Tag Archives: murder

Ill-met by sunlight: Meursault Investigation

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Pros: first chapter and implicit critique of post-independence Algeria

Cons: rambling and disingenuous

In the Meursault Investigation, Algerian Muslim Kamel Daoud provides something of a counter-narrative the Albert Camus’s 1942 novel L’étranger (The Stranger in the US, The Outsider in the UK and Commonwealth), elaborating on a peripheral character, the Arab never given a name in the account of a pied noir (Algerian-born man of French descent) clerk Meursault, as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea did on the madwoman locked upstairs in Jane Eyre. At least the first chapter (excerpted and easily standing alone as a story published in the New Yorker) somewhat fills in the character of the heretofore-nameless Arab who was shot on the beach. The first chapter of The Meursault Investigation is a memoir by Harun (the Arabic form of Aaron), who was seven in 1942 when Meursault shot his brother Musa (the Arabic form of Moses) on an Algiers beach.

The murder of Musa haunts the rest of the aged Harun’s rambling memoir (which is more like Camus’s La Chute/The Fall than it is like L’étranger). Harun exacted a delayed and displaced revenge on the Algerian French by shooting one, Joseph Larquais, just after the independence of Algeria in 1962. Although the Algerian police were annoyed that this murder occurred after independence, Harun was not tried (whereas Meursault was tried and executed). Harun is affectless, like Meursault.

Harun treats L’étranger as testimony not as fiction (while Daoud has faulted his Islamist critics for failing to distinguish his fiction from factual narration). Harun/Daoud occlude a rather important fact from Camus’s (Meursault’s) book: Harun’s knife. Earlier in his last day of life, Harun (according to Meursault) was one of three Arabs who attacked and knifed Meursault’s friend, Raymond. According to Meursault’s account, later, on the beach, Meursault saw the Arab alone on the beach. After the man took out his knife, Meursault shot him. That is, it was not just the disorientation of near-sunstroke, but a semblance of “self-defense” that resulted in the death of the unnamed Arab now named Musa. It may have been unjustified, but it was not entirely gratuitous, as Harun/Daoud claim.

Leaving aside the implausibility of Camus’s plot in the colonial court system in which a pied noir is sentenced to death for killing an armed Arab who had already knifed another pied noir (Raymond), there is a significant asymmetry between Meursalt’s murder and Harun’s. In my reading of the two novels, neither killing was premeditated, nor philosophical, though Harun’s was more cold-blooded—and illuminated by the moon in Oran rather than the mid-day sun on an Algiers beach.

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Both killers are haunted by their mothers for whom they cannot muster proper filial piety: Meursalt’s died shortly before he killed the Arab; Musa’s not only egged him on but (very implausibly) is still alive seventy years after her elder son’s death. Musa himself recognizes that he “was practically the murderer’s [Meursault’s] double.” (with a name resonating both with the author (Camus) and the murderer (Meursalt, who is denied a first name).

An imam of the Islamist Awakening Front proclaimed a fatwa against Daoud for his fictional character (Harun’s) apostasy. Harun does not question that there is one god, or even that Muhammad was his prophet (the two essential beliefs in determining whether someone is a Muslim), although Harun finds it implausible that God would speak to only one person (though he also suggests, “Friday? It’s not a day when God rested, it’s a day when he decided to run away and never come back.” Daoud was not even born in 1962, and no more committed murder in 1962 than Camus did in 1942. (I suspect the characters’ disdain for religion reflects that of both authors, however).

That Daoud is in danger from a fatwa does not make his novel a good novel, nor does the awards the novel won in France (the Prix François Mauriac,  the Prix des cinq continents de la Franophonie, and the Prix Goncourt for first novel). I think that the opening chapter about Musa is a bracing protest against the denial of a name to the man killed in Camus’s novel, but that the rest is ill-structured and sometimes tedious, as Harun increasingly becomes like a garrulous Camus character (and Musa remains a shadowy figure even if he now has a name).

©2017, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Turgid rediscovered 1928 Tankizaki novel

I have long believed Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) to be the greatest 20th-century Japanese writer and the one who should have been the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (he was dead by the time Kawabata did in 1968). I was having qualms about his limits before the new batch of translations into English of work from the teens and twenties of the previous century appeared. Tanizaki’s foot fetishism is not prominent in them, though present in his 1925 “Red Roofs.” There is no hint of it in what feels like a very long novel that was serialized in Tokyo and Osaka in 1928, Kokubayaku, which has recently been published in English as In Black and White (the Japanese title is a homonym for “Confession”). The English text of the novel only runs 216 pages, but so little happens that it feels much longer.

