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Festivals and Conferences, Japanese Cinema, Melodrama

Nomura #4: Castle of Sand (Suna no utsuwa, Japan 1974)

The two detectives (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

The two detectives (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

portrait-without-bleedThis was presented at Bradford as the biggest hit for Nomura Yoshitaro, surprising his studio Shochiku since it was thought to be an old-fashioned film. The film is much longer than the others in the retrospective at 143 minutes. It’s an adaptation of Matsumoto’s 1961 novel. The English translation of 1989 gives the novel a new title – ‘Inspector Imanishi Investigates’. It also suggests that the direct translation of the Japanese title is ‘Vessel of Sand’. Nomura illustrates the title with a sequence in which a boy makes small castles of sand which crumble as they dry in the sun.

In one sense the film goes back to the straightforward police procedural found in Stakeout. Once again the narrative is full of train trips – criss-crossing the main island of Honshu from the North-East to the West and then to the South and the city of Ise before coming back to Tokyo. The length of the film is a result of a long final sequence in which the main suspect is engaged in playing his own composition for piano and orchestra in a public performance. As in the other films I was reminded of a Hitchcock film – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – with a grand set piece. But I didn’t get quite the ending I expected.

Inspector Imanishi is an unconventional character in the Matsumoto book who is made slightly more conventional in the film as played by Tanba Tetsuro, though he retains the book character’s doggedness and still writes poetry. He and his young assistant are called to a railway yard in Tokyo where a body has been found without any form of identification. The only clue comes from a bar assistant who had earlier heard the man talking to a second man in a ‘North-Eastern accent’. What follows is a satisfying procedural sequence in which the detectives eventually place the name the victim is supposed to have spoken in the bar and linked it to the accent, but this actually sends them West to a remote region. Another long slog, a slice of luck and good observation coupled with imagination leads them eventually to a possible suspect, a concert pianist played by Kato Go from The Shadow Within, but this time with fashionable sunglasses and looking quite suave. But still the detectives struggle to make links between their different sets of evidence. In the end it is Ryu Chisu, the great actor from Ozu’s films, who in the role of a village elder remembers a part of the long story of the murdered man that enables the detectives to finally make the breakthrough.

The 'excluded' figures venturing through the Japanese landscape (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

The ‘excluded’ figures venturing through the Japanese landscape (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

As in Matsumoto’s other crime stories, there is an important social issue at stake in the narrative. This time it is a particular form of social exclusion that still operated in the Japanese countryside in the early war years. Nomura shows the excluded figures kept out of villages, often in settings which connote the beauty and tranquility of Japanese rural life (see above). This ironic juxtapostion is then underpinned by the orchestral music which builds up the excessive emotion of the melodrama. The stigma that underpins this narrative was still prevalent in 1974 and the film ends with an explanation that there is no basis for its continuing social impact. Tom Vincent has suggested to me that it was this issue that helped to make the film a hit and that it was widely supported for its stand in this regard. A second issue is the rebuilding of lives following the devastation of war. The detectives discover that all public records in Osaka were destroyed by Allied fire-bombing – and that they could only be recovered by allowing the survivors to verify their own identities. What more could the writer of melodrama want than the perfect narrative device for switching identities?

I was totally convinced by this melodrama/police procedural but I spoke to other members of the audience who really couldn’t cope with the final section. It’s a shame that melodrama has become such a ‘dirty word’ in the UK and I still don’t understand how it happened. I guess that Castle of Sand is an old-fashioned film even for 1974. At one point I noticed that there was hand-held camerawork in a bar-room scene. How outlandish it seemed! Old-fashioned yes, but there is such a lot to admire from the performances and the script to the wonderful journeys across so many Japanese landscapes presented in colour and ‘Scope. We were very fortunate to watch a 35mm print produced by Shochiku after digital restoration in 2009 and it looked wonderful.

Here’s a trailer for a US release:

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