Japanese Noir

I watch some fairly awful movies with great regularity and glee. Nothing could promise less and truly deliver accurately on the promise than movies like The Giant Gila Monster or I Was a Teenage Werewolf. I maintain to this day that Gila Monster could have been nominated for an Oscar for best song in a movie. Hey, sure the song (chant?) is cheesy as hell, but it was a slow year for movie music. Gigi was better? I’m not so sure.

And Teenage Werewolf has points of interest.

  • Teenage boys are known to fret over their complexion and when they might start needing to shave. This flick posits a bizarre take on both anxieties.
  • Plus, watching Michael Landon struggle to bring life to this title character by grunting his lines (human and lycanthropic) makes the viewer ponder if this early acting challenge aided or impeded his mature dramatic efforts (Little Joe in Bonanza and the dad in Little House on the Prairie). It’s a head-scratcher for 30-40 seconds.
  • If this story were remade today, it would probably include a scene in which Nick Saban would pay a recruiting visit to our high-school werewolf promising to change Alabama’s football schedule to all night games.

What delights.

I also watch Japanese movies with regularity. They usually fall into one of two categories;

  • Happy foolishness featuring Godzilla or his runnin’ (actually flyin’) buddies Mothra, Rodan, Ghidra, et al.
  • Seriously serious films directed by Akira Kurasawa (the man is a god to me).

But tonight’s 1961 Japanese film is a new experience for me. None of the actors are wearing rubber suits, Tokyo is not destroyed, Toshiro Mifune is not in the cast, and thousands of mounted warriors with helpful identifying flags are not raising the dust.

Zero Focus (I haven’t a clue as to the meaning of the title) is beautifully directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. I prowl the overnight offerings of Turner Classic Movies just in hope of finding flicks like this.

If you are a fan of film noir and Hitchcock, this is your meat.

  • It’s in black and white.
  • There are trains.
  • The characters speak Japanese, but the language of the film is “bleak”. I happen to be fluent in bleak – I suppose it’s from doing too many Sam Shepard plays and walking out on too many productions of Waiting for Godot (patience is not my forté).
  • There are trains.
  • The plot twists and then twists again.
  • The characters play for keeps. Those who die stay dead, though occasionally we wonder.
  • Did I mention the trains?
  • Segments of Japanese post-war society of which I was totally ignorant are explored (dredged?).
  • I cared about every one of the characters in this story.

This is fine storytelling.

The acting is also fine. Excuse me for throwing some names at you, but these ladies are new to me and I was so very impressed.

  • Yoshiko Kuga is plain, pathetic, smart, and determined.
  • Hizuru Takachino is polished and desperate.
  • Ineko Arima is heartbreaking……………….just heartbreaking.

These women drive the film. How unusual is that for 1961?

Behind these performances, the music is gripping.

I was so taken by this film by Yoshitaro Nomura, I proceeded to watch reputedly his best film; The Castle of Sand. Lucky me.

The Castle of Sand contains another satisfying quota of “noir” elements.

  • It pairs an older/wiser investigator with a younger/more energetic partner (I’m hearing the theme music from The Streets of San Francisco now). They work on the case in question separately and come back together to compare their discoveries. Those discoveries are meager, but spark progress in each other through this cross-pollination. Yes, there are some “Eureka!” moments, but not the usual Hollywood kind. Mind you, I’m not knockin’ Hollywood “Eureka!” moments. They’re usually pretty exciting storytelling. But it’s intriguing to see these two hard-working, sweating, high-integrity guys tease just enough new information to keep their investigation flickering.
  • The film has bar scenes, dining car scenes, and police headquarters interview scenes. Check, check, and check.
  • Again, it has trains. I know that sounds strange but this is always good for me. It makes me a passenger with no control. I am caught in a powerful, loud machine hurling me towards the next chapter in the adventure at hand. Gulp.

The film does not have Ginzu knives.

But wait! There’s more!!

Unlike Zero Focus, this film is in color. Mr. Nomura uses that color to exploit the beauty of rural Japan. Imagine if the Ingmar Bergman of Smiles of a Summer Night had shot a film in rural Kentucky in early summer. The vistas are impossibly green and people stand small in them. The roads/trails are generally straight and so are the people. Integrity is high – tolerance is low. Hospitality is ubiquitous – charity is rare.

The acting in this film is perhaps not as uniformly fine as in Zero Focus, but the portrayal of the older detective by Tetsuro Tanba (fellow James Bond aficionados will remember Mr. Tanba as Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice) is very nice.

The treasure in this film is the remarkable way the resolution is revealed and, as in Zero Focus, the intriguing use of music. Our detectives apply for a warrant to arrest their suspect. To do so, they must present their case to an assembly of police officials. As they tell their story we see their story in painful and lush flashback. As they speak and we watch, everything is underscored by a piano concerto written and played in concert by our prime suspect. The camera smoothly and logically and relentlessly moves from police conference to rural saga to concert performance. I could not look away. The plot twists as the story is unveiled are effective and startling………and plausible.

This is a gem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s