As in the stories that appeared in English collections of 2016 and 2017 (Red Roof & Other Stories translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy was published by the University of Michigan Press, Devils in Daylight by J. Keith Vincent, was published by New Directions), the protagonist — definitely not a hero or even a likeable character — Mizuno, is a writer. He is quite an unsociable one with no friends. His wife left him after he wrote a series of stories involving murders of wives.

He is classified as a “diabolist,” and the new story, which is late for delivery to a magazine called The People that pays more than other magazines, again focuses on premeditated murder. Its protagonist (yet another writer) seeks to commit “the perfect crime,” that is to get away with murder. The writer of the story within a story has no animus against a less-successful writer, whom he calls Codama. Lack of motivation is part of the reason he expects to escape detection: the murder is a gratuitous act.

In the rush to get “To the Point of Murder” into print, Muzuno slips several times and uses the name of the model for the man being murdered, Cojima instead of Codama. Muzuno is very concerned that Cojima and/or others will notice that unusual name, but cannot get it changed before the magazine is printed.

Then Muzuno is in a prolonged panic that the real Cojima will be murdered in a way like in his story and that he will be blamed for it. Muzuno is paranoid and could hardly have made more of a mess of establishing an alibi for the night of the new moon when he fears that life will imitate art and Cojima will be murdered. There must have been many, many better ways to establish alibis!

Muzuno’s fears are realized, and he is suspected of having murdered Cojima in the way his alter ego does in his story (which establishes premeditation). Could there be a “Shadow Man” going to the extraordinary lengths of murdering Cojima and spiriting away Muzun’s alibi? I don’t think so, but Muzuno does and tries to pin the fictional murder on someone he cannot identify (who also lacking motivation for the murder and conspiracy to make it appear Muzuno committed it).

My ability to suspend disbelief cannot overcome the obstacles of Tanizaki’s novel, neither the frame nor the stories within the story. The police misconduct, on the other hand, is easy for me to believe.

(Tanizaki in 1908)

From translator Phyllis Lyon’s afterword, I learned that the novel followed an extended debate in print between Tanizaki defending the necessity of plots in novels, and Akutagawa Riyûnosuke (best known in English as the author of two stories that Kurosawa Akira based his international breakthrough film “Rashômon” on) maintaining that lyricism was enough, that how a story was told was more important than its content (plot). Akutagawa closed out the controversy by committing suicide on Tanizaki’s birthday (24 July) in 1927, so Tanizaki felt some guilt about having (symbolically) killed another writer. This is pretty outlandish, and Akutagawa was terrified that he had inherited his mother’s insanity, but one can see reasons for Tanizaki to have been shaken and to be influenced by that in writing about a writer killing another writer.

(Akutagawa in 1927)

There is a surfeit of reflection on the probity of writers and the “truth” of literature in In Black and White, a carryover from his jousts with Akutagawa (who was six years younger than Tanizaki; he seems more remote since Tanizaki outlived him be decades and produced many novels and novellas after Akutagawa’s death). In the novel, like Tanizaki, Muzuno is turning 40 and Cojima was 35, as Akutagawa was when he was sparring in print with Tanizaki.

As in other early Tanizaki fiction, here is a willful semi-modern woman, a femme fatale, in In the Black and White. The prostitute who said she had lived with a husband two years in Hamburg does not tell Muzuno her name—he refers to her as “Frâulein Hindenburg” (Paul von Hindenburg was chancellor of German at the time (1925-34), but addresses her only as “you.” His contracting her for two sessions a week is folly, not even motivated by lust (I don’t think they copulate during their few meetings). She has an aura of perversity and some cunning, whereas he is just a sad-sack painting himself into a corner.

I find In the Black and White less interesting than the other two novels Tanizaki started writing in 1928, Quicksand and Some Prefer Nettles, and don’t think that exhuming Kokubayaku, was necessary, even for (especially for?) Anglophone Tanizaki aficionados. I found the last part more interesting than the earlier parts, but it seems rushed, with no real ending. The way of telling it, with lots of dialog and lots of paranoid premonitions, did not appeal to me and the plots, as I’ve said, are not credible (as possible human conduct) to me. Though finding them also highly contrived, I prefer Naomi, Devils in Daylight, “The Magician, and, especially, “Red Roofs” among Tanizaki’s fiction before Some Prefer Nettles… and I am more indebted to Lyons for The Saga of Dazai Osamu, (1985), than for this endeavor, though I’d readily stipulate that her afterword is definitely essential for readers in English of In Black and White.

