Category Archives: Japanese Cinema

Ringu (Ring, Japan 1998)

A ghost appears before Ryuji . . .

A ghost appears before Ryuji . . .

(These notes were first used for an education event in 2002)

Based on the 1991 novel (with the same title) by Suzuki Koji, the film Ringu by Nakata Hideo was released in Japan in 1998. By this time there had already been a TV adaptation in 1995.


The event assumed that students had just watched the film in the cinema. If you haven’t seen the film, please watch it first. The following outline reveals the whole plot.


Reiko, a television journalist, interviews some high school girls who tell her a story about young people who have died after viewing a ‘weird’ videotape. Attending the funeral of her niece Tomoko, who has died suddenly, Reiko realises that she was one of the young people in the story. Reiko decides to investigate and drives down to the Izu peninsula where she views the tape left behind in a holiday cabin and becomes convinced that she herself is now in danger. Returning to Tokyo she contacts her ex-husband, a university scientist. He agrees to join the investigation, viewing the tape and tracking down a voice on the recording through its local accent and dialect.

Reiko and Ryuji discover that the tape refers to events dating back forty years to the eruption of a volcano on Oshima Island and the suicide of a psychic woman Shizuko. According to the story, Reiko will die seven days after her first viewing of the tape. Fearing her son’s safety Reiko takes Yoichi to stay with her father. She is shocked to discover Yoichi watching the tape – he tells her that Tomoko told him to.

Reiko and Ryuji travel to Oshima Island where they confront the father of Shizuko. Putting together their research and a series of psychic ‘visions’ they realise that the power of the videotape comes from Sadako, daughter of Shizuko and (possibly) Dr Ikuma, the scientist who had seduced her. They determine to go back to Izu to find Sadako’s body. Seven days after viewing the tape, Reiko returns to the cabin with only hours to go before the ‘deadline’. The pair find the well and the remains of the body. The curse appears to be lifted, but the next day Ryuji is visited by Sadako’s ghost and dies of fright. Reiko realises that she has escaped only because she copied the tape and showed it to Ryuji. She hurries off to copy it again for Yoichi . . .


We chose this film as a case study for a number of reasons. It is an almost ‘pure’ genre film – a rarity in modern cinema. It offers a familiar kind of story, but in a very different cultural context. Ring is a Japanese horror film that draws on both the traditional Japanese ghost story and the sorts of contemporary ‘urban myths’ that we all hear being discussed amongst friends. It is a horror story without ‘gore’ and depends on building up tension through fear of the unknown. It has been suggested that the film both draws on American horror films and in turn has influenced them. Comparisons have been made with the low-budget Blair Witch Project and Ring itself has been remade in Hollywood (opened at No 1 in America in October 2002) Ring isn’t in any way a ‘difficult’ film (it is a straight commercial entertainment, but in the UK its Japanese production context kept it out of the multiplexes). It certainly benefits greatly from detailed study.

Narrative Structure

Ring is an ‘investigative’ narrative, in which the protagonist tries to find out what has happened. But the investigator is also under threat from the ‘unknown’. The narrative follows a Hollywood formula and falls into three main sections:

  • in the first act the ‘disturbance’ of the sudden deaths draws Reiko into the investigation. Her viewing and the subsequent viewing by Ryuji then place the pair in danger.
  • in the central section, the pair uncover the story of Shizuko and Sadako and realise what they must do.
  • in the third, ‘climactic’ section, the pair are in a race against time to find Sadako and lift the curse. But there is a coda to the film following the ‘false’ ending.

The three sections of the film are complemented by the triangular structure of the locations of the actions. Reiko travels from Tokyo to Izu, back to Tokyo then to Oshima, back to Izu and then back again to Tokyo.

(Unlike the detective story or ‘whodunnit’ in which the audience may have knowledge about the villain, we too know nothing about Sadako. This makes the narrative more like the ‘investigative journalist’ type story.)

