Tag Archives: Matsumoto Seichô

Nomura’s “The Demon”

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There is nothing supernatural in Nomura Yoshitarô’s 1978 “Kichiku” (another Nomura adaptation of another story written by Matsumoto Seichô), which means“The Demon.” Human beings do bad things to children in the movie and Chinese/Japanese characters do not indicate singular/plural, but, if I had to single out the most despicable of the adult characters, it would be Oume (Iwashita Shima, who was part of the Ozu repertory company and married Shinoda Masahiro in 1967; she also starred in Nomura’s “The Shadow Within”). I’ll readily grant that she has substantial reason to be pissed off when Kikuyo (Ogawa Mayumi), the mistress for the last seven years of her husband, Sôkichi (Ogata Ken [who played the title role in “Mishima,” the son carrying his mother up to die in Imamura’s “Ballad of Narayama”, and the murdererer in“Vengeance Is Mine”], who received no less than six best actor awards for his performance) shows up and dumps off three children. Oume does not want to believe that the children, ranging in age from 2-6, are her husband’s offspring. They are definitely strangers to Oume, and very, very, very unwelcome ones, constant reminders of his infidelity.

The crisis was stimulated by lack of any profits from the print shop that Oume, more than Sôkichi, runs, although he is the experienced lithographer, we will later learn, having been forced to start working at the age of ten with any earnings going to his deeply-in-debt uncle. Sôkichi’s vivid memories of being an abandoned and abused child have some effect in making him a nurturing father, but that is not just offset but viciously opposed by Oume, who is the archetype of the wicked stepmother, furious at the very existence of the three children another woman bore her husband, while she was unable to produce a child.

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Oume manages to kill the youngest one and make it look like an accident (smothering), despite a hospital record of malnutrition for him. Yoshiko’s father takes her to the top of the Tokyo Tower and leaves her there, which gets her out of the path of Oume’s wrath. Six-year-old Riichi (Iwase Hiroki) knows his father’s name and address, so cannot be left somewhere. Also, he strongly suspects that the stepmother who is especially brutal to him killed his younger brother. Riichi speaks little, but his reproachful gaze says a lot. Iwase’s performance is very strong in that he also shows devotion to his father and a joie de vivre when away from Oume’s persecution. That is, he is not just a traumatized tyke. He is capable of playfulness.

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Like late Kinoshita movies, the movie gets around the country—by train and bus. (Blessedly, there are no folk songs, though! The music, especially in the second half, seems Hitchcockian, which is to say Bernard Hermann-like.) I think there is more travelogue than police procedural in the movie, though eventually there is a police investigation. Though based on a 1957 story by Matsumoto Seichô, whose fictions were also the bases for Nomura’s “Stakeout,” “Zero Focus,” and “The Castle of Sand” (plus four more Nomura films I haven’t seen), “Demon” is not a detective story. (I’d also say that it was more an early-1950s than a late-1970s story of small businesses being crushed.)

I’m not sure Sôkichi is shamed into taking responsibility for his offspring. It seems to me he loves them, though recognizing some justice in the fury of his wife and his mistress toward him as an insufficient provider. Guilt toward his wife keeps him from condemning her inexcusable (indeed criminal) action and colluding in covering up her murder of his youngest child. Also, she is indispensable to the survival of his printing business, tenuous as that business has become. (And while not condoning abandoning children, one can understand Kikuyo being fed up trying to feed and care for three young children with far too little money. This is desperation, not demonicness IMO, though similarly put-upon women uncomplainingly fulfilled their maternal duties in many a Mizoguchi and Naruse movie.)

Kawamata Takashi (who had also shot “Castle of Sand” and “The Shadow Within” for Nomura) did great cinematographic work with natural light; the strong visuals have survived without bleeding or dilution.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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A homicidally jealous six-year-old boy

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I thought that “The Shadow Within” (Kage no kuruma, 1970, directed by Nomura Yoshitarô, from a story by Matsumoto Seichô (yet another Nomura Matsumoto adaptation)) was too slow. I had no difficulty believing that the six-year-old Kenchan (Okamoto Hisato) was trying to eliminate his widowed mother’s new (married travel agent) lover Hamajima Yukio (Katô Gô). She (Iwashito Shima as Yasuko) and the police couldn’t believe it, but I don’t think six-year-olds are incapable of homicidal intents and don’t share their belief in youthful innocence. Besides I saw him!

The dangers of children to adulterers was also my take-away from Suzuki’s “Everything Goes Wrong”/“The Madness of Youth”), though it had an older son jealous of his mother’s considerate lover.

Nomura’s frequent cinematographer Takashi Kawamata (Castle of Sand, Demon, Imamura’s Black Rain) provided great horror movie lighting and images.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Nomura’s “Castle of Sand”

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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).

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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).

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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

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