 

© 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Decalogue 4-6

Krystof Kieslowski is at the top of my list of overrated directors, with Mike Leigh, just ahead of Stanley Kubrick. By “overrated” I don’t mean that they were bad directors or that they made no movies I regard highly, only that I am much less impressed by their body of work than are many cinema enthusiasts. In my opinion, the “Color Trilogy” is uneven and has stretches of tedium. The Decalogue—ten one-hour movies made for Polish state television, each keyed to one of the Ten Commandments, all written by Kieslowski and Krystof Piesiewicz, directed by Kieslowski, and using ten different cinematographers—is more uneven. I think that all but the last of the ten episodes drags at least some of the time. Kieslowski favored a static camera and fairly long takes. The parts of the Decalogue all have a dark palette with overdoses of sickly greens. Most (but not this pair) are very talky.

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In the fourth episode of the Kieslowski/Piesiewicz Decalogue, “Honor they father and thy mother, “a young woman, Anka (Adrianna Biedrzynska), who is a disengaged, passionless acting student, finds a letter marked to be opened after her father’s death. Later, the viewer learns that she has known of its existence for a long time and that her father (Janusz Gajos) usually takes it with him when he travels, but he left it behind on this trip. It seems that at least a quarter of the episode involves her staring at the envelope. There is a brief flash of feeling when she confronts her father at the airport upon his return to Warsaw, followed by what I find totally unconvincing dialogue between the two for the rest of the episode.

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I don’t believe in the father-daughter relationship portrayed or the girl’s understanding of paternity (or, for that matter, of maternity), though part of this may be that my view of parenthood is more about raising a child than about supplying the sperm that fertilized the egg that became an offspring. Also, in my view, Anka honors neither her father nor her mother (who died when Anka was five days old, after having written her a letter to be opened in the then-future.)

Even for an episode of the Decalogue, this one moves very slowly and gets nowhere. (Arguably, as with the third episode, it makes a circle, though I don’t see how the status quo ante can be resumed in #3 and have a hard time imaging it in #4.)

Parts V and VI were expanded into feature films: V into “A Short Film About Killing” (from 57 to 84 minutes in length) and VI into “A Short Film About Love” (from 59 to 86 minutes).

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is the part of the Decalogue most obviously connected to its commandment. There is not the slightest question that it is about killing. The killings are not at all stylized or glamorized. The first involves a sickeningly extended murder of a taxi driver. The taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) is shown to be something of a pig, but not in any way to be deserving the fate, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka), who kills him brutally and very inefficiently.

The second killing is the murderer’s execution. He is hanged, and the killing itself take practically no time, though something like a third of the movie concerns the preparations by the prison and the prisoner for the execution.

Despite Kieslowski’s frequent disclaiming of any didactic or polemical intent, some have claimed that the movie was a significant impetus to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland (near the end of the Soviet puppet state there). I find this somewhat surprising, in that there is not the slightest doubt that the man being executed committed a particularly gruesome murder and is completely without charm.

As narrative cinema rather than as a statement on capital punishment, I think that the movie can be faulted for being confusing. There is no information about whether the murderer had any previous contact with the taxi driver he murdered, and not much about the victim. What is confusing is that the portrayal of the taxi driver’s morning, the murderer’s morning, and the drive onto a deserted lane is juxtaposed with the graduation of Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz) from something. Eventually, one can infer back that he joined the bar. Defending Jacek was seemingly Piotr’s first case, and he is wracked by fear that it is his inexperience and inability that resulted in the death penalty—though the judge tells him that he was particularly eloquent and that a more experienced lawyer could not have saved Jacek from execution… and though Jacek’s crimes were heinous and in no doubt (and there were more that the viewer saw that were not linked to Jacek’s perpetration).

Jacek’s bravado runs out before he is hanged and Piotr’s anguish is further increased by seeing his client’s end. The drama is stripped down to observation of concrete detail in a very Bresson manner. Decalogue V is an outstanding, if hard to take, film.

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is one of the more intriguing and accomplished episodes of the Decalogue (and bluer than green; V may be the greenest of the ten). It has a young male lead who is almost as blank a slate as Jacek, but one who is socially very backward rather than one who is a psychopathic murder.

