Death on the Mountain (黒い画集 ある遭難, Toshio Sugie, 1961)

Death on the Mountain DVD coverThere can be few films with as accurate a title as Death on the Mountain (黒い画集 ある遭難, Kuroi Gashu: Aru Sonan) , but Toshio Sugie’s 1961 psychological melodrama certainly makes good on its promise. The Japanese title of the film is prefaced by “The Black Album” which is a title given to a series of novellas penned by one of Japan’s most prominent mystery writers, Seicho Matsumoto, whose work was frequently adapted for the screen including eight collaborations with director Yoshitaro Nomura of such well known mysteries as Zero Focus and Castle of Sand. Death on the Mountain was, like the others in the Black Album series, serialised in Shukan Asahi, in this case between 5th October and 14th December 1958 under the title “Sonan”. “Sonan” literally means “distress” or “disaster”, but it has another telling association – “Sonanshi”, meaning “accidental death” such as might occur while mountain climbing, sailing, or engaged in some other dangerous yet normalised activity. The death at the centre of Death on the Mountain is accidental in once sense, but very much not in another.

The film begins with a body being winched from a lower platform back up to a snowy ridge. Iwase (Kiyoshi Kodama), an experienced mountain climber, has perished in a freak accident. Packed inside his backpack, Iwase’s body is burned at the foot of his beloved mountains while his mother looks on sadly, his sister Masako (Kyoko Kagawa) angrily wondering how her brother, a true mountain man, could have died in such a bizarre way while a much less experienced climber, Urahashi (Takashi Wada), survived. The secret may lie with the leader of the expedition, Eda (Hisaya Ito), who has been looking sheepish ever since the incident but otherwise comports himself in a cool, detached manner.

Like many of Matsumoto’s mysteries, Death on the Mountain turns on a secret but Sugie’s adaptation never seriously considers that Eda is not in someway at fault or questions that Urahashi’s recollection of events, published in a popular mountaineering journal, is anything other than accurate. The facts, as laid out firstly by Urahashi’s article, state that Iwase had not been himself on the day of the climb. Eda had treated them all to first class sleeper cabins but Iwase spent the night drinking, chain-smoking and brooding, meaning he was tired before they even arrived at the mountain. He didn’t sleep at the inn either because of someone whispering all night long and needed to take frequent rests during the early part of the climb. Resting is, however, dangerous – as is excessive thirst, and Iwase spent a lot of time guzzling water and sitting down all of which made him even more exhausted. Coupled with a turn in the weather which left him cold and wet, Iwase’s exhaustion got the better of him and he finally lost his mind. At least, that’s the way Urahashi described it, and Eda seems not to dispute his version of events even if the failures – not bringing a map for both mountains they intended to climb but only one, pressing on despite the weather, and mistaking the trail back to the standard path, all rest squarely with him.

Japanese mysteries by and large are much more concerned with the how rather than the why, though in Death on the Mountain the how is a much greyer area than one might assume. As Masako’s cousin, an experienced mountaineer himself, points out, Iwase’s death was caused by a series of unfortunate circumstances but that doesn’t necessarily preclude that there was ill will or that someone didn’t help the “unfortunate circumstances” along in the hope that they would lead to the “accidental death” of the title. There was, therefore, not quite a murder but definitely a lot of ill will and gentle coaxing towards an act of guilty self destruction. As for the why, well that turns out to be far less interesting and suitably petty. Morally speaking, the act of “murder” becomes moot, though the “murderer” finally meets justice head on, only for the tale to end on a note of ambiguity as Masako, whose investigations have resulted only in further deaths, blames herself for daring to disturb the peace. If she’d only have let the “murder” of her brother lie, no one else would have died. Is Masako now an accidental “murderess” or a frustrated seeker of justice? Whatever the answer, all her efforts have been in vein.

Death on the Mountain was previously adapted as a TV drama shortly after the novel’s release, broadcast between 31st August and 7th September 1959, though presumably with lesser production values than Sugie’s admittedly minimal yet authentically detailed exploration of modern mountaineering. Shooting on location and making much of crunching snow, swirling fog, and pelting rain, Sugie runs high on atmosphere but fails to capitalise on the noirish sense of malevolence that lies at the centre of Matsumoto’s mystery, that evil can come dressed as kindness and the line between murder and accident is much thinner than might otherwise be presumed. Matsumoto seems to want to ask a few questions about causality and personal responsibility, the degree to which a man’s death is his own failing, how much the fault of “unfortunate circumstance”, and how much ill intentions from the world around him. Sugie, however, is content to let the suspense peter out with the solution offered in true detective style through a suppositional monologue delivered in front of the presumed murderer but for the audience’s benefit. Nevertheless, even if the mystery falls flat the mountain air rings true and Sugie has, at least, captured something of nature’s awesome power and terrifying beauty.


A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.