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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Nomura’s “Harokomi”

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Though having been shot in black and white, mostly in cities, there is no way that Nomura Yoshitarô’s “Harikomi” (1958) is a “film noir.” Almost all of it occurs during the day and the protagonist, Takao Yuki (Ohki Minoru, has none of the moral ambiguity of a a noir protagonist. Indeed, especially for a policeman, he is quite innocent and pure of heart.

The last quarter of the movie fits with one of the English titles, “The Chase,” but the other English title, “Stakeout” is not only the usual translation of “harikomi,” but fits for three quarters or more of the movie, during which Tokyo, Yuji Sgt. Shimooka (Miyaguchi Seiji) and Takao Yuki (Ohki Minoru) are sweltering in Saga, watching Sadako (Takamine Hideko) who is married to a tightwad banker and raising his three children by a previous marriage. They are hoping that her former boyfriend, Ishii (Tamura Takahiro) will turn up in his hometown to see the woman he loved, so that he can be arrested when he does. He is wanted for killing and robbing a pawnbroker in Tokyo.

stakeout.jpgThings begin miserably with the policemen unable to find seats on an overnight train. Once in Saga (on Kyushu), the detectives sweat a lot and the landlady’s daughter is very skeptical of supposed salesmen who rarely leave their room (only when Sadako goes out) and pester the local police about these suspicious characters.

Voiceovers by Yuki reveal his changing attitudes about the household drudge (Sadako)  he has been watching and (more rapidly) about her relationship with her ex. He realizes he was wrong in pretty much all his suppositions about them, but cannot do anything with his new insights except to slightly palliate the troubles Sadako might have encountered with her stingy husband.

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Like many movies by Naruse, Mizoguchi, and Kinoshita, “Harikomi” shows the lack of options for women (often enough embodied by Ms. Takamine). Far from saving her from a brutal lover, the younger detective realizes that she is having a brief idyll with the man who loved her and whom she loved. If not tubercular, he has a lung ailment, which is also a leitmotif of Japanese movies of the 1940s and 50s.

In addition to rejecting identification of the movie as a noir, I find resemblances to and claimed influence by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic “Rear Window” implausible. There are two able-bodied men watching a singular lack of suspicious activity across a street (not a courtyard). Not only do they not witness a murder, they do not see the murderer there. And they don’t even have a Brownie camera, let alone the professional photographer’s equipment James Stewart has while laid up with a broken leg in “Rear Window.”

And the unmarked flashbacks (to the case and the primary relationships of the two policemen) make it much more difficult to follow than the temporal through line of Hitchcock’s classic. Not to mention that the pace is rather leisurely, enrolling the audience with some of the boredom of the stakeout.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Donald Richie in San Francisco in 2001

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Donald Richie is short, not one of those Americans who looms over Japanese. (The other explicator of Japanese culture to Americans, Donald Keene [born in 1922], is also short.) He struck me as a fastidious, mellifluous old queen/trouper. He wore a black suit with a red tie and white shirt, black-framed bifocals. He chose to focus his presentation on writing. The most crucial and difficult part, he said, was to start. There is an infinite variety of other ways to fill the day. He claims he writes to pare down and get away from the self, though I have my doubts, since his sensibility is always on display in his writings. But he said that expressing it is a way to get rid of it. He said that most of his essays grow out of journal entries. His journals are going to be published posthumously, so there must be sexual indiscretion, not just drafts for his weekly book column in Japan Times! He said he writes it in about an hour, though reading the books takes longer than writing about them.

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He claimed that emotions lead to bad writing; distance is essential. Of his 40 books, he likes The Inland Sea the best. He says “I like myself here” (in Japan generally). He finds the wisdom of Japanese writers in their way of showing, Tanazaki being like Jane Austen in this. Because Japanese don’t fear the future, he thinks that Seneca should be popular. He also endorsed Ruth Benedict’s shame but not guilt interpretation in saying that Japanese are not conscious of self, though they are individuated.

I asked him about the ignorance about the Japanese film heritage that I have encountered in Japanese I have met. He agreed there is no audience in Japan for Japanese classical films. Such money as they make is mostly from videos, rather than theatrical release. Even Kitano’s. Kitano can raise money, though “Brother” flopped in Japan. Movies from elsewhere are dubbed into Japanese, contributing to the belief that everyone everywhere speaks Japanese (though many Japanese believe foreigners cannot learn it, that it requires a uniquely Japanese brain).