Tomek (Olaf Linde Lubaszenko) is a post office clerk whose only friend has left Warsaw. Tomek stays with his friend’s mother (Stefania Iwinska, who reminds me of Alice B. Toklas without the mustache). He is obsessed with a young (but older than he is and way more sexually experienced) woman across the way. His friend first began peeping and labeled her as SSIA (she spreads it around). Tomek has a telescope trained on the woman’s window and also calls her up and does not speak.

Tomek devises some rather bizarre and complicated ways to meet this woman, whose name is Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska). When he admits to his campaign of harassment, Tomek tells her that he loves her.

I think the viewer is supposed to believe that Magda knows a lot about sex but not much about love and that Tomek knows little about either, but is touchingly ardent. She has experience and he doesn’t, but “innocent” is not a label I would apply to Tomek. He strikes me as more than a little corrupt, if earnest and inept. The hunter is easily captured and toyed with by the game, but there is also a sense in which Tomek corrupts Magda (that would be plot-spoiling to elaborate upon).

The very strange romance develops in interesting ways, though the conclusion of the movie is rushed (after some longeurs en route). It is not as kinky as I may have made it sound, but it is definitely a quirky romance, and others seem to regard Tomek as purer than I do. (He is purer than the retired judge turned electronic eavesdropper played by Jean-Louis Trintignant in Kieslowski’s masterpiece, “Red”, however. And has considerably less personality…)

In that neither Tomek nor Magda is married, I don’t understand how they can be committing adultery (fornication, I guess)

I don’t want to spoil the plot, but recommend it. My favorite part of the Decalogue is the last (X), but VI is with I and IX in the second tier (with V just below it).

I don’t think that the order in which one watches the individual components of the Decalogue matters (though there is something to be said for saving the best for last, as I think that Kieslowski did).

In the packaging in 5 parts, this one is second only to the last (9-10) one. In the packaging of three parts (1-3, 4-7, 8-10) and of two parts (1-5, 6-10), the last one is still the best one.

©2005, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Taishô-era Tanizaki short fiction

I long believed Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) to be the greatest 20th-century Japanese writer and the one who should have been the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (he was dead by the time Kawabata did in 1968). I was having qualms about his limits before the new batch of translations into English of work from the teens and twenties of the previous century appeared. Tanizaki’s foot fetishism is not prominent in them, though present in his 1925 “Red Roofs,” a story told from the point of view of Mayuko, a sadistic young (20ish) screen actress using men, including using young men to satisfy the cuckold fantasies of her 44-year-old patron, Odagiri, who seemingly felt but did not act on desires for the muscular young males who fucked his mistress. (Odagiri thought “it would be comical for a man of his age to have a fondness for boys” (151), though Mayuko is boyish.)

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The narrator of the stories that — with the exception of the very overwritten and hallucinatory “The Magician” (1917) — read like reportage rather than fiction, are novelists like Tanizaki, even if provided another name, such as Takahashi in Devils in Daylight (1918), another tale of a willful woman (Eiko) and a patron happy to be manipulated and drained of his fortune. The narrator is a sort of Dr. Watson, the protagonist a friend named Sonomura (“obsessed with moving pictures and crime novels”), who drags Takahashi along to watch a murder that ends with eradicating any trace of the murdered man (in a bath of chemicals) and who fancies himself a brilliant, detached detective like Sherlock Holmes, though also longing for a woman who will destroy/murder him.

Devils draws on a code drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” which was Poe’s best-known work in English in the late-19th century and was well-known in Japan after Lafcadio Hearn kicked off a Poe boom there. (Tanizaki’s brother Seiji translated “The Gold Bug,” and was not the first to translate it into Japanese. The tribute of creating a pen-name Japanizing Poe’s was made by “Edogawa Rampo.”

Along with Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson (whose title “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was echoed by Tanizaki’s 1926 “The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga”), the young Tanizaki seems to me to have been influenced by French decadents (Huysman et al.), especially in “The Magician,” but also in the Nanjingbrothel crawl of “A Night in Qinhuai” (1919), a “story” with no plot. It is no wonder it was taken as a travel essay rather than as a fiction.

There are plots of sorts in the two novellas, and the other two stories translated by Anthony Chambers in Red Roofs & Other Stories. The novellas are both mysteries, albeit not (despite initial appearances in Devils) not murder mysteries. They are mysteries of quite perverse characters, male in “Tomoda and Matsunaga,” Eiko and various male collaborators in “Devils.”

Men willingly surrender all to the whims of beautiful (greedy, willful) young women in many Tanizaki fictions, notably including Devils and “Red Roofs” from the new crop of translations into English. In these early works, the supine, obsessed male is not the narrator. The novelist narrator writes about friends in “The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga” and Devils in Daylight. The perspective is that of the actress in “Red Roofs,” though it is told by an omniscient third-person narrator Tomoda complained that novelists are like policemen because “both like to find all about other people” (45—while revealing little about themselves).

For me, Devils in Daylight, “The Magician, and “Red Roofs” are overly contrived, “A Night in Qinhuai” undercontrived (without even a weak ending), so I guess “Red Roofs” is my favorite. I guess the fantastic “The Magician” is the least voyeuristic, having a male narrator who is bewitched by a male manipulator (the titular magician). The novelist narrator is inveigled by other persons to help understand the Tomoda/Matsunaga coincidences and the murders suggested in Devils.

P.S. I have to say that it is very strange that the title blurb by J. Keith Vincent of Red Roof & Other Stories, asserts that the title story is “about youth culture in Tokyo.” It is set in the countryside between Osaka and Kobe, and as Chambers and McCarthy pointed out, the Japanese movie industry had relocated from Tokyo to Kyoto after the 1923 earthquake. In an afterword the novella he translated (Devils in Daylight Vincent explains its title’s connotations, and the other two translators provided useful discussion of what exoticism meant in early 20th-century Japan and call attention to the unusual turn-around of sexual objectification in “Red Roofs,” which was “unusual among Tanizaki’s works in that it is narrated from a woman’s point of view—and a sexually predatory woman at that.”

Red Roof & Other Stories, translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2016, Devils in Daylight by J. Keith Vincent, was published by New Directions in 2017.

Also see Tanizaki’s breakout successful 1924 novel Naomi with its modern (moga—western-emulating) woman/vampire title character whose patron does not like being cuckolded and Quicksand (1929) with a more fatale femme fatale.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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

Hamao Shirô ‘s “Did He Kill Them?”

The first venture into fiction of prosecutor turned crime novelist Hamao Shirô (1895–1935) “Did He Kill Them?” 1929) has a sort of (though inept) investigator trying to answer the title question. The narrator is a defense lawyer recruited by an admirer of the attractive youth (bishônen) Ôtera Ichirô, confessed killer of a married couple (whose marriage had been arranged rather than chosen on the basis of love), the sickly rich recluse Oda Seizô and his fun-loving, flirtatious wife Michiko.

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After a protracted mahjong session at the Oda’s seaside villa, one young man had gone home and Ôtera stayed over. Though the case looks open and shut, not least with a confession from Ôtera, his attorney remains skeptical.

After relating his ineffectual investigations (it shocked me how late in the judicial process the attorney was able to meet his client!), he produces a lengthy document written by Ôtera before his execution in which he explains what happens and why he confessed. I don’t want to reveal either, but can note that Michiko was a noir femme fatale and engaged in kinky games of jealousy (and bondage) with her husband. Though initially a fairly conventional investigation of a double murder, the novella very much exemplifies the genre of ero-guro-nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense).

The narrator/attorney, like the aristocrat who hired him, finds Ôtera Ichirô remarkably handsome, so that some of his zeal in a hopeless cause has some erotic basis. (Hamao was an outspoken defender of same-sex love as natural, whatever his personal erotic life involved.)

The story is at least implicitly a criticism of how the legal system (not just the Japanese one that the author’s grandfather had done much to modernize) latches onto appearances and fails to establish truth.

 

I prefer the second novella Hamao published in Shinseinen (Youth) in the spring of 1929, “The Devil’s Disciple” which not only was published second but is only half as long as “Did He Kill Them?” and approve of the Hesperus publishers’ decision to title the publication of the pair “The Devil’s Disciple.”

Translator J. Keith Vincent provides information both on the social context and the (very elite!) background of the tall, skinny (crane-like) author.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

A MOUSE-EAT-MOUSE WORLD III: Intentions of Murder

 

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(Introduction is in my review of “Pigs and Battleships.”)

I was restless and despairing of making it through Imamura‘s 1964 “Intentions of Murder” (Akai satsui), especially knowing it runs 153 minutes. Like his previous film “The Insect Woman,” there are freeze-frames from the start of “Intentions,” though they seem more motivated than those in “Insect Woman” and include many photographs shot by Yoshiko (Kusonoki Yuko) the very near-sighted would-be second wife of Takahashi Riichi (Nishimura Kô), a provincial librarian who sired a child by the movie’s protagonist (and not narrator, but source of some internal monologues that shows little in the way of self-consciousness, or, indeed, of any kind of consciousness), Sadako (stage actress Harukawa Masumi).

Sadako does not seem overweight to me, though other characters repeatedly describe her as “fat” or “big.” She is the granddaughter of a mistress of Riichi’s landowner grandfather. Sadako is in the household registry (required in Japan) as a maid, not as Riichi’s wife and mother of the petulant Masaru (Hino Toshihiko, who does not look frail to me; indeed, he looks plumper than Harukawa does).

Sadako’s status is tenuous. Her mother-not-quite-in-law, Tadae (Ranko Akagi), is contemptuous of her, though her quasi-husband is more so. Sadako accumulates some money of her own by weaving, much as Riichi attempts to undermine any potential autonomy… at the same time as he is trying to avoid the clingingess of his increasingly insistent mistress/coworker Yoshiko .

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While he is away, a burglar named Hiraoko (Tsuyuguchi Shigeru) breaks in while her husband is gone and rapes her at knife-edge. He is a jazz musician (drummer, TB or something having made it impossible to continue to play trumpet) at a strip club. He is besotted by Sadako, who is rather bovine even if she does not look especially bovine to me. The Eternal Woman (Imamura style) thinks about killing herself out of shame at having been violated, but when she fails to throw herself in front of an oncoming train, she goes home and has some cold miso soup. (Later, she fails to hang herself. In both cases, she covers up evidence that anything out of the ordinary had happened.)

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Sadako and her suitor are often on trains or streetcars or in train stations, and eventually in a long tunnel. Sadako has poisoned some tea to rid her of the man who refused to go away even when she gave him all her savings, but her problems take care of themselves in fairly plausible ways (accompanied by her stonewalling her husband’s suspicions). At the end, it seems that she has prevailed, not just survived. For one thing, she continues to work on her noisy loom even with her husband (now so registered) wanting to go to sleep. Both husband and son are sickly,. (Both are also childish; Masaru has the excuse of being a child). The woman of the people has vanquished the samurai bloodline, but it is a weak bloodline, it seems to me. (Hence, my title, though in addition to silkworms, there are mice belonging to Masaru in a very small cage. The smaller eats the larger one—literally.)

The last half hour or so is visually flashier with the train to Tokyo being blocked by a snowdrift and three leading characters setting off through the snow (in unsuitable shoes…). The ironic happy ending perhaps contributed to my liking the film more in retrospect than while I was watching. And/or the admiring explications by Tony Raynes (on the disc) and by James Quandt (in an essay in the booklet accompanying the disc) convinced me that there was more there there than I’d thought. (The tv interview by Sato Tadao of Imamura is mostly about the cast, though I learned that it was not shot in winter, so that the snow was a major production.)

I’ve already said that I like the expressionisictly photographed fifth more than the first four-fifths, but need to acknowledge that often brilliant use of dark and light areas in the interior compositions. Considering how cramped Japanese dwelling-places tend to be, there is astonishingly deep focus in many shots.

 

The Criterion edition has a stunning visual transfer (at a 2.35:1 ratio) with two substantial interviews is in the three-disc Criterion set “Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura” (with Pigs and Battleships and Insect Woman). Although in mono, the soundtrack (peculiar to western ears that have not absorbed a lot of Takemitsu sounds) is very clear, too.

I like the last half of “Pigs and Battleships” and the last fifth of “Intentions of Murder,” but the expressionist lighting and photography by Himeda Shinsaku and the mostly naturalistic observation of the difficult status and lack of options of women in Japan make all three of these uncompromising films of enduring interest (though it took Rayns’s bonus feature to convince me about “Insect Woman”). Himeda (1916-1997) also shot Imamura’s more surrealistic 1966 “Pornographers.” and Imamura’s return to using actors (after making a series of documentaries), “Vengeance Is Mine” (1979), both with male protagonists and both available on Criterion DVDs.

 

Imamura is the only director whose films have won three Golden Palms at Cannes (Ballad of Narayama, Black Rain, The Eel). He also directed human-flesh-eating pigs better than Pier Paolo Pasolini (in “Porcile”).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray