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.


24 Hour Playboy (愛と平成の色男, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1989)

24-hour-playboyYoshimitsu Morita is an enigma. While directing some of the most acclaimed Japanese films of the 80s including The Family Game or the Soseki adaptation Sorekara, his primary dedication was to the “popular” which meant he did his share of more commercial projects such as the Kadokawa idol movie Main Theme or Banana Yoshimoto adaption Kitchen. As might be discerned from the title, 24 Hour Playboy (愛と平成の色男, Ai to Heisei no Irootoko) is among his more populist efforts and is most concerned with capturing the unique quality of its time as mid-bubble Japan said goodbye to the traumatic Showa era for the (hopefully) more prosperous Heisei.

After opening with a series of scenes of the luxury to be found in the modern era from expensive rolexes to elegant yachts, the film zooms in on its hero, Nagashima (Junichi Ishida), as he receives a call from his girlfriend to the effect that she will be visiting him shortly. However, Nagashima’s first action is to leap over his balcony and run down the hill below to hide out in his car and play his saxophone before taking refuge at his younger sister’s place. Nagashima has a serious problem in that he finds himself unable to sleep and is longing for a woman who can really tire him out. Consequently he’s become the “24 hour playboy” of the title, flirting with women here there and everywhere all day long hoping to find the one who can send him straight to bed.

Unusually for a film set in the age of consumerism, Nagashima is not a high powered executive or something more glamorous like an actor or a singer, he is, in fact, a dentist. When not inappropriately flirting with the young women who end up in his dentist’s chair, Nagashima also has a sideline as a jazz saxophonist which seems to be what he’d really like to do with his life but presumably is not as lucrative as the unexpectedly elite world of dentistry.

The consumerist society runs as background throughout the film as Nagashima enjoys a fairly upscale lifestyle perfect for a playboy with visits to trendy nightclubs and late night driving ranges, but the film also gets a lot of milage out of the literal change in era occurring just at the time the film was made. The traditional Japanese dating system takes its name from the emperor – the Showa era began in 1926 and was witness to both Japan’s tragic affair with militarism and expansionist warfare and the beginnings of its return to prosperity in the now nostalgic ‘70s and ‘80s. With the death of Hirohito in January 1989, his son Akihito assumed the throne and began the “Heisei” era. The film was released in 1989 but “Heisei” is referenced several times throughout both as a joke on the fact that “Heisei” means “peace everywhere” and in Nagashima’s comments that some things have already improved in the extremely young new regime.

In keeping with Morita’s determination to stay up to the minute, the film is very much of its time but paints its transitional moment as one of excitement and possibility but also of confusion and inertia. When Nagashima tells a late night barman that he doesn’t know what he wants, he’s talking about more than drinks though he seems happy enough with the gimlet the bar tender picks out for him. Nagashima’s insomnia is apparently caused by not having a good woman to share his bed, but he spends the film playing four women off against each other without ever being really serious about any of them.

After his sometime girlfriend whom he ran out on in the beginning starts talking marriage, Nagashima hatches a plan to get his sister to pretend to be a religious nutcase to put her off. Later he gets another girlfriend to pretend to be his wife and mother of his three children to rid himself of one of the others, gets rid of another by telling her he’s off to “dentists without borders”, and even ends up treating two of his simultaneous girlfriends at the same time in adjacent dental surgeries. Nagashima’s behaviour is caddish in the extreme, thinking only of himself and never really seeing the women in front of him as entities separate from their relationship with him.

A throwback to feckless ‘60s male heroes whose casual womanising represented aspirational male fantasy, Nagashima’s exploits are depicted in a light hearted and humorous way eased by the fact that the women don’t seem to mind very much even after they discover that they aren’t Nagashima’s one and only. Eventually outed as a love rat in the papers, Nagashima’s accidental fame, far from causing outcry and condemnation, attracts a vast crowd of ladies wanting in on the action for themselves.

Oddly the one woman Nagashima does seem to be able to connect with is his sister whom he ironically describes as the one woman he doesn’t understand. Frequently staying over at her apartment, Nagashima often remarks that he wishes all women like her or that all women were his sister, which is an extremely odd thing to say in the circumstances but she is the one woman he seems to have a fully realised conception of and is able to relate to on a human level.

Necessarily very much of its time – the Heisei era is even referenced in the slightly ironic title, 24hr Playboy is one of Morita’s most disposable efforts but is also a perfect reflection of contemporary society in its increasingly consumerist fervour where dentists can live like playboy millionaires and the sheer abundance of choice leaves young men paralysed with indecision. Nagashima’s playboy lifestyle is mined for comic value as he plays the melancholic hero who doesn’t know what he wants and and so has a massive fear of (and yet intense desire for) commitment, but Morita is always careful to point out his essential ridiculousness as Nagashima’s “Heisei” lifestyle becomes less “peaceful” with each additional girlfriend and the increasingly elaborate excuses needed to jilt them.