Nomura’s noirish “Zero Focus”

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Nomura Yoshitarô’s 1961 “Zero Focus” (Zero no shôten) is more a noir film than “Harikomi” (The Stakeout/The Chase); both derived from fiction by roman dur writer Matsumoto Seichô. Although its protagonist, Uhara Teiko (Kuga Yoshiko) is far too pure of heart for a noir, it does have moral ambiguity elsewhere, particularly in its femme fatale, Sachiko (Takachiho Hizuru), the young(er) wife of an industrialist living in the northwest of Honshu (Kanazawa, “the Japanese Alps”) and eager to keep her past as a prostitute for occupying GIs secret.

Both movies have lots of train travel and more than a little snow. So much that I’m tempted to dub the movie “cinema blanc” despite the many dim interior shots by Kawamata Takashi.

After a week of marriage, Teiko sees her husband Kenichi (Nabara Koji) off to finish up business at an advertising agency in Kanazawa, an office he had managed three weeks a month, the other ten days in Tokyo. He says he will return to his new bride after eleven days, but he doesn’t.

First a man from the company (Hozumi Takanobu), then Kenichi’s older brother (Nishimura Ko (who memorably played one of the title characters in Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well”) accompany Teiko as she attempts to find out what happened to her new husband. Several versions emerge, though they seem closer approaches to revealing what really happened, mostly on the tip of the Noto peninsula on a cliff above the raging sea.

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As in “Harikomi,” what the protagonist is thinking is conveyed through voiceover. Unusually for a noir, this protagonist is a woman. Typically, the story is quite convoluted and seems more so as it is pieced together by Teiko and then given a definitive version (though one might harbor doubts about the reliability of the ultimate narrator).

There is musical overkill made more annoying by the scratchy condition of the audio of the unrestored print.

The movie is very talky for a thriller, a noir, or a police procedural (most of the investigation is done by Teiko rather than the police who are eager to close cases). Shame about what single women did to survive after Japan’s defeat in what they call “the Pacific War” (and we call World War II) is an important theme, though we don’t learn how Teiko survived during the American Occupation of Japan, when Sachiko was a prostitute.

The title is accurately translated, but I have no idea what it means or how it relates to the story in the movie! It seems to me that Teiko is focused on her inquiries on the triple life the suave Kenichi was playing in Tokyo and in the Ishikawa Prefecture.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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