the Japanese countryside in the early war years. Nomura shows the excluded figures kept out of villages, often in settings which connote the beauty and tranquility of Japanese rural life (see above). This ironic juxtapostion is then underpinned by the orchestral music which builds up the excessive emotion of the melodrama. The stigma that underpins this narrative was still prevalent in 1974 and the film ends with an explanation that there is no basis for its continuing social impact. Tom Vincent has suggested to me that it was this issue that helped to make the film a hit and that it was widely supported for its stand in this regard. A second issue is the rebuilding of lives following the devastation of war. The detectives discover that all public records in Osaka were destroyed by Allied fire-bombing – and that they could only be recovered by allowing the survivors to verify their own identities. What more could the writer of melodrama want than the perfect narrative device for switching identities?
I was totally convinced by this melodrama/police procedural but I spoke to other members of the audience who really couldn’t cope with the final section. It’s a shame that melodrama has become such a ‘dirty word’ in the UK and I still don’t understand how it happened. I guess that Castle of Sand is an old-fashioned film even for 1974. At one point I noticed that there was hand-held camerawork in a bar-room scene. How outlandish it seemed! Old-fashioned yes, but there is such a lot to admire from the performances and the script to the wonderful journeys across so many Japanese landscapes presented in colour and ‘Scope. We were very fortunate to watch a 35mm print produced by Shochiku after digital restoration in 2009 and it looked wonderful.
Here’s a trailer for a US release:
The third Nomura film at BIFF marks something of a change in style, though the narrative content, still based on a Matsumoto story, remains consistent. The colour 16mm Scope print was less buckled but the colour had faded badly. Unfortunately this film includes some flashback footage that is subject to various visual effects and they seem to have deteriorated more than the rest of the film creating some very odd images. More disturbing for me is the soundtrack now featuring what Festival Director Tom Vincent referred to as enka music. I don’t have the knowledge and experience to discuss this Japanese popular music form of the 1970s, but I’m usually happier with orchestral classical/jazz scores. I think Tom referred to ‘lounge music’ but that was a much later term in Western music – perhaps it originated in Japan?
1970 marks a high point when Japan was more affluent and more comfortable with ‘Japaneseness’ than in the first decades after the war. It was the year of the Osaka Expo and just six years on from the Tokyo Olympiad. Japan was now on a par with many developed countries and the future looked good. Only three years later the oil crisis would temper economic growth but the economy would continue to grow again from the late 1970s. Society too was changing and gradually ‘modernising’. However, the film industry was in crisis with the major studios losing money and smaller independents gaining ground alongside foreign imports (mostly from Hollywood). One impact on the traditional crime melodramas that were Nomura’s focus is the depiction of overt sexual activity. By 1970 the so-called pinku eiga or ‘pink films’ were beginning to establish soft porn as a major genre/mode in Japanese cinema. This doesn’t mean that The Shadow Within is soft porn – far from it –but we do see the central couple in bed making passionate love, mainly under the sheets and in some shots showing much more skin than would have been possible in mainstream Japanese genres in 1961, the date of the earlier Nomura title that we watched.
The Shadow Within is a film about adultery and the difficulties faced by single parents attempting new relationships. However, unlike the earlier two Nomura films the narrative here focuses on the man as the ‘active’ player in the narrative. Now in his thirties, Hamajima Yukio (Katô Gô) is what I assume was seen as a ‘salary man’ in 1970s Japan, though he seems to have some degree of autonomy in running a busy travel agency in Tokyo. He works long hours and doesn’t get much support and comfort at home in the suburbs – where his wife is usually busy with one of her several local business ventures, most of which seem to involve her female friends invading the house. There might be an interesting narrative about the newly entrepreneurial woman here but that isn’t what concerns Matsumoto and Nomura. The couple is childless and outside of work Yukio doesn’t have any interests. One day, on the bus home, he spots a woman he thinks he knows and when they eventually speak he realises that they were at school together. Teiko (Iwashita Shima) is now a widow with a small son and it isn’t long before Yukio is invited to her house to meet the 6 year-old son, Ken. As in many Japanese films, little is said about childcare for the boy (is he at home on his own all day?), but as their relationship develops Yukio begins to visit the house before Teiko gets home and he looks after the boy when the child’s mother is kept out late selling insurance.