Genre and narrative shape

The ‘elements’ of the story are familiar from the universal structure of the horror film. In the opening section the seemingly ‘ordinary’ pattern of events is revealed as having a sinister sub-text. Reiko’s decision to watch the tape (alone in a darkened cabin) is typically foolhardy in the context of the horror film. Reiko is unaware of how the scene is being presented to us with its shadows and disturbing soundtrack. The investigation and the race against time are again typical genre elements. The narrative is linear in the sense that the mystery is on one level resolved – but there is no happy ending and no ‘closure’.

The practice of producing a sequel to a commercial success is well-known in Hollywood, but few American films would make the requirement for a sequel so obvious (a sly nudge at the end of a narrative that has been largely resolved is much more likely). It is worth noting here that the story of Ringu was first a very successful series of novels, then a television series and finally a film. The producers made the odd decision to make a sequel, Rasen, using a different crew at the same time as making Ringu. But Rasen failed completely. Ringu 2 was then made at the same time as the ‘prequel’, ‘Ringu 0’, two years later in 2000. Ringu 2 (again directed by Nakata Hideo) was also successful. There was also a Korean re-make, before the Hollywood version.

Narration and characters

The protagonist of the film is clearly Reiko. It is important in this film that we learn about the background only as she does. True, we see Tomoko’s death at the beginning of the film, but we don’t know what has caused it. The ‘narration’ does require Reiko to go through the rather ‘clunky’ process of saying aloud what she is thinking (e.g. when she has a psychic flash in which Ryuji’s ghost (?) points to her bag to indicate that there are two tapes). Overall, however, the process of narration is quite unobtrusive. Despite the relatively slow pacing of the scenes, the narrative appears to move forward very quickly – partly because there is a great deal of plot information to absorb.

(Names: We refer to ‘Reiko’ here. This is her ‘personal’ name. Only her aunt uses this name. Her ex-husband uses her maiden ‘family name’, Asakawa – this is customary in Japan.)

Genre Iconography and setting

Ringu is a commercial Japanese film, produced in a country with a culture that mixes ‘high technology’ and modern consumer culture with traditional beliefs and customs that appear strange and exotic to many in the West. Reiko and Ryuji live in Tokyo apartments that do not look very different to those in Europe or North America. Similarly the cabin in Izu could be in the American West. Yet on Oshima Island and at Grandpa’s house in the country, the traditional style of eating at low tables and sleeping on bedrolls on the floor is still followed. The connection to a tradition of ghost narratives dating back hundreds of years is easy to accept. The choice of video and telephone technology as the source of terror appears to point towards North American films like Poltergeist or the Canadian Videodrome (the demonic tv set) and Scream (victims terrorised over the phone). But it is also possible to see television as a ‘cancerous’ growth that destroyed the Japanese film industry (in the 1950s, the world’s largest). The film effectively utilises the three central features of the Japanese environment. The large Japanese population (127 million) lives in very densely populated cities in small apartments. There is comparatively little land for agriculture, much of the interior is wooded mountain country and isolated resorts like those in Izu and on Oshima Island are popular. Finally Japan is a ‘community of islands’ and the sea is tremendously important as a source of food and communication.

Narrative and characters

One of the interesting facets of the film is the lack of information about the former relationship between Reiko and Ryuji. There is a strange scene between Yoichi and his father on the pavement outside Reiko’s apartment – Yoichi appears to be going out in the rain, at night alone, to leave his parents together. Father and son at first do not speak. Ryuji then asks if his son is going to school – clearly he does not have close contact. This prompts the question – what caused the marriage to break up? Why does Reiko turn to Ryuji for help? Is it because he is Yoichi’s father? (Think back to Yoichi’s behaviour at the funeral.) The joint parental concern certainly makes for an important element of the narrative. Or is it that Ryuji is both knowledgeable and psychic – the perfect investigator? What do we make of Reiko as the central protagonist? The filmmakers changed the book’s investigator to a woman (Pete Tombs – see Resources – states that this was important as modern Japanese horror films often use female heroes). But does she sacrifice her own independence and become reliant on Ryuji? It’s worth remembering here that Japanese ghost stories commonly feature a woman who has been abused by men. We might expect a female investigator to have more understanding of what has happened and on the island of Oshima Reiko appears to become part of the psychic process when her arm is gripped by the presence of Sadako. By contrast, in the editing suite it is her professional expertise that helps her see that the video is unusual.


