Tag Archives: crime

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 #1: Stakeout (Harikomi, Japan 1958)

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

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

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: