Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Kon Ichikawa, 1991)

noh mask murders posterFor one reason or another, Japanese mystery novels have yet to achieve the impact recently afforded to their Scandinavian brethren. Japan does however have a long and distinguished history of detective fiction and a number of distinctive, eccentric sleuths echoing the European classics. Mitsuhiko Asami is just one among many of Japan’s not quite normal investigators, and though Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) is technically the 23rd in the Asami series, Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation sets itself up as the very first Asami case file and as something close to an origin story.

Ichikawa, though he may be best remembered for his ‘60s arthouse masterpieces, was able to go on filmmaking where others perhaps were not precisely because of his forays into the populist with a series of mystery thrillers including several featuring top Japanese detective Kindaichi (who receives brief name check in Noh Mask Murders). Published by Kadokawa, Noh Mask Murders is produced by Haruki Kadokawa towards the end of his populist heyday and features many of the hallmarks of a “Kadokawa” film but Ichikawa also takes the opportunity for a little formal experimentation to supplement what is perhaps a weaker locked room mystery.

Asami (Takaaki Enoki) begins with a voice over as four plot strands occur at the same temporal moment at different spaces across the city. In Shinjuku, a salaryman drops dead on the street, while a young couple enjoy a secret tryst in a secluded forest, a troupe of actors rehearse a noh play, and Asami himself is arrested by an officious policeman who notices him walking around with a dead bird in his hand and accuses him of poaching. As he will later prove, all of these moments are connected either by fate or coincidence but setting in motion a series of events which will eventually claim a few more lives before its sorry conclusion.

To begin with Asami, he is a slightly strange and ethereal man from an elite background who has been content to drift aimlessly through life to the consternation of his conservative family which includes a police chief brother. He harbours no particular desire to become a detective and is originally irritated by a family friend’s attempts to foist a job on him but gives in when he learns he will have the opportunity to visit Tenkawa which is where, he’s been told, the mysterious woman who helped him out with the policeman in the opening sequence keeps an inn. Hoping to learn more about her, he agrees to write a book about the history of Noh and then becomes embroiled in a second murder which links back to the Mizugami Noh Family which is currently facing a succession crisis as the grandfather finds himself torn over choosing his heir – he wants to choose his granddaughter Hidemi (Naomi Zaizen) who is the better performer but the troupe has never had a female leader and there are other reasons which push him towards picking his grandson, Kazutaka (Shota Yamaguchi).

As with almost all Japanese mysteries, the solution depends on a secret and the possibilities of blackmail and/or potential scandal. The mechanics of murders themselves (save perhaps the first one) are not particularly difficult to figure out and the identity of the killer almost certainly obvious to those who count themselves mystery fans though there are a few red herrings thrown in including a very “obvious” suspect presented early on who turns out to be entirely incidental.

Ichikawa attempts to reinforce the everything is connected moral of the story through an innovative and deliberately disorientating cross cutting technique which begins in the prologue as Ichikawa allows the conversations between the grandchildren to bleed into those of Asami and his friend as if they were in direct dialogue with each other. He foregrounds a sad story of persistent female subjugation and undue reliance on superstition and tradition which is indirectly to blame for the events which come to pass. Everyone regrets the past, and after a little murder begins to see things more clearly in acknowledging the wickedness of their own actions as well as their own sense of guilt and complicity. Noh is, apparently, like a marriage, a matter of mutual responsibility, fostering understanding between people and so, apparently is murder, and one way or another Asami seems to have found his calling.


Heat Wave (陽炎, Hideo Gosha, 1991)

heat-waveHideo Gosha had something of a turbulent career, beginning with a series of films about male chivalry and the way that men work out all their personal issues through violence, but owing to the changing nature of cinematic tastes, he found himself at a loose end towards the end of the ‘70s. Things picked up for him in the ‘80s but the altered times brought with them a slightly different approach as Gosha’s films took on an increasingly female focus in which he reflected on how the themes he explored so fully with his male characters might also affect women. In part prompted by his divorce which apparently gave him the view that women were just as capable of deviousness as men are, and by a renewed relationship with his daughter, Gosha overcame the problem of his chanbara stars ageing beyond his demands of them by allowing his actresses to lead.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Kagero), which was to be the director’s penultimate feature, is a homage to late ‘70s gangster movies with a significant nod to Toei’s Red Peony Gangster series. Set in 1928, the action follows cool as ice professional itinerant gambler Rin Jojima (Kanako Higuchi) whose high stakes life becomes even more complicated when she accidentally runs into her adopted little brother, apparently on the hook to some petty gangsters. Dropping her commitments to help him out of his sticky situation and recover the family restaurant, Rin comes face to face with the yakuza who killed her father in a gambling dispute more than twenty years previously but vengeance is just one of many items on her to do list.

The title Heat Wave was apparently selected for the film to imply that Gosha was back on top form and ready to burn the screen with thrilling action but when producers saw his rushes they knew that their hopes were a little misplaced. Gosha was already seriously ill and was not able to direct with the fire of his youth. Heat Wave is undoubtedly a slow burn as Rin figures out the terrain and designs her campaign with the opposing side coming up with a counter plan, but the gradual acceleration begins to pay off in the film’s elaborate smoke and flames finale as Rin takes a bundle of dynamite to the disputed territory and then fights her way out with sword and pistol aided by an unlikely ally. Downbeat but leaving room for the hoped for sequels, Heat Wave is very much in the mindset of Gosha’s heyday in which, as Rin laments, the good die young and the bad guys win.

In keeping with many gambling films much of the action is taken up with tense games of hanafuda which may prove confusing to the uninitiated and are not particularly engaging in any case, though Gosha does not overly rely on the game to fill the screen. This may be early Showa, but save for the trains the action could almost be taking place a hundred years previously. Rin may have an unusual degree of autonomy as an unmarried woman travelling alone and earning her money through back alley gambling but her world is still a traditional one in which the honour of the game is supposed to matter, even if it is ignored by the unscrupulous who would be prepared to undercut their rivals away from the gaming table by attacking their friends and allies. Rin gains and then loses, reduced to an endgame she never wanted to play and which she fully intends to win by destroying herself only to be saved by her greatest rival.

Gosha’s reputation for vulgarity was not quite unjustified, even if perhaps overstated. Rin apparently inhabits the male world of her profession in a full way as an odd scene in which she’s taken to an inn to watch a live lesbian sex show seems to demonstrate though there is no dramatic purpose to its inclusion save to emphasise Rin’s impassive poise. Though nudity is otherwise kept to a minimum, Rin’s yakuza tattoos are on full show as a clear indication of her position in the underworld. The appearance of such extensive tattooing on female gangsters is a rare sight and Gosha does his best to make the most of its transgressive qualities.

When the producers realised Gosha was not as filled with intensity as they’d hoped, they hatched on the idea of attaching a hard rock song to the end to give the film more edge (apparently much to the consternation of the composer). This might explain the strange entry to the credits sequence which is accompanied by a very up to the minute burst of synthesiser music accompanied by computer graphics loading the faces of the stars across the screen in strips. Perhaps meant to bring the ‘70s inspired action into the present day the sudden entry of the modern world is jarring to say the least though perhaps it kept viewers in their seats long enough to enjoy the post credits sting of Rin giving it her best “you shall perish”, presumably to whet appetites for a sequel. Even if not quite as impressive as some of Gosha’s previous work, Heat Wave makes up for its flaws in its exciting finale which brings all of his choreographical and aesthetic abilities to their zenith as Rin basks in both victory and defeat with the legacy of the good people who took her in burning all around her.


Selection of scenes from the the film (no subtitles)

A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海, Takeshi Kitano, 1991)

scene-at-the-seaReview of Takeshi Kitano’s A Scene at the Sea – first published by UK Anime Network.


Takeshi Kitano’s third feature, A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海, Ano natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi), is about as much of a departure as it is possible to make from his first two films. Not only does Kitano not star, but he eschews his focus on down and dirty, grimy crime thrillers in favour of a poetic tale about a boy who falls in love with the sea. Largely told without dialogue, A Scene at the Sea is Kitano in one of his more contemplative moods as he creates an existential fable of one man’s search to find his place.

Shigeru (Claude Maki) has a dull and unfulfilling life as a dustman, endlessly staring out over the beautifully blue seas of his harbour town as if searching the horizon for some kind of destiny. His luck changes when he finds an old broken surfboard on one of his rounds and manages to repair it. Lacking the proper equipment, Shigeru takes to the seas to indulge his new sport after stripping down to his pants and T-shirt while his girlfriend Takako (Hiroko Oshima) watches him from the sands, lovingly folding his clothes as she waits for him. Over time Shigeru’s love for surfing begins to pull him away both from Takako and from his everyday life on land as he starts skipping work to spend more time riding the waves.

Shigeru is deaf and mute and his girlfriend Takako is more or less silent too, hence the overall lack of dialogue in the film though words are not especially necessary in their relationship. Shigeru is constantly isolated from all social groups (aside from his friendship with Takako) whether it be his inability to join in with workplace banter or the rejection of the snobbish surfers who laugh at his original attempts on the board whilst also grudgingly praising his determination to brave the cold seas without even a wet suit. Though he also had a kind of ally in his partner for dust round, the only person to try and help Shigeru is the owner of a surf shop who sees potential in him and convinces Shigeru to enter a competition. However, at the competition itself there is no one to help him participate – Shigeru misses his opportunity to surf because he can’t hear them call his name. The surf shop owner berates the other surfers for not helping Shigeru, but they continue to ignore him even after he’s been semi-admitted to the group.

Shigeru perseveres despite his lack of ability and paucity of equipment to hone his skills and quickly become a competent surfer. As his obsession with the sea deepens he moves further and further away from Takako. The sea becomes his lover and the surfing a kind of congress or quest for conquest in his new romance. Takako can forgive this growing need for the ocean, but finds herself hurt when she catches Shigeru peeling another girl’s oranges (not a euphemism). Kitano employs another of his beautifully composed long shots to show us Takako wordlessly approaching the pair, who after all are only sitting together on a beach, before stopping indecisively and leaving again without being seen.

The Japanese title of the film, Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi, translates as “That Summer, the Quietist of Seas” which is a little ironic given that calm seas are good for sailors but the opposite of what a surfer needs. The tinge of nostalgic melancholy is clearer here and it’s more obvious that we’re dealing with the remembrance of a past summer, taken from a specific viewpoint, rather than something which is occurring in real time in the present. This may explain some of Kitano’s stranger repeated imagery such as the footballers who never play football and more lyrical, less linear approach to narrative.

Kitano may be in a maudlin mood, but he still injects some of his trademark dark humour notably in the pair of hangers on who follow Shigeru into the world of surfing but spend much of their time bickering about whose turn it is on their shared surfboard, as well as brief appearance from frequent Kitano star Susumu Terajima as a van driver who picks a fight with the police (and loses). Still, A Scene at the Sea is a melancholic vista of a boy lost among the waves, looking for a home on the water. A beautiful, if sad, summer story, Kitano’s third feature is one of his most romantic (in the wider sense) and bears testimony to his talent for crafting intensely moving cinematic poetry.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Shun Nakahara, 1991)

161_img_1_oAs you might be able to tell from its title, Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin) is a loose Japanese parody of the stage play 12 Angry Men notably filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1957. The Japanese title literally translates as “12 Kindly Japanese Guys” and the film takes the same premise of twelve jurors debating the verdict in a murder case which was previously thought fairly straightforward. This time our jury is a little more balanced as it’s not just guys in the room and even the men are of a more diverse background.

In contrast to the American version, each of our twelve jurors is immediately inclined to acquit and some of them are even walking out the door before one juror, Juror no. 2, raises an objection. He thinks the defendant may be guilty and they should at least talk about it a little more. Irritated, the jurors walk back into the room and enquire why he’s had this sudden change of heart. They will, of course, be entitled to some refreshments now, so what’s the harm in hanging round to talk things through. Eventually people start to switch sides, some in confusion or just wanting to get it over with, but gradually each is exposed as having a personal reason for feeling the way they do that has relatively little to do with the facts of the case.

In contrast to the original stage play, the first instinct of the Japanese jurors is to acquit. No one wants to believe the defendant, who is the mother of a young child accused of pushing her violent ex-husband into the path of an oncoming truck, could have wilfully planned such an outrageous crime in advance. Whatever the facts are, she has clearly suffered enough and her child certainly doesn’t deserve to be orphaned through having its mother taken away by over zealous seekers of “justice”. Nevertheless Juror no.2 doesn’t believe her story and thinks there’s at least the possibility that she pushed him deliberately if not having engineered the entire situation in someway.

As in the American version, they proceed to debate the facts of the case in detail but while some change sides after thinking over the arguments, others are rigidly committed to their positions. Of those in the not guilty camp, some of them can’t quite articulate their reasoning beyond “it’s just a feeling” which proves particularly infuriating to Juror No. 2. The US version placed more emphasis on societal prejudices with personal ones largely backing them up – i.e. they took against the defendant in that case because he was a poor boy from the slums so in their middle class, majority culture minds it was natural that he was guilty. Here, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the defendant who seems to have experienced a lot of misfortune but continues to try and do the best for her young son.

Even so, some take against her because she reminds them of past misfortune of their own, or take against the victim because even as a thoroughly unpleasant man he’d managed to attract himself a pretty wife and son only to misuse and abandon them. Some believe themselves to be excellent judges of character or to be good at spotting a liar only to have their opinions about themselves undermined when scrutinised. The revelations here are personal rather than societal, but the central fact remains that you can’t really ever know or prove what happened and even having witnessed something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve totally understood the situation fully. Much of the juror’s deliberations consist of creating a narrative out of scattered facts and exercises in supposition. In the end, it more or less comes down to gut feeling anyway.

Originating as a stage play and scripted by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani, Gentle 12 has its moments of humour and never really takes itself too seriously. What else could you say about a case which seems to hinge on the smallest size of pizza available from a delivery company and how someone might say the words “ginger ale” when really, really angry. The “kindly” jurors also have a wonderful tendency towards tolerance or towards restrained anger that sees them getting quite annoyed whilst trying not to lose their tempers in exasperation or just calmly restating their arguments (or lack thereof) and infuriating everyone else in the process. Neatly filmed by Shun Nakahara, Gentle 12 might not have the same level of cultural bite as its original work suggests but it does prove an enjoyably absurd confined space drama which offers a few cultural revelations of its own.