Nomura Yoshitaro (1919-2005) directed eight adaptations of books by Matsumoto Seichô (1909-92), who wrote a lot of very popular detective fiction, as well as winning the Akutagawa Prize (Japan’s top literary award) in 1953 for Aru ‘Kokura-nikki’ den (The Legend of the Kokura-Diary). I prefer “Zero Focus” (Zero no shôten, 1961) and “The Chase” (Harikomi, 1958) to the more honored 1974 “Suna no utsuwa” (The Castle of Sand), which was the biggest box-office success of Nomura’s career. (I was underwhelmed by their 1970 “The Shadow Within” and will get to the 1978 “Demon.”)
I was unable to suspend disbelief that the haiku-writing Inspector Imanishi (Tanba Tetsuro) could solve the case of a corpse, killed by blunt-force trauma to the front of the head, found in the Tokyo rail yard. He and his gung-ho young partner, Detective Yoshimura (heartthrob Morita Kensaku) find waitresses in a bar who overheard the now-dead man and a younger men they can only vaguely describe saying “Kaneda” several times. That and a misplaced (and never explained!) accent are the only clues—and both clues are misunderstood for long times.
I find it difficult to believe that the Tokyo Railroad Police would allow Inspector Imanishi to travel to multiple locations, where some traces of the victim and/or the murderer are. It turns out that the murdered man, Miki (Ogata Ken), was a retired policeman who Ryû Chishû (playing an abacus maker) and others recall as saintly, so there is no one anyone can point to as having had a grudge against.
Detective Yoshimura retrieves fragments of a torn-up bloodstained shirt, and even meets the upscale bar waitress (Shimada Yôko).who spread it like confetti out the window of a speeding train. She flees without providing any information about who gave her the shirt to dispose of.
There is an explanation of sorts of the murder, spread across a very, very melodramatic and wordless sequence of flashbacks to the war years and an overripe piano concerto being premiered by well-connected rising start composer/conductor/pianist Waga Eiryô (Kat Gô).
I guessed whodunit fairly early in the proceedings, can’t believe that, however determined and willing to travel he was, Inspector Imanishi could have put the pieces together. The “why” is tragic in multiple ways, though I also can’t believe that the murderer killed Miki (in psychological terms, that is; I don’t doubt that Inspector Imanishi is going to arrest the one who did the deed, just that he would…). There are also two romances (both of them rather one-sided: the women loving him) for Waga. I gather that in Matsumoto’s novel, Inspector Imanishi has a wife, but she is dead in the movie version, so providing no distraction from his obsessive investigation.
Various deplorable prejudices, and class differences bordering on caste-like, are critically shown, along with a very harrowing childhood. At the start of the movie and again much later, a boy is shown hollowing out piles of sand he has made and pouring water into the hollow. Of course, the sand cannot hold the water, which seeps down. He decapitates some of these drained towers and lines them up on a plank. “Utsuwa” in the Japanese titles of both novel and movie means “container” (or bowl”, not “castle”; “suna” does mean “sand”. (Even then, the usual English construction is “sand castle,” not “castle of sand”!) Perhaps Matsumoto intended these as a metaphor for futility, but they have nothing at all to do with the plot, which is already plenty complicated in an overly long (if frequently travelogue scenic) movie, often beautifully filmed by Kawamata Takashi with lots of trains (a major plus for me).
The title of the English translation of the novel is the mundane but at least obviously relevant (not to mention alliterative) Inspector Imanishi Investigates.I have no idea why the usual English word order (Sand Castle) is not used for the English title.
The musical overkill in “Zero Focus” and “The Castle of Sand” exceeds anything Kinoshita Chûji did (I don’t doubt with Keisuke’s consent) to Kinoshita Keisuke movies.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray