This 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.
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:
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
This 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
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.
Everyone has access to a rifle – Annika Nordin as Karin
False Trail saved the Christmas holiday for me in terms of a new film to go and see. I’m glad I saw it and I’m grateful to the National Media Museum for booking it – but disappointed that Arrow, the small distributor that seems to be acquiring most of the Nordic films and TV series reaching the UK, didn’t give it more of a push. As the Swedish title indicates, this is a sequel to a film released in 1996, which I don’t think reached the UK. The market has, of course, changed since 1996 for Swedish crime fiction films. There is a brief flashback in this film to what I presume were the events of the first, but there doesn’t seem to be any problem in making sense of this film as a standalone.
This is another film that begins with a hunt. Following the Thomas Vinterberg film, UK audiences have been reminded that we seem to be amongst the European countries with the lowest rates of gun ownership. In Swedish Lappland, where False Trail is set, virtually everyone in the film owns at least one hunting rifle. A young woman has gone missing and clues have been found during the time that a hunt is taking place. The hunt then turns into a search operation and the local police arrest a likely and seemingly obvious suspect. However, it is such a small close-knit community that individual police officers have too much history of confrontations with the suspect and the local chief decides to ask Stockholm for help. The officer who arrives from the South, actually comes from Lappland, but he has hardly been back since the events of the earlier (i.e. in 1996). He has a family connection to the local police but no knowledge of the suspect so he is deemed potentially objective.
The man from the South is played by Rolf Lassgård, who has already played Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander and Sebastian Bergman. He’s a great actor but it would be nice to see a new actor occasionally. Predictably, he is short-tempered and stubborn but a good investigator. The film is essentially a procedural, but there are strong thriller elements and the finale plays out like a family melodrama in a perfect setting – a fast-flowing river with large boulders creating turbulence. The plot and the setting are reminiscent of Insomnia (Norway 1997) (the film remade by Christopher Nolan) but the long summer evenings so far North aren’t really mentioned by the characters. It’s also the case that the film does seem like a TV film with Lassgård as Wallander. But this is only in terms of his casting and the crime fiction elements. The film looks magnificent in CinemaScope and deserves to be seen in the cinema and not on DVD where Arrow presumably expects to find the biggest audiences. It’s over two hours but I found the time whizzed by and the thriller elements worked pretty well. I won’t spoil the plot but as I’ve indicated already this is more a familiar crime melodrama rather than that critique of social policies and the breakdown of society we are familiar with from Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.
With over half a million admissions in Sweden, director Kjell Sundvall‘s film was a popular local hit. Arrow have provided a UK Facebook page for the film which lists cinemas where the film is playing later in January in the UK. I’d certainly recommend a visit – but not as some reviewers suggest as a follow-on from The Killing. This has more outdoor action and the climax is more like a classic 1950s Western. In other words it’s the kind of genre film that popular cinema needs more of. I bet it’s more fun than The Hobbit!