Kitano teaches the “parasite generation” (children into their 30s who live at home) how to be cool, though they don’t get guns. Smoking in public has lost acceptance. Smokers are called “fireflies” for the appearance outside in the dark of their drags on their cigarettes.

Although the sense of job security is fading as Japan becomes ever poorer, those who lose jobs are shunned [see “Departures”].

Living abroad one is necessarily analytical all the time, especially watching oneself.

I asked him why  [Ruth Benedict’s] Chrysanthemum and the Sword is not on his list of best books on Japan by foreigners. He said that he likes the book, but is suspicious about the method and thinks she was not severe enough. He thinks that Kurt Singer‘s book Mirror, Sword and Jewel is the best and that Barthes wrote what he saw (!) in Empire of Signs, though that book has seemed arbitrary and a priori to most everyone else.

He was surprised that I had a copy of George Stevens: American Romantic (1970), from his NY-MOMA stint. He said that Stevens hated the book and tried to buy up and destroy all the copies. I told Richie that I thought it was quite good and have had it since my first trip to NYC in 1971.

[Born in Lima Ohio, 17 April 1924, Richie died 19 February 2013 in Tokyo. He was in San Francisco in September 2001  promoting the Donald Richie Reader (Stone Bridge Press; a volume of Japan Journals was published by the same publisher in 2005. ]

 

©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

Mizoguchi Kenji Retrospect

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Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), along with Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujiro, received international attention (especially from the Venice Film Festival) during the early 1950s. Mizoguchi had been making movies since 1923, though only 30 of his 85+ ones survive.

His older sister, Suzu, was given up for adoption when she was fourteen and then was sold to a geisha house. Many of Mizoguchi’s movies portray geishas and prostitutes indentured into one of those professions, especially the keikô-eiga (tendency) pictures from the 1930s (such as “Sisters of the Gion”).

During the war the purported leftist embraced the feudal values celebrated by the fascist warmakers, especially in his very tedious portrays of “The 47 Ronin” (1941). He turned on another dime to break the occupiers’ ban on period films (jidai-geki) with the anti-feudal portrayal of the artist Utamaro (and his women) in 1946.

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After the exceptionally grim portrayal of the declining fortunes of a 17th-century prostate in “The Life of Ohau” (1952), Mizoguchi made his jidai-geki masterpieces: Ugestsu, Sanshô the Bailiff, and The Crucified Lovers in 1953-54. He also made more movies about suffering geishas and prostitutes (Gion Festival Music, The Women of the Rumor, Street of Shame (1953-56) before succumbing to leukemia in Kyoto.

Although his last movie has something of the visual style of an Ozu movie, his earlier ones are the antithesis of the fixed-camera, short-take Ozu visual style, notable for long takes and frequent tracking shots. His mise-en-scène was celebrated by French New Wave critics-turning-directors, notably Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard (also Russian Andre Tarkovsky, and later Japanese fimmakers Shinoda Masahiro and Shindo Kaneto).

I highly recommend the chapter on Mizoguchi’s political incoherence and ambivalent portrayals of women in Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors. She points out that along with celebrating the stoicism and quasi-martyrdom of his older sister, Suzu, he was quite willing to exploit her generosity and in general avoided showing women rebelling aginst their social constraints. She also discusses how difficult (she says “demonic”) he was to work for/with. Like Ozu, Mizoguchi did not (could not?) articulate what he wanted, but demanded that others intuit it. His best films were all scripted by Yoda Yoshikita.

 

Even of the relatively few extant Mizoguchi movies, I have seen few—none of the silent movies, but most of his postwar jidai-geki ones. My ratings on a 1-10 scale of those I have seen follows:

1936 Sisters of the Gion 7

1941 The Loyal 47 Ronin 3

1946 Utamaro and His Five Women 5.5

1948 Women of the Night 3.5

1952 The Life of Oharu 6.5

1953 Ugetsu 9

1954 Sanshô, the Bailiff 9.5

1954 The Crucified Lovers 8.5

1955 Princess Yang Kwe-Fei  5

1956 Street of Shame 7

 

The end of legal prostitution in Japan; the last Mizoguchi film

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Akasen chitai” ” (Street of Shame, 1956) was the last film directed by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), director of Ugetsu and Sanchô, the Bailiff, two masterpieces set in distant times that were among the first dozen Japanese films I ever saw. They convinced me that Mizoguchi was a master, though I now realize that his other films are nowhere near as great as those two, and have come to appreciate work of some other Japanese directors more (Ichikawa, Kinoshita, Kobayashi, and Shinoda ; Kurosawa has retained his position at the top of my pantheon).

I find Mizoguchi’s wartime two-part adaptation of “The 47 Ronin” unbearably slow and visually static. I found his 1936 “Sisters Of The Gion” (included in the four-disc Criterion Eclipse “Mizoguchi Fallen Women release) slow, grim, and bordering on hysteria. (OK, I find the conduct in a lot of Japanese films extreme, including a Kurosawa movie I recently saw for the first time, “I Live in Fear.”)

“The Life of Oharu” (1952) is hard for me to take. The title character is the daughter of a (17th-century) samurai who had been a lady-in-waiting in court, but fell and fell and fell some more. Or was ground down by being forced into prostitution and eventually attracting no customers.

In “Street of Shame” two of the prostitutes in the then-contemporary (1956) house of prostitution called “Dreamland” in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara (red-light) district also strike me as well past their sell date. Especially, given the brutal competition, with prostitutes grabbing men walking down the street and dragging them in, it surprises me that these women — two of whom look to me to be pushing 50, and a couple of whom are far from beautiful — are making a living.

With Parliament debating outlawing prostitution (which in the real world it did shortly after “Street of Shame” was released), their situation is increasingly perilous. There are definitely tearjerker elements to the movie, but most of the Dreamland “girls” need to keep working. Hanae (Michiko Kogure) is supporting her sick, unemployed husband and an infant. The aging Yorie (Hiroko Machida) goes off to marry a man who wants a servant who he does not have to pay. She comes crawling back.

An even more unhappy story is that of Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), a war widow who turned to prostitution to provide her parents funds to raise her son, who rejects her with contempt at a time she is hoping to retire and live with him.

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Not all the Dreamland “girls” are ground down in the manner of Oharu. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) wheedles a besotted suitor into embezzling money to marry her, and just keeps the money and opens a futon shop (with Dreamland being one of her customers).

Mickey (Machiko Kyô, star of Rashômon, Ugetsu, Face of Another) dresses in western style, unlike the other “girls,” and is notably brash. When her father arrives to take her home, a tsunami of bitterness about his treatment of his wife explodes. Mickey does not have the shame of Yumeko or the skills at building up a store of working capital of Yasumi, and refuses to consider herself a victim. Her work provides her money to buy what she wants and to spite her father.

I don’t see that the movie would have encouraged outlawing prostitution, but am well aware that I am not Japanese and that I do not see and understand Japanese movies in the same way as Japanese do. (And Japanese are only too happy to maintain that non-Japanese cannot understand Japanese (the language) or the Japanese (worldview).)

I did not come out from having watched “Street of Shame” feeling battered, as I did from watching “Life of Oharu,” or exhilarated, as I did from Watching “Sanchô, the Bailiff” (either in my youth or more recently), nor was I bored as I was by Mizoguchi’s version of “The 47 Ronin.” I thought the camera placement very static: as in Ozu movies, it seems always at the eye-level of someone kneeling, but there was a lot of cutting back and forth between interlocutors so that the film did not seem visually static. But the fluid camerawork of the great Mizoguchi films of the 1950s was foresworn. And the screenplay is the first in decades not authored by Yoda Yoshikita.

There were entertaining moments, not all of them ironic ones, and a range of characters. Mizoguchi’s last journey into showing women employed to please men neither romanticizes nor demonizes “the oldest profession” or even the owner of Dreamland, who has a mortgage to pay.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Mizoguchi’s “Princess Yang Kwe-Fei”

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In the mid-1950s Mizoguchi Kenji was on a roll with films set in the Japanese past (Ugestsu, Sanshô, Crucified Lovers, all three of which won international film festival awards, and IMO his best three films). His 1955 “Princess Yang Kwe-Fei” (“Yôkihi” or “Imperial Concubine Yang”) switched to Chinese history with Kyô Machiko as Yang Yuhuan was shot in very unimpressive color (especially in contrast the earlier “Gate of Hell,” also shot by Sugiyama Kohey.) She was good as a sort of Cinderella who comforts the forlorn widower T’ang emperor Xuan Zong (Mori Masayuki).

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I don’t really see much point to the very Japanese portrayal of the T’ang court, other than that the emperor cannot be to blame for anything bad that happens and doesn’t know what his ministers (his consort’s uncle who has become chancellor, in particular) are doing to oppress the people. Like Hirohito exculpated of war-making and war crimes?

The first half of the 89-minute movie is becalmed, the second rushed through. There is an army marching (led by the general who saw the potential of Yuhuan), though it appears to be unarmed.

The conscientiously self-sacrificing heroine is ground down as is typical of Mizoguchi movies, dying out of devotion to her man (i.e., the emperor). She is hanged for being a Yang rather than for anything she did as (conniving) consort. The music, costume, décor, and plum-blossom viewing all seem more Japanese than Chinese. The movie was coproduced by “Run Run” Shaw and had a Chinese cowriter, Doe Ching, who directed some movies produced by the Shaw brothers (along with Mizoguchi’s standby screenwriter, Yoda Yoshikata).

Though decorative, Mizoguchi’s first color film is a disappointment both visually and dramatically. BTW, it was shot in a Hong Kong studio.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Mizoguchi’s “Crucified Lovers”

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Along with “Ugetsu” and “Sansho, the Bailiff,” Mizoguchi Kenji’s 1954 “Chikamatsu Monogatari” (A Story from Chikamatsu,” specifically his 1715 jôuri play “Daikyōji Mukashi Goyom”) is one of the early-1950s movies set in the past that brought Mizoguchi’s work (and Japanese film, more generally) to the attention of international cinéastes.

Most Mizoguchi films center on suffering Japanese woman (whether in the present or the past). The alternate title “The Crucified Lovers” guarantees that there is a female character paying the specified penalty for the capital crime of adultery, but the character who is pursued and suffers his comfortable life being turned upside-down for a minor lapse (not adultery) is a male, Circa 1683, Mohei (Hasegawa Matutarô, best known to me as the protagonist of “A Kabuki Actor’s Revenge”). He is going to secretly “borrow” a small sum from his miserly master, Kyoto calendar/scroll shop owner Ishun (chinless Misoguchi regular Shindo Etiarô).

Mohei does not actually embezzle the money that Ishun has refused to lend to the brother, Dôki (Tanaka Haruo) of his wife Osan (Kagawa Kyôko [Sansho the Bailiff, Tokyo Story. High and Low and other Kurosawa films right through Madadayo), but his intention is sniffed out by another employee (Ozawa Eitarô) who wants a cut for looking the other way. Mohei decides to tell the master what he didn’t even do, and the master decides to prosecute Mohei for forgery (even this is dubious in that Mohei had Ishun’s seal and was not forging it).

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Osan is mortified that Mohei is being punished for trying to help her (and specifically after her rich husband has refused to supply the small sum). Matters are complicated by a mai, Otama (Minamida Yôko) leaping in to claim that Mohei was getting the money for her brother, protecting Osan. Otama is in love with Mohei and resisting the ongoing sexual harassment of Ishun. And Osan is not aware that Mohei is in love with her, which leads to his taking the risk to temporarily embezzle some of Ishun’s wealth.

Osan twice decides not to commit suicide and though exhausted from grueling flight, she and Osan get the game for which they already have been given the name. She could return to her husband without legal penalties, but refuses to separate from Mohei. This brings down her husband (and the assistant who sought a share of the embezzled funds). It seems that the only one who escapes unscathed is Osan’s wastrel brother Doki (who, incidentally, fetches the police to arrest Mohei when Mohei visits Osan at the ancestral mansion he has mortgaged). In my view, Doki exceeds Ishun in hypocrisy and exceeds any other character in ingratitude.

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I think that the plan to make the visual composition of scenes throughout the movie resemble Japanese woodblocks was Mizogushi, but it was brilliantly realized by the great cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu, Sanshô, Yojimbo, Floating Weeds, Tokyo Olympiad). The spare, sometimes alarmed music prefiguring Takemitsu soundtraks was written by Hayasaka Fumio [1914-55] (who also composed music for Mizoguchi’s “Uhgesu” and “Sansho the Bailiff and for Kurosawa’s “Stray Dogs, “Rashomon, Ikiru,” and “Seven Samurai”) and Mochizuki Tamezô. Well-acted and beautifully shot as it is, the pace is slow for 21st-century viewers (I suspect not only American ones) and the escape plans of Mohei and Osan, separately and together, are frustratingly self-defeating (the viewer, at least this one, roots for them to succeed in escaping the crushing hand of the adultery law).

 

© 2016, Stephen O. Murray