At first glance, the film seems to lack a definable style. Few images impress through visual composition. The most memorable are those that feature Sadako and Yoichi, the rather unnerving little boy. This observation is not a criticism of the performance of Matsushima Nanako (Reiko) or Sanada Hiroyuki (Ryuji). Rather, it is to suggest that the unobtrusive style works so well that we are swept along in the story, free from the sometimes gimmicky images of much Hollywood horror. There are few ‘expressive’ camera movements and only a handful of obvious ‘special effects’. Some critics put the style down to the low budget and it is certainly the case that in the sequel, the same director uses a more ‘expensive’ style, more akin to Western expectations of a horror film. Whether this is successful or not is a matter of taste. The overall feel of the film comes from a combination of:

  • mainly night-time shooting with good use of shadows and available light sources
  • even pacing with relatively long takes
  • muted but powerful performances by the actors
  • imaginative use of music and sound effects

(It is debatable as to whether modern Japanese films are in any way influenced by the compositions of Japanese painting styles, but it is worth noting that Japanese scripts are read from right to left and down columns, rather than scanning left to right. Notice how Reiko reads in the newspaper archives. Could this affect how Japanese audiences ‘read’ images?)


It is difficult from a European perspective to understand fully the themes of Japanese genre films. To the extent that they might ‘borrow’ ideas from Hollywood horror and ‘teen’ or ‘high school’ films, elements of films like Ring might look familiar. But Japanese culture is quite different to that in America in a number of ways:

  • the religious beliefs of Japanese people (mostly Shintoist, some Buddhists) evoke different ideas about life and death. (See Tombs (00) on the release of horror movies during the Festival of the Dead in July and August.)
  • Japan has a strong family structure and a general deference to older people. The population shows a profile much like parts of Western Europe – with people living much longer and more pressure on a smaller proportion of young people. Young people in Japan face a highly pressurised experience of education. Possibly as a result, youth sub-cultures are often represented as obsessive and extreme. ‘Teen horror/action films’ such as Battle Royale (Japan 2000) may be commenting on this phenomenon.
  • the position of women in Japanese society is also different. Although there has been a ‘liberation’ of women to match changes in the West, Japanese society is still arguably more ‘patriarchal’, expecting more forgiveness for male behaviour and more deference from women.
  • Japanese attitudes to sex and violence are quite different to those in the West. What in the West might be considered ‘hardcore’ material is more freely available. However, this does not mean the society is ‘degraded’ or that is violent or licentious. The crime rate is low by Western standards and Japanese society is generally ‘calm’ and ‘ordered’. Are any of these ‘differences’ evident in Ring? How does Ring compare with the two highly successful Western ghost stories of recent times, The Sixth Sense and The Others?

(Even by the end of Ring, the motivation for Sadako’s attacks on innocent viewers of her tape are not clear. Common themes such as revenge or lust for power become more evident in the sequel and prequel.)


The film is targeted towards a youth audience in the sense that it picks up upon the idea of the urban myth and plays with the fascination with horror and ‘true crimes/mystery’ that has been a traditional strength of youth cinema across the world. In Japan and much of Eastern Asia, the Ring films have been massive box office sensations, matching the success of the earlier book and television versions of the narratives. Having seen the film, you can comment on whether the European tendency to put all foreign language films into an ‘arthouse’ or ‘specialist’ category is justified.

References and Further Reading

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1997, 5th edition) Film Art, London and New York: McGraw Hill

Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2002, 3rd ed) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge

Carol Clover (1992) Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film, London: British Film Institute

Mark Kermode (2000) Review of Ring in Sight and Sound, September (included on DVD)

Nick Lacey (1998) Image and Representation, London: Macmillan

Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre, London: Macmillan

Kim Newman (2000) Edinburgh Festival Report on Ring, Sight and Sound, August

The ‘Guardian Unlimited’ website ( has three very useful articles on Ring and Japanese horror films by Pete Tombs (‘Oh, Noh… Japan has the horrors again’, 18/8/00) and Steve Rose (‘Nightmare Scenario’, 20/9/02).

Film availability

Ring, Rasen, Ring 2 and Ring 0 are all available on DVD in the UK from Tartan Video.

Essay or discussion questions on Ring

1. What makes Ring a horror film? Identify the codes and conventions of the traditional horror film that are present in this film.

2. How is the ghost of Sadako represented in the film? What are the memorable features of the ghost image? How do they refer to the narrative and any possible theme of the film?

3. Does the Japanese setting of the film mean the story is told differently than it would be in a Hollywood film? (When the Hollywood film is released you could compare the two.)

4. Is Reiko an ‘ordinary young woman’ or a ‘hero’ figure?

5. When Sadako’s body is found, the story might have ended – what is the pretext for carrying on the story? How does the director make sure we know that it will carry on – i.e. what do we expect from a final shot in a film, what don’t we get here?

6. The sequel, Ring 2 was made two years after the first film. Think back over Ring – what kinds of ‘narrative information’ were given out to provide the basis for continuing the story – e.g. is there any explanation for the death of Ryuji? Besides Reiko and Yoichi, who else knows at least something about what has happened, and may be concerned to follow up the story?

If you want to find out more about Ringu and the whole J-horror cycle of films, see this free download from The Media Student’s Book website.

Nomura #5: The Demon (Kichiku, Japan 1978)

Sokichi and Oume (from DVD Beaver)

Sokichi and Oume (from DVD Beaver)

portrait-without-bleedThe final Nomura film in Bradford’s retrospective was described initially as bringing an element of horror into its crime melodrama. I’m not sure that is an appropriate description (it might have been more appropriate for The Shadow Within). The title ‘Demon‘ certainly suggests horror but I would argue that this is a melodrama featuring ‘extremes’ of cruelty and despair. Certainly there is nothing supernatural. Possibly it could be argued that the behaviour exhibited by some characters is ‘abnormal’ – but then many crimes might be the result of abnormal behaviour. The literal translation of the title is more revealing, suggesting the kind of character we eventually meet as ‘brutal’.

The earlier Nomura films based on Matsumoto stories have referred to various social issues and in this case it is the issue of marital relations and childcare coupled with low income. The central character is a married man, Sokichi (Ogata Ken, also a leading player in Castle of Sand) who fathers three children with a mistress. His own marriage is childless and he works alongside his wife Oume (Iwashita Shima) in a small-scale printing business. When money becomes tight in the failing business he can’t afford to pay for the upkeep of his children. As a consequence, the mistress appears one day, dumps the children (6, 3 and an infant) at the printshop and disappears. Oume is furious and refuses to have anything to do with them.

Sokichi with the three children (from DVD Beaver)

Sokichi with the three children (from DVD Beaver)

Sokichi has a complicated problem – what to do with his children when his wife doesn’t want them. I don’t want to reveal what happens (a Region 1 DVD is available) but suffice to say his increasingly desperate attempts to rid himself of the children become more unbearable as the narrative progresses. Sokichi at first seems to care for his children (who love him as their father) but eventually he is driven to actions which deny this. At one point I thought I was going to find it difficult to watch the narrative unfold. I was then quite surprised to find that the last third of the film was gripping and in a strange way it ended as a humanist melodrama. Nomura re-visits the Noto peninsula which featured at the end of Zero no shoten for the climax of the film. Although the police do become involved, like The Shadow Within, The Demon is essentially a family drama. The film won several awards in Japan, including best actor for Ogata and best director. Ogata’s performance is extraordinary, making us feel for a man despite his despicable behaviour. Shima is equally good as a woman who has become almost the equivalent of a wicked witch in a fairy tale. I don’t think we learn whether she is actually infertile or whether she has chosen to remain childless. Certainly she shows no maternal instinct.

Like many of Matsumoto’s stories this appears to be based on a true story. Such stories are all too common in the press and on television news. It’s hard to imagine how a family story like this can be adapted so successfully but Nomura and his scriptwriter (in this case Ide Masato, who worked with Kurosawa on three films) manage the task. The film was screened on a digital format and perhaps lacked the colours of a film print but Kawamata Takashi’s camerawork is up to the same standard as in the earlier films. I didn’t notice the music because I was so engrossed by the story. I’m not sure that this was my favourite film of the five Nomuras, but the more I think about it, the more of an exceptional artistic and commercial achievement it becomes.

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

The two detectives (from:

The two detectives (from:

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:

The ‘excluded’ figures venturing through the Japanese landscape (from:

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:

Nomura #3: The Shadow Within (Kage no kuruma, Japan 1970)

One of the disturbing sights facing the protagonist in THE SHADOW WITHIN. Is that a noose fashioned by the child or is he attempting to set up a swing? (from

One of the disturbing sights facing the protagonist in THE SHADOW WITHIN. Is that a noose fashioned by the child or is he attempting to set up a swing? (from

portrait-without-bleedThe third Nomura film at BIFF marks something of a change in style, though the narrative content, still based on a Matsumoto story, remains consistent. The colour 16mm Scope print was less buckled but the colour had faded badly. Unfortunately this film includes some flashback footage that is subject to various visual effects and they seem to have deteriorated more than the rest of the film creating some very odd images. More disturbing for me is the soundtrack now featuring what Festival Director Tom Vincent referred to as enka music. I don’t have the knowledge and experience to discuss this Japanese popular music form of the 1970s, but I’m usually happier with orchestral classical/jazz scores. I think Tom referred to ‘lounge music’ but that was a much later term in Western music – perhaps it originated in Japan?

1970 marks a high point when Japan was more affluent and more comfortable with ‘Japaneseness’ than in the first decades after the war. It was the year of the Osaka Expo and just six years on from the Tokyo Olympiad. Japan was now on a par with many developed countries and the future looked good. Only three years later the oil crisis would temper economic growth but the economy would continue to grow again from the late 1970s. Society too was changing and gradually ‘modernising’. However, the film industry was in crisis with the major studios losing money and smaller independents gaining ground alongside foreign imports (mostly from Hollywood). One impact on the traditional crime melodramas that were Nomura’s focus is the depiction of overt sexual activity. By 1970 the so-called pinku eiga or ‘pink films’ were beginning to establish soft porn as a major genre/mode in Japanese cinema. This doesn’t mean that The Shadow Within is soft porn – far from it –but we do see the central couple in bed making passionate love, mainly under the sheets and in some shots showing much more skin than would have been possible in mainstream Japanese genres in 1961, the date of the earlier Nomura title that we watched.

Tom Vincent and Chiaki Omori gave an introduction to the film and the work of Nomura and Matsumoto before each of the last four films.

Tom Vincent and Chiaki Omori of Shochiku International gave an introduction to the film and the work of Nomura and Matsumoto before each of the last four films.

The Shadow Within is a film about adultery and the difficulties faced by single parents attempting new relationships. However, unlike the earlier two Nomura films the narrative here focuses on the man as the ‘active’ player in the narrative. Now in his thirties, Hamajima Yukio (Katô Gô) is what I assume was seen as a ‘salary man’ in 1970s Japan, though he seems to have some degree of autonomy in running a busy travel agency in Tokyo. He works long hours and doesn’t get much support and comfort at home in the suburbs – where his wife is usually busy with one of her several local business ventures, most of which seem to involve her female friends invading the house. There might be an interesting narrative about the newly entrepreneurial woman here but that isn’t what concerns Matsumoto and Nomura. The couple is childless and outside of work Yukio doesn’t have any interests. One day, on the bus home, he spots a woman he thinks he knows and when they eventually speak he realises that they were at school together. Teiko (Iwashita Shima) is now a widow with a small son and it isn’t long before Yukio is invited to her house to meet the 6 year-old son, Ken. As in many Japanese films, little is said about childcare for the boy (is he at home on his own all day?), but as their relationship develops Yukio begins to visit the house before Teiko gets home and he looks after the boy when the child’s mother is kept out late selling insurance.

The central section of the narrative shows the developing relationship. Yukio spends more and more time with Teiko and her son – his own wife is seemingly too busy to notice. But gradually, Yukio begins to get the feeling that the boy resents him. This sounds like a conventional melodrama development but Nomura manages to develop the story in several interesting ways. The child playing the son is distinctly creepy, almost like a forerunner of the late 1990s J-horror children and gradually we realise that it is having an effect on Yukio. Is he becoming paranoid or is the child really trying to harm him? Is what we see actually happening or is this Yukio’s imagination? Around this point in the narrative Nomura introduces the flashbacks which show us Yukio as a small boy in a similar situation, living with his single mother when a man joins the family group. The final section of the film then moves into a full-blown psychological family melodrama.

The Shadow Within is a melodrama in which the criminal act which eventually requires police investigation comes from within the family melodrama – i.e. it itself does not ‘drive’ the narrative. The appearance of the police is thus quite brief at the end of the film. Again it’s very difficult not to think of Hitchcock in the final scenes when, during a police interview, we are invited to watch two or three large black crows, seemingly peering in the window. I enjoyed the film as much as the others in the Nomura retrospective and I was very taken by the performance of Iwashita Shima as the woman. Katô Gô as Yukio was able to move from stolid normalcy to become the focus for paranoia as the narrative developed.

Here is the Japanese trailer (no subs) which illustrates several of the style points discussed above (the effects footage, the music, more overt sexual activity etc.):

Nomura #2: Zero Focus (Zero no shoten, Japan 1961)

The three women at the centre of ZERO FOCUS in a promo pic, (from left) , Takachiho Hizuru as Sachiko, Kuga Yoshiko as Teiko and Arima Ineko as Hisako

The three women at the centre of ZERO FOCUS in a promo pic, (from left) Takachiho Hizuru as Sachiko, Kuga Yoshiko as Teiko and Arima Ineko as Hisako

portrait-without-bleedThis was actually the first of Bradford International Film Festival’s Nomura Yoshitaro films based on the published stories of Matsumoto Seicho to be screened. All the issues about the 16mm print for Stakeout also apply here. Although released three years after Stakeout, I thought this seemed like an earlier film. Part of that feeling came from the style of the film which much more resembled the films noirs of the 1940s in the US and Europe.

Tom Vincent’s notes in the festival brochure capture the noir elements well when he refers to: “voiceover, revelations, duplicitous characters . . . indebted to Hitchcock with a dual-identity plot and elevated showdowns reminiscent of both Vertigo and Rebecca, plus a Herrmann-like score”. We might add the use of flashbacks and the presence of a femme fatale. Many of these elements also signal melodrama and with the added presence of elements of the police procedural, Zero Focus is clearly related to the other four films in the festival package.

The convoluted plot involves a young couple who marry in difficult circumstances. Teiko is in Tokyo and Kenichi has been working on a job for his advertising company on the west coast of Japan in Kanazawa. Immediately after the wedding he returns to Kanazawa to tie up loose ends before taking up his new post in Tokyo – but he doesn’t return on the expected day. He can’t be contacted and after a few days his company send another employee, with Teiko, to investigate what they realise has become a ‘missing persons’ case. Gradually Teiko uncovers her husband’s ‘other life’ in Kanazawa and on the remote Noto peninsula with its rugged cliffs (which will provide a dramatic setting for the narrative climax). The police investigation hinges on a crucial memory of what happened in Japan under occupation (1946-52) when street prostitution to serve American GIs began to become a social issue. One of the police officers had been a ‘street guard’ who knew the women on the street. This notion of building social issues into crime fiction has been part of the attraction of Matsumoto’s stories for readers.

Confrontation on the cliffs

Confrontation on the cliffs

The film has been released on DVD in North America and there are some reviews on IMDB. Unfortunately most of them don’t realise what a gem the film is. As with Stakeout, Nomura and his scriptwriters are interested in the women in the story so it is literally the ‘voices’ of the three women shown at the head of this posting who effectively ‘drive’ the narrative through voiceovers. Teiko is a Tokyo girl at first well outside her comfort zone tramping through the snow in her high heels on the coast. But she gets down to it and adapts quickly (note the lined bootees in the photo). Kuga Yoshito who plays Teiko was by this time a veteran of Japanese cinema having made an early appearance for Kurosawa in Drunken Angel in 1948 and subsequently worked on Kurosawa’s The Idiot and films by both Mizoguchi and Ozu. She is slightly older than a ‘young bride’ might be and this makes her more interesting for me. She looks like she means business in the last reel! Working on the script was Hashimoto Shinobu who contributed to Kurosawa’s script for Rashomon and other films. The Rashomon connection here is a device whereby the final part of the film offers different versions of what actually happened in the story of Teiko’s husband’s disappearance.

Some of the more perceptive reviews of the film are found here:

The harsh beauty of Noto is similar to the mountain spa region around Saga in Stakeout and Nomura tries to get what he can from it. I was struck by how the cliff top and the angry sea (in other parts of Japan) are settings that recur in more recent Japanese films including Ringu (1998) and Villain (2010). They also appear in two further Nomura films.

N.B. If you are looking for this film, don’t get confused by the 2009 remake which is easily available on DVD.

Nomura #1: Stakeout (Harikomi, Japan 1958)

The two detectives in tailing Sadako (from

The two detectives tailing Sadako (from

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:


Introducing Nomura Yoshitaro

Nomura shooting The Castle of Sand (1974)

Nomura shooting The Castle of Sand (1974) (to the right behind the camera)

Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) has organised a short retrospective of the work of the Japanese director Nomura Yoshitaro, put together by Festival Director Tom Vincent with the co-operation of Nomura’s studio Shochiku. Five films have played in Bradford and they will also go to the ICA in London for screenings between 18 April and 23 April. Before the first screening Alexander Jacoby, author of A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to the Present Day, gave us some ideas about how to place Nomura as a Japanese director.

Nomura Yoshitaro (1919-2005) is barely known in the West, although some of his films were released in the US by Shochiku. In Japan however he was greatly admired and Alex told us that in the Kinema Jumpo ratings (from the most authoritative Japanese cinema journal) Nomura’s films were often placed higher than those of Kurosawa and other directors well-known to Western fans of Japanese cinema. Why didn’t this success lead to exports? Alex suggested two possible reasons. First, Nomura was unfortunate in that he did not become fully established as a ‘name’ director until the late 1950s/early 1960s. The Japanese ‘masters’ – Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa, Naruse and Ozu began to see their films exported via film festivals and art house releases from the early 1950s and therefore Nomura missed the boat. By the early 1960s the Japanese New Wave headed by Oshima Nagisa was starting to make noises and Nomura was then too ‘old-fashioned’.

Second, Nomura was seen primarily as a ‘genre director’. He made films in many different genres but the films on show in Bradford are all based on stories by the very successful writer Matsumoto Seicho and mix crime fiction and melodrama. Alex suggested that actually Nomura was a director with ‘personal vision’ and that perhaps he worked in the same way as Howard Hawks. I’m not sure whether Hawks is the director I’d pick out but within any studio system there are bound to be directors capable of producing a genre film with the something extra that makes them recognisable as ‘personal’.

Nomura intended his films to be for the popular market but as soon as he was able to get more substantial budgets (his early films were low-budget programme-fillers in the early 1950s) he prepared carefully for his productions, especially in organising location shooting for Matsumoto’s stories which often featured scenes in different parts of Japan (and frequent train trips). Chaiki Omori from Shochiku’s international department helped to introduce the films and she emphasised that as far as possible Nomura tried to create the precise conditions for each locations described in the story. He would turn off the air-conditioning and make his actors really sweat if the story demanded it, he would shoot at noon if the script said it was noon etc.

The problems with making the distinction between an ‘auteur’ and a ‘genre director’ are immediately apparent when comparing Kurosawa Akira’s adaptation of an Evan Hunter crime novel in High and Low (1963) with Nomura’s policier/melodrama Stakeout (1958). All the critical praise for the former should be matched by that for the latter (my review to follow). There are differences between Kurosawa’s approach with its attention to historical/social details and references to other filmmaking and literary cultures and Nomura’s more directly Japanese focus but both directors are interested in the characters as much if not more than in the genre narrative. I think that Nomura’s films could have worked overseas and the Bradford season offers a useful opportunity to test out this theory.