Queen Bee (女王蜂, Kon Ichikawa, 1978)

queen beeKon Ichikawa may be best remembered for his mid career work, particularly his war films The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain as well as his melodramas Ototo and Bonchi, but he was one of the few directors who was prepared to keep one foot in the commercial arena as well as making more personal, “artistic” efforts. For this reason he was able to go on working through the creatively dry ‘80s when other big name directors, in particular Akira Kurosawa, found themselves locked out of the cinematic arena in their native country. Ichikawa’s biggest box office success was in fact the literary adaptation of a popular mystery novel The Inugamis (which he actually remade in 1999 as his final feature film). 1978’s Queen Bee (女王蜂, Jooubachi) is one of five films that Ichikawa made based on the work of popular mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo which feature the eccentric detective Kousuke Kindaichi.

In many ways, Queen Bee is the perfect synthesis of European and Japanese mystery styles as it technically plays host to its strange detective but places him off centre, more as an onlooker to events than the protagonist. Though it follows something like a classical Agatha Christie approach, it also brings in the Japanese love of puzzles and the importance of long buried secrets bubbling to the surface and coming back to haunt everyone involved in the original incident. It’s also important to note that Ichikawa is deliberately playing up the camp comedy of the situation too as he makes his bumbling policeman a definite figure of fun as well as sending Kindaichi tumbling into a pond among other oddly comic elements for this multiple murder mystery.

The story itself begins in 1932 as two students, Hitoshi and Ginzo, leave a small town where they’ve been learning all about the local folklore. Hitoshi later returns under less than pleasant circumstances as he’s come to get his grandmother’s ring back after giving it to a local girl, Kotoe, whom he’d agreed to marry, only his mother objects so now he wants to hold off a bit. Unfortunately this is not a good idea as Kotoe is already pregnant with his child. Sometime later Hitoshi dies in mysterious circumstances and we flash forward to 1936 when the daughter, Tomoko, is three years old and Ginzo comes back to propose to Kotoe.

Now we fast forward to 1952 when Tomoko is about to turn 19. Kotoe has died, Tomoko has been adopted by Ginzo, and three folklore loving students have set their eyes on her as a bride. Unfortunately, one of these suitors also winds up getting killed with Tomoko the prime suspect and it looks like history may be about to repeat itself.

Queen Bee may be a more mainstream effort, but Ichikawa films in a noticeably anarchic fashion with extremely strange cuts and juxtapositions, not to mention the almost parodic tone of the film. He adopts a fairly perverse approach to the entire enterprise even allowing his veteran star Tatsuya Nakadai to play the 20 year old version of himself in the brief 1930s scenes which is, it has to be said, something of a mistake. As fine an actor as Nakadai is, playing a 20 year old at 50 is a stretch and one which serves as a point of alienation during the deepest historical layer of the film.

As is usual with Japanese mysteries, the plot relies on the solution of various puzzles, riddles and the mechanics of crime much more so than the human psychology and importance placed on motive that dominate Western detective tales. As well as the long buried secrets, Queen Bee brings in some commentary on the place of social class in the post-war world, the folly of misplaced love, and how the failure to act honestly and in the best interests of others by putting your own feelings aside can cause extreme repercussions not only in your own future but those of generations to come. Once again, only by exposing previously unexpressed emotions and lies both accidental and deliberate can the trauma be resolved and crises come to an end.

Queen Bee is a strange film which plays up its European detective novel atmosphere complete with the drawing room lecture that has become a hallmark of the genre but also adds in a layer of irony and an almost winking jokiness that make for an oddly amusing tone. The mystery element itself is satisfying enough to keep even the most seasoned crime fan guessing with plenty of red herrings and misinformation along the way. That said, Queen Bee is also very much of its time and perhaps fails to offer much more than an enjoyably old fashioned detective story, albeit one which is anchored by strong performances from its veteran cast.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Wings of the Kirin 麒麟の翼

Wings_of_the_Kirin-002Based on the novel by Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X), Wings of the Kirin is the latest big screen outing for Higashino’s famous detective Kaga. Previously played on TV by Hiroshi Abe who reprises his role as the much loved sleuth here, this latest instalment sees Kaga’s particular expertise put to use in the case of a salary man who appears to have staggered some distance from the subway tunnel where he was stabbed only to die right under the famous Kirin statue on Nihonbashi Bridge. Around the same time, a younger man calls his girlfriend to tell her he’s in ‘big trouble’ before being chased out into the road by police, whereupon he’s suddenly mown down by an oncoming truck. As this man had the salaryman’s briefcase the case seems open and shut – a mugging gone tragically wrong leading to the death of both perpetrator and victim. Kaga though feels differently and as always, the case is not quite as straightforward as the authorities would like to believe.

As with many of Higashino’s stories, the mystery itself is almost a macguffin as Higashino is more interested in investigating human behaviour and psychology with half an eye on traditional morality. Wings of the Kirin is no different in this respect as it has a heavy interest in the relationship between fathers and sons and the importance of taking personal responsibility for your own transgressions. However, that isn’t to downplay the mystery element as Higashino once again proves himself a master at wrong footing the audience. Many viewers may feel they have a pretty solid idea of who did it and why fairly early on the film only for it takes off in an entirely different direction in the final third. That said, although it is heavily pushing your intuition in one direction, there are perhaps an over abundance of subplots including illegal work practices and unfeeling employers, the difficulties faced by young people coming out of the foster system, complicated teenage friendships and misunderstandings brought about by people’s own sense of guilt. Consequently the film does run quite long as it manages to pack in just about as many wrong turns and red herrings as possible, however it largely earns its right to run as each of the characters and sub-plots manages to be compelling in its own right.

Though Wings of the Kirin is technically the big screen spin off of the Detective Kaga TV drama, no previous knowledge of Kaga and co is strictly necessary though familiarity with some of the peripheral characters may help. Hiroshi Abe excels once again as the slightly distant if all seeing detective who alone is capable to putting all the pieces together in the right order. Perhaps due to its TV roots, the film has a rather strange and quirky soundtrack which is frequently at odds with the serious nature of the drama yet it never quite tips over into being distracting enough to derail the film. Occasionally it does feel like more like a big budget TV special than a major feature but again perhaps that’s in keeping with the previous instalments in the series. Like all good mysteries, the solution involves a great deal of improbable coincidences yet watching Kaga shuffling them all into place to reveal the overall solution is quite masterful.

However, Higashino’s moralising does take over at times and there was at least one instance where it seemed Kaga had gone too far, or at least the actions of one character did seem reasonable. After all, if you can ‘save’ one person when there’s nothing to be done for another, is it really so wrong to try and help the people who are left behind? The actions in that case did seem altruistic, not born of any desire to ‘cover-up’ wrong doing but only to try and prevent more lives being ruined. Yes, Kaga’s assertion that you’ve effectively taught someone that it’s OK not to admit you’ve done wrong or that it’s OK to let others take the blame for your own mistakes is obviously true, but the consequences here are perhaps too extreme and dramatically neat to bear it out. Occasionally the film does feel preachy and its message is anything but subtle, however, thankfully it never manages to disrupt the pleasure of its finely constructed mystery. A little bit long and necessarily meandering, The Wings of the Kirin is another impressive crime thriller from the pen of Higashino that manages to entertain with a finely crafted central narrative but is also unexpectedly moving in its curiously small scale climax.