It's Japan week here in my corner of the blogosphere. I thought I'd kick it off with a look at two movies from director Yoshitaro Nomura. This has been reworked slightly from a review I wrote on the occasion of Nomura's death in 2005.
Zero Focus (Zero no shoten), 1963. Directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. Yoshiko Kuga, Hizuru Takachiro, Ineko Arima, Koji Nambara.
The Demon (Kichiku), 1978. Directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. Ken Ogata, Shima Iwashita, Mayumi Ogawa, Hiroki Iwase.
It's a cruel twist of fate that the generation of Japanese filmmakers who survived World War II are dying off just as they are finally beginning to step out of the shadows of the titans of Japanese cinema. For decades, directors like Kihachi Okamoto, Hideo Gosha, Seijun Suzuki, Kenji Misumi, Kinji Fukasaku, and Yasuzo Masamura have been all but eclipsed by the all consuming shadows cast by Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Masamura didn't live to see a stirring of interest in his films; Giants and Toys, Manji, and Blind Beast are all gaining in stature in the West. Fukasaku got to enjoy a measure of success at the end of his life with the mammoth popularity of Battle Royale, which in turn has sparked a renewed interest in his great yakuza movies from the 1970s. Two years after his death, Fukasaku probably has more of his films available world-wide than any other Japanese director. Others have not been so lucky. Both Okamoto and Gosha are known primarily to a cult audience, though Okamoto's Sword of Doom has become a minor classic. Only Seijun Suzuki has been able to really enjoy the revival of his reputation and the global dissemination of his films. Both Okamoto and Yoshitaro Nomura died in early 2005. Nomura was just beginning to find an audience in the West. Home Vision put two of his films out in solid DVD editions at roughly the hour of his death. Many of these directors were genre specialists; Nomura's forte was film noir.
Zero Focus from 1963 could teach a lot of filmmakers something about economy of editing. A mystery in the mode of Hitchcock, this is a film that doesn't waste time on bullshit. Every shot counts. Every scene fits like the gears in a clockwork. Every edit moves the narrative forward. At first, this seems like it is wound almost too tight, but as the film unspools during its second half, as the mystery is played out against the spectacular landscapes of northern Japan, the film finds time to breathe. This is kinda sorta the same technique that Kurosawa used in High and Low (in which the strictly formal interior shots of the first half give way to the sprawl of Tokyo), but it works just as well here. This film was written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Yoji Yamada, so Zero Focus has a superb writing pedigree. The cinematography by Takashi Kawamata is austere and gorgeous.
The story itself is worthy of Cornell Woolrich. A woman's fiancée leaves Tokyo to tie up some loose business interests for his job in the north of Japan, where he promptly vanishes. No one knows where he went. No one remembers seeing him. His fiance` combs the countryside for a clue to his whereabouts. She is aided by her fiancée's employer and by his brother. When her fiancée's brother turns up dead, and when the police rule her fiancée's death a suicide, she heads back to Tokyo, but a year later, with time to work things out, she heads back North to verify her suspicions...
Crime fiction is often sociological fiction. In Zero Focus, Nomura is confronting certain societal roles for Japanese women and certain cultural weaknesses in Japanese men. Because of the nature of the mystery, I have to describe this in an eliptical fashion, because those roles for women and weaknesses of men are at the very heart of the mystery on display. I'm loathe to give this away, because it's best that the viewer approach the film knowing absolutely nothing.
Some of the same thematic concerns lie behind The Demon, from 1978, and it is perhaps best to discuss them in conjunction with that film instead. The Demon lays everything on the line at the outset, so it's less prone to being spoilt by indiscreet writers on the internet. Although the plots of these two movies are very different, in a lot of respects, they are the same movie. A critic with an auteurist bent could go to town on these two films.
The Demon isn't technically a horror movie, but it's plenty horrifying none the less. There are no actual supernatural shenanigans in the movie (the title is a misnomer of sorts). The film begins like a film by Mizoguchi or Naruse, then transforms into a Hitchcockian thriller: A woman burdened by her three children dumps them on her shirking lover (who is married to another woman). Their father is weak. His wife is incensed that he would cheat on her to the tune of three children. Their mother vanishes into the night. For the rest of the movie, the father and his wife contrive to rid themselves of the children.
I'm not entirely sure what it is about the Japanese that gives rise to this sort of psychodrama, but they do it better than anyone. Ken Ogata is superb in the lead role (I guess he's the demon of the title, but a more pathetic demon you will not find); his performance here reminds me a lot of the serial killer he played in Vengeance is Mine. Shima Iwashita is astounding as his wife--she's a fairly major actress, but I can't imagine any actress playing so cold-hearted and unsympathetic a role. As wicked stepmothers go, Cinderella's stepmom ain't got nothing on Iwashita. The two major set pieces in the movie consist of Ogata taking his daughter (the middle child) to the top of the Tokyo tower, and abandoning her there, and taking his son (the oldest) to the north of Japan with the intention of throwing him off a cliff into the sea. The trip to the north is excruciating, because we can see the father and son begin to form the bonds one expects of a father and son. Will he do it? This is the basis of the suspense. For anyone with children, or for anyone who remembers being a child, this film is a mine field. Anyone who feels uncomfortable watching children in danger or watching children (seemingly) harmed should stay far, far away from this movie.
The weakness of men and the vulnerability of women to exploitation by that weakness is the dominant theme in The Demon. It's possible that this is a theme that becomes prevalent in Japanese cinema at large because of the lingering defeat in World War II, but Nomura doesn't frame it that way. In both films, weak men are salarimen, not ex-soldiers. These films seem deeply suspicious of the men in charge of Japan's "economic miracle" in the sixties and seventies. The desperation of the women in these films in the face of that weakness is palpable.
I'll say this for Yoshitaro Nomura: he sure knows how to pick his writers. Masato Ide, his screenwriter for The Demon, wrote Kurosawa's Red Beard, Kagemusha, and Ran. Nomura also seems drawn to the cliffs in the north of Japan--Zero Focus, makes use of the same locations. The Demon does something interesting, though. Where Zero Focus presented the location in a stark black and white, The Demon drenches the sea in red light. A sea of blood? In the context of the film, oh yeah....