The central section of the narrative shows the developing relationship. Yukio spends more and more time with Teiko and her son – his own wife is seemingly too busy to notice. But gradually, Yukio begins to get the feeling that the boy resents him. This sounds like a conventional melodrama development but Nomura manages to develop the story in several interesting ways. The child playing the son is distinctly creepy, almost like a forerunner of the late 1990s J-horror children and gradually we realise that it is having an effect on Yukio. Is he becoming paranoid or is the child really trying to harm him? Is what we see actually happening or is this Yukio’s imagination? Around this point in the narrative Nomura introduces the flashbacks which show us Yukio as a small boy in a similar situation, living with his single mother when a man joins the family group. The final section of the film then moves into a full-blown psychological family melodrama.
The Shadow Within is a melodrama in which the criminal act which eventually requires police investigation comes from within the family melodrama – i.e. it itself does not ‘drive’ the narrative. The appearance of the police is thus quite brief at the end of the film. Again it’s very difficult not to think of Hitchcock in the final scenes when, during a police interview, we are invited to watch two or three large black crows, seemingly peering in the window. I enjoyed the film as much as the others in the Nomura retrospective and I was very taken by the performance of Iwashita Shima as the woman. Katô Gô as Yukio was able to move from stolid normalcy to become the focus for paranoia as the narrative developed.
Here is the Japanese trailer (no subs) which illustrates several of the style points discussed above (the effects footage, the music, more overt sexual activity etc.):
This was actually the first of Bradford International Film Festival’s Nomura Yoshitaro films based on the published stories of Matsumoto Seicho to be screened. All the issues about the 16mm print for Stakeout also apply here. Although released three years after Stakeout, I thought this seemed like an earlier film. Part of that feeling came from the style of the film which much more resembled the films noirs of the 1940s in the US and Europe.
Tom Vincent’s notes in the festival brochure capture the noir elements well when he refers to: “voiceover, revelations, duplicitous characters . . . indebted to Hitchcock with a dual-identity plot and elevated showdowns reminiscent of both Vertigo and Rebecca, plus a Herrmann-like score”. We might add the use of flashbacks and the presence of a femme fatale. Many of these elements also signal melodrama and with the added presence of elements of the police procedural, Zero Focus is clearly related to the other four films in the festival package.
The convoluted plot involves a young couple who marry in difficult circumstances. Teiko is in Tokyo and Kenichi has been working on a job for his advertising company on the west coast of Japan in Kanazawa. Immediately after the wedding he returns to Kanazawa to tie up loose ends before taking up his new post in Tokyo – but he doesn’t return on the expected day. He can’t be contacted and after a few days his company send another employee, with Teiko, to investigate what they realise has become a ‘missing persons’ case. Gradually Teiko uncovers her husband’s ‘other life’ in Kanazawa and on the remote Noto peninsula with its rugged cliffs (which will provide a dramatic setting for the narrative climax). The police investigation hinges on a crucial memory of what happened in Japan under occupation (1946-52) when street prostitution to serve American GIs began to become a social issue. One of the police officers had been a ‘street guard’ who knew the women on the street. This notion of building social issues into crime fiction has been part of the attraction of Matsumoto’s stories for readers.
The film has been released on DVD in North America and there are some reviews on IMDB. Unfortunately most of them don’t realise what a gem the film is. As with Stakeout, Nomura and his scriptwriters are interested in the women in the story so it is literally the ‘voices’ of the three women shown at the head of this posting who effectively ‘drive’ the narrative through voiceovers. Teiko is a Tokyo girl at first well outside her comfort zone tramping through the snow in her high heels on the coast. But she gets down to it and adapts quickly (note the lined bootees in the photo). Kuga Yoshito who plays Teiko was by this time a veteran of Japanese cinema having made an early appearance for Kurosawa in Drunken Angel in 1948 and subsequently worked on Kurosawa’s The Idiot and films by both Mizoguchi and Ozu. She is slightly older than a ‘young bride’ might be and this makes her more interesting for me. She looks like she means business in the last reel! Working on the script was Hashimoto Shinobu who contributed to Kurosawa’s script for Rashomon and other films. The Rashomon connection here is a device whereby the final part of the film offers different versions of what actually happened in the story of Teiko’s husband’s disappearance.
Some of the more perceptive reviews of the film are found here:
The harsh beauty of Noto is similar to the mountain spa region around Saga in Stakeout and Nomura tries to get what he can from it. I was struck by how the cliff top and the angry sea (in other parts of Japan) are settings that recur in more recent Japanese films including Ringu (1998) and Villain (2010). They also appear in two further Nomura films.
N.B. If you are looking for this film, don’t get confused by the 2009 remake which is easily available on DVD.
This was the earliest of the films by Nomura Yoshitaro to be screened at the 20th Bradford Film Festival. All five films at Bradford were adapted from stories by Matsumoto Seicho. Although I enjoyed all five films this was perhaps my favourite. It was screened second which meant that I’d already got some idea of what to expect (even if all five films adopt slightly different styles).
Stakeout was screened on a 16mm anamorphic print, always a difficult projection format even for the National Media Museum’s world-class projectionists. These are the only subtitled film prints available from the Japan Foundation Film Library. The print was buckled/warped and it was impossible to get the whole film in focus at the same time so we had to cope with a blurring of the right-hand quarter of the screen. Along with the relatively large subtitles and the loud and rather brash-sounding music score this made the screening experience less than ideal. It’s a tribute to Nomura’s filmmaking skill, therefore, that the next 116 minutes revealed a gripping film narrative that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The film opens with a lengthy pre-credit sequence, unusual for the period, in which we follow two Tokyo detectives as they catch the overnight (and very crowded) express to Saga City on the southernmost island of ‘mainland’ Japan, Kyushu – a journey of around 1,000 km. It’s a very hot Summer and the police officers have an uncomfortable journey before finding a ryokan (a small hotel/boarding house) which overlooks the house where they are to watch a woman. The woman is played by the great Takamine Hideko, one of the most popular stars of the period, often remembered for her roles in Naruse Mikio’s melodramas such as Floating Clouds and When A Women Ascends the Stairs (1960). This is Sadako, a housewife married to an older businessman and stepmother to three small children. The police believe that she is the ex-lover of a murder suspect and that he will attempt to contact her. Their hotel room provides the perfect vantage point from which to watch her house – but it’s hot and their vigil might last a long time. The detectives are played by Oki Minoru (Yuki, the younger man) and Miyaguchi Seiji (the older man)
Nomura spent several years preparing this film, making sure he got it right. It doesn’t take too long during the stakeout for us to realise that there is more to this story than solving a crime. Nomura gives us flashbacks to explain how the investigation began in Tokyo but also to look at the home lives of the two police officers. The older of the two has three children at home, the oldest girl now a working woman who is seeking to marry – but a police officer’s pay means that her father is struggling financially. The younger officer is wondering about whether he should marry the daughter of the local bathhouse keeper. These thoughts trouble the detectives as they note that their target is a woman suffering in a loveless marriage with children who don’t really care about her. Nomura underlines these concerns by involving the proprietor of the ryokan and her maids. The three women are curious about their guests and try to involve them in the social life of the inn (the ryokan has public areas and a communal bathhouse). Because Nomura makes this effort it means that when the finale comes after Sadako’s lover eventually contacts her, we recognise that the younger detective who follows her on the fateful day is himself concerned about how Sadako responds to her lover. Nomura has constructed a discourse about marriage – its joys and possible pain – which he lays on top of the police procedural. The result of the stakeout will affect the lives of four human beings.
The initial set-up in Saga City is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (US 1954), even down to the broiling heat. The detectives watch the house across the street and think about their own problems. Later on during the chase, Nomura sets up a big street parade in which Sadako is able to elude Yuki (but she might not even have noticed him) . This is reminiscent of Hollywood (and European) crime films, but there is no clear indication that Nomura is directly referencing any Western films. When the film was shown in the US in 2002 it was included in a season of ‘Japanese noirs and neo-noirs‘. I’m not sure how useful these terms are. I can see that such arguments could be made but I find that the crime melodrama tag is more helpful. In effect here, the ‘crime’ is banal and the criminal is a weak man rather than a doomed hero. The woman is no femme fatale and indeed may be ignorant of the crime.
I would argue that although structurally a ‘police procedural’, Stakeout is fundamentally a crime melodrama in which we are invited to think about the personal and emotional lives of the central characters and that this becomes more important when we see how the narrative is resolved. For me, all of the Nomura films in Bradford are melodramas but the genre mix is slightly different in each case. Stakeout is a ‘realist melodrama’ and the finale takes place mainly in the mountains and at a spa resort. Melodrama is a difficult generic category to define and it may be simply a ‘mode’ of filmmaking. Some of my ideas about melodrama are contained in this post. There is music in the film but I would need a second viewing to discuss it in any detail. Nomura’s bravura style with camerawork by Inoue Seiji includes overhead shots, tracking shots, lots of good railway footage and also the rapid wipes for transitions so favoured by Kurosawa Akira at this time.
This trailer (no subtitles) gives a good idea of the visual look of Stakeout: