This was the earliest of the films by Nomura Yoshitaro to be screened at the 20th Bradford Film Festival. All five films at Bradford were adapted from stories by Matsumoto Seicho. Although I enjoyed all five films this was perhaps my favourite. It was screened second which meant that I’d already got some idea of what to expect (even if all five films adopt slightly different styles).
Stakeout was screened on a 16mm anamorphic print, always a difficult projection format even for the National Media Museum’s world-class projectionists. These are the only subtitled film prints available from the Japan Foundation Film Library. The print was buckled/warped and it was impossible to get the whole film in focus at the same time so we had to cope with a blurring of the right-hand quarter of the screen. Along with the relatively large subtitles and the loud and rather brash-sounding music score this made the screening experience less than ideal. It’s a tribute to Nomura’s filmmaking skill, therefore, that the next 116 minutes revealed a gripping film narrative that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The film opens with a lengthy pre-credit sequence, unusual for the period, in which we follow two Tokyo detectives as they catch the overnight (and very crowded) express to Saga City on the southernmost island of ‘mainland’ Japan, Kyushu – a journey of around 1,000 km. It’s a very hot Summer and the police officers have an uncomfortable journey before finding a ryokan (a small hotel/boarding house) which overlooks the house where they are to watch a woman. The woman is played by the great Takamine Hideko, one of the most popular stars of the period, often remembered for her roles in Naruse Mikio’s melodramas such as Floating Clouds and When A Women Ascends the Stairs (1960). This is Sadako, a housewife married to an older businessman and stepmother to three small children. The police believe that she is the ex-lover of a murder suspect and that he will attempt to contact her. Their hotel room provides the perfect vantage point from which to watch her house – but it’s hot and their vigil might last a long time. The detectives are played by Oki Minoru (Yuki, the younger man) and Miyaguchi Seiji (the older man)
Nomura spent several years preparing this film, making sure he got it right. It doesn’t take too long during the stakeout for us to realise that there is more to this story than solving a crime. Nomura gives us flashbacks to explain how the investigation began in Tokyo but also to look at the home lives of the two police officers. The older of the two has three children at home, the oldest girl now a working woman who is seeking to marry – but a police officer’s pay means that her father is struggling financially. The younger officer is wondering about whether he should marry the daughter of the local bathhouse keeper. These thoughts trouble the detectives as they note that their target is a woman suffering in a loveless marriage with children who don’t really care about her. Nomura underlines these concerns by involving the proprietor of the ryokan and her maids. The three women are curious about their guests and try to involve them in the social life of the inn (the ryokan has public areas and a communal bathhouse). Because Nomura makes this effort it means that when the finale comes after Sadako’s lover eventually contacts her, we recognise that the younger detective who follows her on the fateful day is himself concerned about how Sadako responds to her lover. Nomura has constructed a discourse about marriage – its joys and possible pain – which he lays on top of the police procedural. The result of the stakeout will affect the lives of four human beings.
The initial set-up in Saga City is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (US 1954), even down to the broiling heat. The detectives watch the house across the street and think about their own problems. Later on during the chase, Nomura sets up a big street parade in which Sadako is able to elude Yuki (but she might not even have noticed him) . This is reminiscent of Hollywood (and European) crime films, but there is no clear indication that Nomura is directly referencing any Western films. When the film was shown in the US in 2002 it was included in a season of ‘Japanese noirs and neo-noirs‘. I’m not sure how useful these terms are. I can see that such arguments could be made but I find that the crime melodrama tag is more helpful. In effect here, the ‘crime’ is banal and the criminal is a weak man rather than a doomed hero. The woman is no femme fatale and indeed may be ignorant of the crime.
I would argue that although structurally a ‘police procedural’, Stakeout is fundamentally a crime melodrama in which we are invited to think about the personal and emotional lives of the central characters and that this becomes more important when we see how the narrative is resolved. For me, all of the Nomura films in Bradford are melodramas but the genre mix is slightly different in each case. Stakeout is a ‘realist melodrama’ and the finale takes place mainly in the mountains and at a spa resort. Melodrama is a difficult generic category to define and it may be simply a ‘mode’ of filmmaking. Some of my ideas about melodrama are contained in this post. There is music in the film but I would need a second viewing to discuss it in any detail. Nomura’s bravura style with camerawork by Inoue Seiji includes overhead shots, tracking shots, lots of good railway footage and also the rapid wipes for transitions so favoured by Kurosawa Akira at this time.
This trailer (no subtitles) gives a good idea of the visual look of Stakeout: