Murder of the Inugami Clan (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 2006)

the inugami family 2006 posterBeginning his career in the late 1940s, Kon Ichikawa was a contemporary of the leading lights of Japanese cinema during the golden age though has never quite achieved the level of international acclaim awarded to studio mate Akira Kurosawa. Unlike Kurosawa however, whose career floundered the wake of the studio system’s collapse, Ichikawa was able to go on making films through the difficult years of the 70s and 80s precisely because he was willing to take on projects that were purely commercial in nature. His biggest box office hit was an adaptation of the Seishi Yokomizo novel The Inugami Family which led to a further four films starring the author’s eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi. 30 years later, in what would turn out to be his final film, Ichikawa took the unusual step of remaking his biggest commercial success and even more unusually decided to recast several of the same actors in their original roles.

The script remains almost identical to the 1976 version though slightly slimmer. In 1947, pharmaceuticals magnate Sahei Inugami (Tatsuya Nakadai) dies leaving a confusing will which upsets absolutely everyone – not least his three daughters whom he fathered with three different women none of whom he was legally married to. Sahei has elected to leave the bulk of his estate to a young lady, Tamayo (Nanako Matsushima), who is not part of the family, on the condition that she marry one of his grandsons though he stresses that she is free to choose. If she chooses to marry someone else, the estate will be split between the three grandsons and another illegitimate son fathered with a maid whose whereabouts are apparently unknown. With such a vast fortune at stake, it is not long before the first murder occurs.

The most major difference between the 1976 and 2006 versions is, perhaps counterintuitively, the budget. Whereas the 1976 version had been one of the “taisaku” prestige pictures which dominated the mainstream cinema of the era and had the marketing genius of a young Haruki Kadokawa behind it, the 2006 version is a much more modest affair with minimal production values and a noticeably unfussy approach. The 1976 version, like the other instalments in the ‘70s series, also boasted a starry cast including golden age star Mieko Takamine, even employing Kyoko Kishida in a tiny two scene role as a blind koto teacher. Perhaps the strangest and most experimental choice made by Ichikawa in terms of his “remake”, is the one to cast original star Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective, reprising his role from the earlier film 30 years later. In fact, many of the other characters whose ages are not important are also played by the original actors including the bumbling policeman (Takeshi Kato) and his sidekick who appear throughout the series (comedy director Koki Mitani makes a noted cameo in the spot occupied by Seishi Yokomizo in the original adaptation).

The recasting adds to the level of uncanniness created by the dissonance between the opulence of the 76 version, and the austerity of that from 2006. This time around, Ichikawa shoots in 16:9 rather than (the then) TV friendly 4:3, but in the scaled back hyperrealist style common to lower budget dramas from the 2000s. The flat digital cinematography only serves to add to the general lifelessness of the drama which features only the main players, the sole crowd scene occurring during a flashback to the repatriation shot to match the accompanying stock footage just as in the 1976 version. Whereas Ishizaka and the other veterans are mainly acting within the broader yet largely naturalistic style of 70s cinema, the younger members have adopted the decidedly theatrical tones common in contemporary indie drama which somewhat undercuts the strange mix of camp fun and serious drama which had defined the Kindaichi series.

In contrast to the ‘70s movies, Ichikawa plays it uncharacteristically safe – opting for many of the same techniques but reining them in, using plain black and white instead of negative, easing back on the gore, and lowering the level of violence. The results are decidedly mixed and though the central mystery has not changed, the 2006 edition proves a much less satisfactory experience that does not so much attempt to recapture the strange magic of the original as throw it into contrast through its absence. The story of the Inugami murders is, like many a Kindaichi mystery, one less of greed and selfishness than the lasting effects of repression, frustrated desires, and difficult loves and as such it is timeless, yet lightning doesn’t strike twice and Ichikawa’s second attempt at bottling it only goes to show that there’s little to gain in slavishly aping the past.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dolls (ドールズ, Takeshi Kitano, 2002)

dolls posterOutside of Japan where he is still primarily thought of as a TV comedian and celebrity figure, Takeshi Kitano is most closely associated with his often melancholy yet insistently violent existential gangster tales. His filmography, however, is one of the most diverse of all the Japanese “auteurs” and encompasses not only the aforementioned theatre of violence but also pure comedy and even coming of age drama. Dolls is not quite the anomaly that it might at first seem but perhaps few would have expected Kitano to direct such a beautifully colourful film inspired by one of Japan’s most traditional, if most obscure, art forms – bunraku puppet theatre.

After opening with a bunraku performance featuring an excerpt from the Chikamatsu play Courier For Hell, Kitano moves on to his overarching narrative which connects the tripartite structure in a tale inspired by the classic story The Bound Beggars. This first pair of lovers, Sawako and Matsumoto, wander blankly through the ever changing landscape tied together with a long red rope. The two had previously been a young couple, very much in love, but Matsumoto was pressured into abandoning Sawako to accept a semi-arranged marriage to his boss’ daughter. Distraught, Sawako attempts suicide only to survive but in an almost catatonic state.

The second pair of doomed romantics consists of an ageing yakuza who looks back on his life which has forced him to act in a way that he is not always proud of and now finds himself remembering the girlfriend he parted with thirty years ago after fearing he was about to lose his job. She promised to wait for him, he promised to return a fine man but he became a yakuza and never saw her again. All these years later, she’s still exactly where she said she’d be, waiting.

Story three is strange tale of modern love as a young man becomes obsessed with an idol star who only ever notices his rival. After she is injured in a car accident and decides to retire, the young man takes drastic action to be able to meet with her on what he sees as a more equal footing.

Fools for love, each and every one of them. Love has ruined them, removed rational choice from their field of vision, yet there’s something noble and beautiful in the way in which it has penetrated each of their lives. They love as if possessed by an incurable madness, Sawako tries to kill herself because her heart is broken, a woman grows old spending each Saturday lunch time sitting on a bench with a second lunch box which is going to go to waste, and a young man maims himself to finally get his love’s attention. Was it worth it, in the end? Perhaps not if the desperately sad outcomes of each of these stories is anything to go by.

Kitano rejects his idiosyncratic blue colour palate for a world of vibrant colours. Travelling through a year we move along the seasons as punctuated by their symbolic scenery from cherry blossoms to green verdant landscapes, the overwhelming redness of autumn leaves and finally the purity of the winter snow. We travel one way, but also in circles as we navigate the story of love as it too changes with its seasons yet remains unchanged in essence. Each of the lovers is no more free than a bunraku puppet, manipulated by forces outside of their control and forced into a desperate unhappiness that is in part vindicated by their romantic bonds.

Love is tender, love is cruel. Each of the men, in particular, makes terrible choices which cause only pain to the women they supposedly love and, in their pride and arrogance, they fail to realise the consequences of their actions until it is far too late. The tragic inevitability of life’s suffering and the inability to escape it are the foundation stones of Chikamatsu’s world.

Working with fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto Kitano has created a beautiful, theatrical world of hyper realistic colour and life. Like much of Kitano’s work, Dolls amounts to a sad collection of tales coloured by melancholy and a resignation to the pain and suffering inherent in being alive. The lovers are inexorably bound to each other for all eternity because of the suffering they have each endured at the other’s hand. This is a sad world, but it’s a beautiful one too and even if hurts one must try to live.


Dolls is re-released in the UK on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window films.

(This is an original release trailer and does not reflect the quality upgrade of Third Window Films’ blu-ray release)

I first saw this film I guess almost fifteen years ago (!) and I still occassionally get this song stuck in my head:

Review of Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (ドールズ) – first published by UK Anime Network.

 

Roommate (ルームメイト, Takeshi Furusawa, 2013)

meinImage(Is the tag line really “A woman’s unpainted face is scary!”? I get where they’re coming from but, hmmm – problematic)

Adapted from the 1997 novel by Aya Imamura, you’d be forgiven be forgiven for thinking that Roommate is something of a rehash of seminal ’90s “my roommate is a psycho” drama Single White Female though it goes a couple of steps further in the influences stakes and throws in Fatal Attraction and The Three Faces of Eve for good measure. Honestly anything else is a spoiler (though anyone who’s ever watched a film of this nature before is going to guess 70% of the plot about ten minutes in) but sit back and get ready to enjoy a very silly (though not really silly enough) tale of violence and psychological intrigue!

The film starts with the police arriving at the scene of a violent crime where a severely injured man and woman are being taken to hospital leaving another man dead inside. Cut to three months earlier and Harumi (Keiko Kitagawa) – the woman from the crime scene, has been injured in a car accident and wakes up in a hospital dormitory. Shortly thereafter she’s visited by the man who was driving the car, Keisuke (Kengo Kora), along with his insurance broker friend who’s very keen to sort out the paperwork for the compensation etc. Whilst recuperating Harumi builds up friendship with one of the nurses, Reiko (Kyoko Fukada), and when it comes time for Harumi to be discharged the two decide to become roommates! It’s all amazing at first but cracks begin to appear as Reiko’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange and Harumi starts getting closer to Keisuke. Then Harumi starts seeing a woman who looks really like Reiko, but is not actually Reiko, hanging around and things just start to get even more bizarre from then on.

Yes, you’ve seen all of this before. Not just in Single White Female and every other identity theft stalker drama since but even the various twists and turns feel lifted from other, more successful, movies. There’s even an incident with a pet that’s kind of like the one in Single White Female but it’s been given a Fatal Attraction style twist to make it less obvious. At this point, when your roommate’s behaviour has become this dangerous, a normal person would actually do something about it, wouldn’t they? Not in the land of the movies though! Revelation after revelation and about an hour of psychobabble later it’s all explained (sort of, as long as you don’t really think about it) but the last twist and the subplot with Tomorowo Taguchi’s sleazy mayoral candidate seem a little superfluous.

Mostly the film has a disappointingly televisual feeling and though there are a fair few interesting techniques in play such as the use of split screens, this feels both too on the nose and underdeveloped to have much of an impact. Performances are also on the weaker side though this may rest partly on the lack of depth in the fairly schlocky script – Kengo Kora isn’t left much to do other than being generally ‘nice’ and though the bond between the two women is well brought out, neither of them really gets to let loose with the intense extremes of their characters. The problem, really, is that Roommate walks a fine line between camp horror movie and serious psychological thriller, which just makes it a little bit dull. It never manages to build up much of an atmosphere of fear and its unwillingness to play with ambiguity makes it that much less engaging. Had it gone further down the schlocky, campy, melodrama route, Roommate might have proved more fun but this light on gore heavy on drama approach makes it only mildly diverting.

It’s about as tame and mainstream as they come, but Roommate isn’t exactly a bad film, just not a very interesting one. Not crazy enough for the midnight crowd nor smart enough lovers of cerebral thrillers, it ultimately falls between two stools. With such a high profile cast you might have expected something a little more powerful but Roommate is the classically OK, yet totally inconsequential film that’s fine for occupying a couple of hours but little more.