At the height of its powers, the Japanese film industry produced over 500 hundreds films a year. As such, it is not uncommon for films, or entire filmographies of particular directors, to go overlooked or undetected for many years. This is certainly the case for director Yoshitarô Nomura (1919-2005), a name that is largely unheralded in international film criticism. However, decades after his most seminal contributions to Japanese cinema, Nomura is receiving his first ever international retrospective at this year’s Bradford International Film Festival.
Considered to be a pioneer of Japanese film noir, Yoshitarô Nomura may very well be one of Japanese cinema’s best kept secrets. Including over 80 films, his long career began at the height of Japan’s cinematic golden age, and his genre-centric filmmaking was widely popular with Japanese audiences in its day. He was best known for his film adaptations of stories by revered crime/mystery author Seichô Matsumoto, who, at his commercial peak during the late 1950s, was Japan’s highest paid writer. Politically left-leaning, Matsumoto’s downbeat novels were emblematic of the post-war pessimism experienced by the Japanese people in the turbulent years following atomic destruction, foreign occupation and waning nationalism. Bradford’s retrospective collects the five best examples of Nomura’s Matsumoto adaptations, including Stakeout (aka The Chase, Harikomi, 1958), Zero Focus (Zero no shôten, 1961), The Shadow Within (Kage no kuruma, 1970), The Castle of Sand (Suna no utsuwa, 1974) and The Demon (Kichiku, 1978).
What is immediately apparent is that although Nomura’s films have never garnered much interest in the West, they demonstrate a clear interest in Western film conventions, particularly 40s and 50s American noir. This influence is perhaps best represented in Zero Focus, a strange and exhilarating fusion of duplicitous, Hitchcockian intrigue and post-war Japanese social commentary.
The story starts with newlywed Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga) telling us, via voice-over narration, that her husband of a single week, Kenichi (K244ji Nambara), a successful ad agency executive, has been promoted to the company’s head office in Tokyo, but needs to travel cross-country to his former branch to tie up loose ends. However, after boarding the train to Kanazawa, he is never seen again. Concerned, Teiko heads to Kanazawa in search of him, with only a couple of photos and a lead at Kenichi’s old office to go on. As she makes her enquiries, Teiko realises just how little she knew about her husband as the remnants of a secret double life come to the fore. Digging deeper into Kenichi’s past, Teiko soon meets a woman who may have had reason to murder him.
Zero Focus revels in several standard noir conceits. The film is framed around Kuga’s matter-of-fact voice-over, but also relies on nefarious characters, dual identities, quick plotting and shock revelations. There’s even a bottle of poisoned whiskey doing the rounds – bumping off characters who know too much. But rather than merely emulating his American muses, in particular Alfred Hitchcock and Rebecca (1940), Nomura blends these propensities with a slightly skewered rendition of presentational Japanese filmmaking. As is the case with many films from this era, Takashi Kawamata’s cinematography features plenty of immaculate compositions. However, something looks and feels different here; stripped down and strangely mechanical. Zero Focus is not gritty exactly – it’s too pristine for that – but a certain rough efficiency prevails. This is partly due to geography, with Nomura largely eschewing the cinematic comfort zone of modern Tokyo and keeping much of the action in small, rural and, as yet, relatively undeveloped towns along Japan’s west coast, creating a more down-to-earth quality that belies Kawamata’s professional framing.
Watch the original Japanese trailer for Zero Focus:
Indeed, Zero Focus has a number of things to say about the modernisation process the country was undergoing at the time. The film seems to subtly criticise the centuries-old social tradition of miai, where the family of an individual tries to match them with a prospective marital partner, prefaced with a brief period of courtship to see if they nominally get along (a suggested marriage rather than arranged). It’s through this process that Teiko and Kenichi are wed, and the story relies on Teiko’s naïveté about her husband for the mystery of his double life to function, which may not have been the case if their relationship had been built over a longer, more organic period. In the background of its murder/suicide plot, Zero Focus seems to suggest that if Japan were to truly modernise, maybe it needed to abandon such long-held, old-fashioned values.
Such progressive thinking carries over into the film’s structure, which is laid out in two distinct sections. The first consists of relentless investigation, as Teiko dutifully seeks out the next person to question. The second depicts an extended cliff-top confrontation, where we learn what really happened to Kenichi. The first act is the winding up that precipitates the grand unspooling of the finale, where light-footed flashbacks flesh out and tie together the multiple story strands, coupled with differing assumptions of events in a way similar to both Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952). And yet, Zero Focus is so nimble, so brazenly twisty, that it’s all too easy to get lost in its heaps of convolution. The film moves briskly through each scene, which doesn’t leave much room for the building and releasing of tension. On the flip side, there is something equally refreshing in its single-mindedness and tightly constructed sequences. Dense it may be, but Zero Focus is an interesting minor success nonetheless.
And if Zero Focus is characterised by deft poise, The Castle of Sand is its inverse cousin: a sprawling police procedural that is consistently identified by Japanese critics as one of the greatest Japanese films of all time. Based on a popular mystery serialisation Matsumoto wrote for daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, later published as the novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates, The Castle of Sand sees two detectives – a veteran (Tetsurô Tamba) and a rookie (Kensaku Morita) – try to solve the murder of an elderly man found bludgeoned to death in a train yard.
