Isshin Inudo directs a lush period take on Seicho Matsumoto’s classic murder mystery…
Another film to play at the Japan Foundation’s touring film programme this year, Once Upon A Time In Japan, it seems once again, like Kaidan Horror Classics, to not be quite what it was advertised as, a murder-mystery… but that’s just fine!
Ryoko Hirosue (Key Of Life, Bubble Fiction: Boom Or Bust, Goemon) plays Teiko, a newly wed whose world is thrown into turmoil when just a week after they are married her husband (Hidetoshi Nishijima, Dolls, Tony Takitani) leaves on a business trip never to return. Travelling to Kanazawa, the town where he was last seen, she slowly starts to discover the truth of her husband disappearance. As she uncovers his dark past, she finds he was close to two women, the elegant wife of businessman Murota, Sachiko (Miki Nakatani, Memories of Matsuko, Ringu, Ringu 2) and receptionist (Tae Kimura, After Life, Starfish Hotel, All Around Us), realising how little she knew about him. At the same time a killer seems not to want the truth to be found out, as a string of murders mounts up…
Based on the best selling mystery novel by Seicho Matsumoto, and originally made into a film in 1961 by Yoshitaro Nomura, we are easily on familiar ground in terms of suspense thrillers. The question of how much we really know about our spouse is a popular device in thriller fiction, and brought comparisons early on with Hitchcock, and his films such as Rebecca and Suspicion.
(If anything, as pointed out by fellow critic Japanaffinity, the plot of a female triangle is closer to crime writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s Celle qui n’était plus, aka She Who Was No More, filmed in 1955 by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques. But then, it’s been said Hitchcock was keen on filming the novel himself, settling for Boileau-Narcejac’s D’entre les morts instead, better known now as Vertigo.)
But for director Isshin Inudo, who presented the film in person at both screenings during the programme, he really wasn’t interested in this as a murder-mystery… This book had not only been adapted not just by Nomura, but also as six previous TV productions. Inudo explained that everyone of his age would know who the killer was already, so he took a very different message from Matsumoto’s book. For him the book was about the mental pain and anguish those who had lived through the war experienced, and how it was the next generation, the ‘zero generation’, starting again, who would be able to truly take advantage of this new era. A time when even a woman can be elected mayor, as shown in a subplot of the film. (Rather supporting the female trio at its heart.)
Right from the start Inudo surrounds his film in historical references and archive footage. He paints a picture of a rapidly changing Japan, finally pulling itself out of war, but one permeated by American influences from occupation, from music to clothes and products. He quoted his influence in filming style from suspense films of the time, particularly names like Hideo Suzuki, Kon Ichikawa and Shohei Imamura. The acting style, too, reflects this inspiration, but there’s no doubting some visual cues from the original, though it is very different.
Interestingly, with such lush orchestral backing and production, setting the piece so completely of its time, it takes on more of a Hollywood look. If this is Hitchcock, it’s more Vertigo than Psycho, and in effect is less ‘modern’ in its cinematography and style than the original.
Of course, by not being a the dramatic emphasis shifts entirely… but it works!
Indeed, Inudo admits that we know exactly who the killer is from her first appearance, who he signposts just to be sure as the films femme fatale just to be sure. The denouncement, actually still lengthy in the original, becomes much more of an inevitable tragedy than mystery.
In its final moments, I’m not sure if Teiko’s new found love for life and optimism for the future is better served here than in the original. The end seems to drag on a little more than it needs, and a sequence over the end titles, with the intent of making the previous events more relevant to modern Japan, in truth it adds very little.
But that doesn’t dent the fantastic performances, and a fresh take on Seicho Matsumoto’s classic story.