Based on the true story of the rapist and serial murderer Eisuke, Violence at High Noon is a detached and disturbing portrait of post-war Japan that owes much to the films of Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson in terms of its non-linear structure and its fascination with the amoral activity of the social outsider. Now firmly established as a key contributor to the Japanese New Wave, director Nagisa Oshima attended film school in France, and his fragmented approach to narrative and scathing critiques of his native society in the age of Westernisation singled his work out as the antithesis of the humanist cinema of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Viewing the film more than forty years after its initial release, the shocking subject matter and elliptical aesthetic sensibility of Violence at High Noon suggest that Oshima’s work has had significant influence on such later cinematic provocateurs as Nicolas Roeg, Donald Cammell and Olivier Assayas.
Eisuke (Kei Sato) is introduced as a moody drifter who commits a murder at a private residence, but spares the life of the maid, Shino (Saeda Kawagushi), after causing her to collapse with fear through physical threat. It transpires that Eisuke and Shino are actually former co-workers from a failed provincial farm, and she goes through the motions of assisting the police with his capture, but withholds crucial information as she feels an unspoken bond with her attacker and desires to understand the reasons behind his violent urges. Whilst shadowing the detective assigned to the case (Fumio Watanabe), she writes letters to Eisuke’s schoolteacher wife Matsuko (Akiko Koyama), urging her to expose her husband for the socially dangerous and sexually deviant criminal that he is.
Oshima utilises jarring jump-cuts and high-contrast cinematography to enhance both the narrative tension and the closely guarded psychological nature of the intrinsically bonded protagonists. The opening sequence, in which Eisuke’s mood shifts from conversational, to brooding, to aggressive is unflinching in its depiction of male violence, while flashbacks to the fateful events at the communal farm comment on the failed idealism of the period. Oshima adopts an aesthetic approach that achieves a sustained sense of claustrophobia, particularly in the later scenes between Shino and Matsuko wherein cutting and framing become increasingly tight as emotions heighten and revelations are made. ‘Sometimes cruelty is unavoidable’, is Matsuko’s grimly accepting summary of her life with Eisuke. Oshima’s film also suggests that such cruelty is unexplainable, as a concluding confession by Eisuke insists that, even if the earlier events had not occurred, he would still have carried out his crimes. Although at times frustrating in that its constant cross-cutting between time frames and multiple perspectives makes it difficult to follow narrative and thematic threads, Violence at High Noon nonetheless achieves a level of formal experimentation that is uncommon in such sobering accounts of moral decay.