Like Zero Focus, scant clues point to the countryside, which Tamba’s Detective Imanishi traverses via train – an increasingly key component to Matsumoto’s stories – and bus in the sweltering Japanese summer heat. Imanishi begins to track down characters from the victim’s past, who was a retired police officer well liked and deeply respected in the community he presided over. But just as Imanishi’s investigation starts to run out of steam, he begins to establish a connection between the deceased, Miki (Ken Ogata), and Eiryo Waga (Gô Katô), a famous classical composer with a buried secret.
Watch a trailer for The Castle of Sand:
Unfurling over nearly two and a half hours, The Castle of Sand front-loads its narrative with Imanishi’s investigation: following up leads, interviewing persons of interest, establishing motives, hitting dead ends, re-evaluating the evidence, finding new leads and so on. It’s very matter-of-fact and borders on being humdrum, executed in a plain, linear fashion that lacks the energy of, say, Zero Focus.
However, the film makes a noticeable gear change when Imanishi finally presents his findings, and the identity of the person he suspects is the murderer, to his department. All the loose ends from previous scenes start to tie together as he posits his hypothesis, which features an extended explanation to establish the connection between the murderer and the murdered. Imanishi’s presentation is intercut with scenes from a classical concert performed by Waga and his orchestra, which provides the backing soundtrack to a series of flashbacks concerning the murderer’s motivation – a childhood fraught with hardship and discrimination. These expositional scenes, where Ogata features as the still-alive police officer Miki, play out sans dialogue and, as such, are evocative of silent movie storytelling, with the sweeping symphony of Waga’s concert as musical accompaniment. It is at this point where The Castle of Sand reveals its hand, shifting from a mundane investigation to an engrossing character study enriched with pathos and complex emotional depth.
Nomura’s exploration of pathos and emotional complexity arguably reached its zenith with The Demon, perhaps the most downbeat and pessimistic of his Matsumoto adaptations. Based on one of the writer’s short stories, which in turn was inspired by a real-life incident, The Demon sees Nomura working again with Ken Ogata, who plays the put-upon owner of a failing printing business that he runs with his wife (Shima Iwashita). However, the story starts with Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa), the long-time mistress of Ogata’s Sokichi and mother of his three secret love children – Riichi (Hiroki Iwase), aged 6; Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), aged 3; and baby Shoichi (Jun Ishii).
When Sokichi is unable to continue with his maintenance payments, Kikuyo snaps, corralling the kids onto the next train to confront him and break the news about his secret family to his wife. Upon finding out that he has no more money to pay her, Kikuyo takes off, leaving the children in Sokichi’s care. Sokichi tries to take on the burden of having three new mouths to feed. His understandably peeved wife, however, is not so inclined, and becomes increasingly hostile towards the children. What follows is a difficult yet strangely engrossing watch, as Sokichi tries to shirk this new responsibility he can’t afford to take on. With no sign of his mistress, who has well and truly disappeared, Sokichi is manipulated by his belligerent wife to conceive ways of disposing of the children (after all, there’s no concrete evidence proving that they are indeed his). But his growing attachment to them makes this easier said than done.
With its domestic tension and controversial subject matter that flirts heavily with child abuse, The Demon is certainly one of the toughest of Nomura’s films to stomach. But if there is only one thing that makes this fiendish and unsavoury tale palatable, even compassionate, it lies with Ogata’s fearless and mesmerising lead performance. While he doesn’t elicit sympathy exactly, Ogata does manage to convey a very real sense of conflict, hurt and desperation, with Iwashita’s wife character perhaps being more broadly ‘evil’ and antagonistic. Either could qualify as the ‘demon’ of the film’s title, and one could argue that Kikuyo, the mistress, is also not totally blameless. Playing the murder victim in The Castle of Sand, Ogata is, in his own way, playing a victim once again, torn between a lingering, unconditional paternal love and the cold reality of his wife and financial situation.
There’s the children to consider as well; all of whom perform admirably in the face of such terrible treatment (Iwase is a particular highlight as the precocious Riichi), with Nomura’s confident direction ensuring that the interplay between Ogata and his estranged kids is taut, unpredictable yet sensitive, and sometimes deceptively moving. The Demon, then, manages that rare trick in cinema of making you care about an absolute scoundrel. Ogata ended up winning the Best Actor prize for his efforts at the 2nd Japanese Academy Awards, securing a prestigious career playing unusual and/or challenging roles in films such as Shôhei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama-bushi kô, 1983), where he won Best Actor again, and Paul Schrader’s multi-segmented Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).
This modest sample of Nomura’s career strongly suggests a body of work that’s not afraid to retain its edges and venture places that threaten to render it unpopular. Hopefully, we will see more of his films released soon as a result of his rediscovery. To this end, the power of the film retrospective should not go underestimated. If it wasn’t for the retrospective curated by the late Donald Ritchie for the Berlin Film Festival in 1963, the films of Yasujir244 Ozu would have likely been confined to the position of niche curiosity, reserved only for the most dedicated of world cinema aficionados. Although it’s unlikely Nomura will ever receive the same admiration as Ozu, the fact that his work is finally having its moment in the sun at an international festival is cause enough for celebration.