The ensemble crime drama was at its zenith in the 1970s which saw a series of starry mysteries dominate the box office for most of the decade. Director Yoshitaro Nomura had long associated himself with the noirish thriller, frequently adapting the work of Seicho Matsumoto and perhaps skewing a little darker than your average drawing room mystery would usually dare. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, 1979’s Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsu no Tegami), meanwhile, is adapted not from Matsumoto but from a novel by American crime powerhouse Ellery Queen, Calamity Town, and as such avoids the central topic of wartime corruption which is at the centre of many similarly themed crime dramas. Nevertheless, it paints a complex picture of Japan in the increasingly prosperous late ‘70s in which class distinctions, it seems, prove hard to kill.
Nomura begins, as he so often does, with a lengthy train journey this time undertaken by the quasi-protagonist, Japanese-American student Bob (Ryo Hikime) who has come to Japan on a research trip for his East Asian studies degree and is travelling from Tokyo where he stayed with a friend to provincial Hagi where he’s to stay with distant relatives, the Karasawas. As we begin to realise, the Karasawas are fabulously wealthy, members of an entrenched upperclass living out in the country. Grumpy patriarch Mitsumasa (Shin Saburi) is the CEO of a bank, and actually not all that welcoming of his visitor though they agree to put him up in an entirely separate house they had built for the impending marriage of daughter Noriko (Komaki Kurihara). Unfortunately, three years previously once the house had been built and the marriage agreed, Noriko’s fiancé Toshiyuki (Takao Kataoka) simply vanished without trace. Heartbroken, Noriko suffered a breakdown and has been living in a depressive state ever since.
The trouble begins when already disowned oldest daughter Reiko (Mayumi Ogawa) rings her sister to let her know that Toshiyuki has resurfaced, apparently having been living quietly as a fisherman in Hokkaido. Perhaps surprisingly, their reconciliation is speedy. Noriko brings Toshiyuki home, explains the reason for the breakup was that Toshiyuki was uncomfortable with the constraints of her upperclass life, and states that the wedding is back on. Mitsumasa is understandably irate, but agrees to the marriage on the same terms as before. Toshiyuki must join his bank and they have to live in the house he built for them. Despite his earlier aversion, Toshiyuki agrees and the pair are married but on moving his belongings into the house Noriko discovers three disturbing letters hidden in a book each bearing a future date and addressed to Toshiyuki’s younger sister, the first explaining that his wife has been taken ill, the second that her condition continues to deteriorate, and the third that she has passed away.
All things considered, it is odd that the marriage was agreed so quickly, the family perhaps feeling that Toshiyuki has had a humbling and is willing to submit himself to the feudalistic, patriarchal world of the upper classes in order to escape hardship while knowing that refusing may be the most dangerous thing for Noriko’s precarious mental health. Entirely absent are the usual background checks such families usually run on a prospective son-in-law, and no one seems keen to ask for much detail as to Toshiyuki’s life over the past three years. The class conflicts are however brought to the fore when a brassy young woman turns up and claims to be Toshiyuki’s previously unseen younger sister who for mysterious reasons did not attend the wedding ceremony and has never been introduced to the family. The contrast between the two women could not be more plain, Noriko often appearing in kimono or elegantly attired in the latest fashions, while Tomoko (Keiko Matsuzaka) is a full on modern girl who finds the house stuffy and the company dull but shows no signs of leaving.
As so often in Japanese mysteries the focus is very much on the how, or in this case the “if”, rather than the who or the why which are in themselves fairly predictable at least to those familiar with the genre. Bob and middle sister Keiko (Ai Kanzaki) who is being pressured into an arranged marriage with a public prosecutor she doesn’t seem to even like but also has not rejected, are perturbed enough by the letters to start investigating but their biggest obstacle it seems is Noriko herself who is at great pains to exonerate her husband from suspicion believing the letters are some kind of dark joke rather than genuine evidence of an imminent attempt on her life even as Toshiyuki’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and suspicious.
“Everyone should live the way they like” Bob avows in laughing off a request for life advice, apparently wisdom handed down from his Japanese grandma. That sense of restricted freedoms does indeed seem to be at the heart of the issue, hinting at the changing nature of Japanese society even as it struggles to free itself from the feudal past. Keiko resents being pushed towards the prosector but only ever comes up with excuses, never actively resisting her parents’ attempt to marry her off. Oldest daughter Reiko, meanwhile, was kicked out of the family after eloping with an actor who eventually left her flat and now runs a bar. Keiko may feel she has only these two choices, a marriage such as Noriko’s on her father’s terms only, or a dubious independence which might not suit her in the same way as her infinitely competent sister. Toshiyuki resented placing himself under the patriarchal authority of his father-in-law, a job in his bank, living in a house he built on the property he owns, with no real control over his life. Reiko may well have a point when she eventually tells Mitsumasa that this is all his own fault, a consequence his rigid authoritarianism that insisted on maintaining an outdated ideal of patriarchal control.
For his part, Mitsumasa is forever keen to emphasise that there are no crimes in his house, resolutely refusing to admit that there are problems within the Karasawa family even while perhaps knowing where the fault may lie. The one mystery which is never solved is why exactly so many women are so in love with Toshiyuki who all things considered is no great catch, a coward who makes a point of disappearing on people rather than deal with unpleasantness only to resent it when his moral cowardice returns to haunt him. He resents the emasculation of being a wealthy man’s son-in-law with its concurrent loss of personal autonomy, but simultaneously refuses to take responsibility for his actions or reject a life of comfort as someone assured both of continued financial security and of a certain place in society. Love destabilises the social order, but seemingly cannot change it leaving only the lovers bruised by their attempts to free themselves from the latent feudalism of the post-war world which continues to promise more than it has to offer.