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.


Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Yoji Yamada, 1965)

flag in the mist poster 2In theory, we’re all equal under the law, but the business of justice is anything but egalitarian. Yoji Yamada is generally known for his tearjerking melodramas or genial comedies but Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Kiri no Hata) is a rare step away from his most representative genres, drawing inspiration from America film noir and adding a touch of typically Japanese cynical humour. Based on a novel by Japanese mystery master Seicho Matsumoto, Flag in the Mist is a tale of hopeless, mutually destructive revenge which sees a murderer walk free while the honest but selfish pay dearly for daring to ignore the poor in need of help. A powerful message in the increasing economic prosperity of 1965, but one that leaves no clear path for the successful revenger.

Kiriko (Chieko Baisho), a twenty year old typist from Kyushu, has taken an arduous train journey into Tokyo to get a meeting with a top lawyer she hopes will defend her older brother and only living relative from a trumped up murder charge. The clerk attempts to dissuade her – Mr. Otsuka (Osamu Takizawa) charges a hefty sum for his services and, in any case, his docket is too full to be travelling back and forth to Kyushu never mind the additional travel and accommodation costs. Kiriko is disappointed but undeterred – she thinks she can manage the expenses, but asks for a discount on the fee. The clerk finds this amusing and does at least ask Otsuka who finally agrees to see Kiriko seeing as she’s come all this way. She makes an impression on him but ultimately he tells her he’s just too busy and she’s better off looking for a lawyer closer to home.

Kiriko leaves disappointed but refuses to give up, missing her original train to try again by telephone but Otsuka has already gone out “to see clients” and so she finally has to accept her mission to save her brother may have stalled. While Kiriko was using the public phone, she was overheard by a reporter, Abe (Yosuke Kondo), who wants to write something on the case but his Tokyo based bosses aren’t so keen on a local interest story from halfway across the country.

A year later, Kiriko’s brother Masao (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) has been convicted and sentenced to death. After his second appeal fails, Masao dies of illness in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Kiriko writes a bitter letter to Otsuka blaming him for her brother’s death which forces Otsuka to reconsider his decision not to take the case. He comes to the conclusion that the case was unwinable and therefore his decision not to take it made no difference but then, he spots something that no one else seems to have noticed.

A tenacious and strong willed young woman – you’d have to be to jump on a long distance train from a tiny village all the way to the big city on your own in 1965, Kiriko is determined to save her brother but finds herself facing an uphill battle against a society deliberately structured to ignore her voice and those of everyone like her. Kiriko is an orphan and so her older bother is also a kind of father figure as well as the only living relative she has left. Masao had been a primary school teacher, which is to say a respected member of society, but found himself involved with a loanshark who was later murdered after he lost some cash collected from students to pay for a school trip and borrowed money he couldn’t pay back from a ruthless old woman. Masao has made a mistake he’s going to pay for dearly – disgraced and humiliated, it was easy work to frame him for a violent crime and force him into a confession through the usual police methods. Kiriko won’t stand for it, but she’s powerless to help him.

Otsuka is, in a sense, entitled to charge what he wants for his services. He’s clearly a talented lawyer, very much in demand, and so why “should” he trek all the way out to Kyushu for a case that doesn’t interest him when he has enough clients already. He does, at least, bother to listen to Kiriko’s pitch before letting her down gently, but just when it seems he might be about to change his mind he tells his clerk to cancel all his appointments and winds up on the golf course with his girlfriend. So much for being too busy to save an innocent man’s life.

Kiriko’s “whole life has been desecrated by one incident” as she cuttingly writes later in a letter which forms a crucial part of her plot of revenge against the man who refused to save her brother’s life (half talking about something else). Forced out of her hometown where she’s the murderer’s sister, she finds work as hostess going by the club name of Rie in a Tokyo bar which has a Kyushu theme. This brings her back into contact with the reporter, Abe, and that isn’t the last of the coincidences as Kiriko finds herself swept up by circumstances which allow her to turn an unfortunate series of events into a cunning plan to ruin Otsuka by neatly echoing the precise circumstances of her brother’s case. Now it’s Otsuka forced to plead with her night after night, begging on his knees that she agree to testify and turn over key evidence that proves his client is innocent all while Kiriko adamantly sticks to her story.

Yamada conjures a tense and gloomy film noir world, following Kiriko down foggy passageways as she tries to navigate the city from the shadows, chasing the spectre of the unjust but losing herself in the process. Masao dies because he was too poor to hire a good lawyer to save him from the police who were supposed to be protecting him, but decided it was easier to stitch up someone without influence than find the real killer. His sister destroys herself to get revenge not just on lawyers more interested in fame and success than in serving justice but on an entire society which believes her existence is insufficiently important to merit full consideration. Otsuka is not a bad man, he is not corrupt or incompetent, he is merely selfish in all the ways his society encourages him to be. Originally letting himself off the hook with the excuse that his decision made no difference, he’s genuinely horrified when he realises he’s noticed a crucial clue which could have exonerated Masao even if it’s an equally selfish guilt he feels more than a recognition that he’s failed his duty to justice by letting an innocent man die while a guilty one lives to kill again. No one wins in this case, everyone emerges ruined and broken by the increasing inequalities and selfish individualism of the post-war world. Justice is blind, so they say, but perhaps she needs to open her eyes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Haryasu Noguchi, 1965)

0089_86_MURDER_UN-INCORPORATED“If you don’t laugh when you see this movie, I’m going to execute you” abacus wielding hitman Komatsu warns us at the beginning of Haryasu Noguchi’s Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Dai Nihon Koroshiya-den). Luckily for us, it’s unlikely he’ll be forced to perform any “calculations”, and the only risk we currently run is that of accidentally laughing ourselves to death as we witness the absurd slapstick adventures of Japan’s craziest hitman convention when the nation’s “best” (for best read “most unusual”) contract killers descend on a small town looking for “Joe of Spades” – a mysterious assassin known only by the mole on the sole of his foot.

After the amusing Bond style opening, we witness the first victim of Joe of Spades who happens to be one of the five top gangsters in town. Sure enough, the other four then receive a threatening phone call to the effect that they’re next in line for a bullet in the brain. After ringing up an assassins agency and holding a series of auditions, the head honchos wind up with a gang of hitmen bodyguards each of whom have their own theme and wacky back story.

The leader of the gang is Heine Maki – a poetry loving, bowler hatted killer whose signature weapon is a heavy book of poems with a gun hidden inside,. He’s joined by O.N. Kane – an ex-baseball player who missed out on the major leagues through being too good and carries a baseball bat that’s really a gun, “Knife” Tatsu – ex-sushi chef knife thrower with an intense fear of fish, Al Capone III – a midget who claims to be the Japanese grandson of Al Capone and is obsessed with the Untouchables TV show, and of course Komatsu himself whose signature move is to throw his abacus in the air and invite chaos in the process.

The guys are really a little more than this small town can handle though they quickly discover the situation is nowhere near as straightforward as they thought and wind up facing off against some equally eccentric foes. That’s not to mention the mama-san at Bar Joker who turns out to be at the center of the case and a local mechanic who’s suspiciously handy with a pistol.

There really are no words to describe the quick fire, extremely zany universe in which Murder Unincorporated takes place. This is a world ruled by crime in which each of our “heroes” showcase extremely sad backstories which explain why they had absolutely no choice but to turn to killing people to survive. Take “Knife” Tatsu for example, he became a hitman because he was unable to kill the fish gasping away on his cutting board so he decided to kill people instead. O.N. Kane turned murderous after being let down in his baseball dream, Heine has a romantic tale of lost love, Capone III simply has it in the blood, and Komatsu? He wants to be a pharmacist…

This is all inspired by legendary Japanese funnyman Kobako Hanato who is famous for his Southern Japan flavoured absurd comedy routines. Kon Ohmura, who plays Komatsu, was one of his top collaborators for a time and became one of Japan’s all time great comedians. Meta quips such as remarking that the police are about to turn up “for the first time in this film” and involved jokes like the one that sees Komatsu tracking down identical “Joes” in varieties club, diamond, heart (amusingly, dressed as a geisha and playing pachinko), before heading into a punchline it would be a crime to spoil only add to the feeling that absolutely anything could happen and that would be perfectly OK.

Director Noguchi mostly keeps things straightforward but builds a fantastic comedic rhythm managing the quick fire dialogue and general absurdity with ease. Much of the film is told in flashback or reverie but the device never becomes old so much as easily syncing with with general tone of the film. There are some more unusual sequences such the opening itself, keyhole view, and a later sequence where we see directly though Komatsu’s big square glasses but otherwise the deadpan filming approach boosts the inherent comedy in the increasingly surreal situations. Quirky, oddly innocent, absurd, and just extremely laugh out loud funny, Murder Unincorporated is a world away from Nikkatsu’s po-faced crime dramas but exists in a crazy cartoon world all of its own that proves near impossible to resist!


Murder Unincorporated is the third and final film included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.

Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

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Make friends with this Oni mask – you will be seeing a lot of him throughout the film.

Seijun Suzuki might be best remembered for his surrealist pop art masterpieces from the late sixties or his even less comprehensible art films which followed his return to directing after settling his dispute with Nikkatsu, but everyone’s got to start somewhere and it comes as something of a relief to know that Suzuki was perfectly capable of making a straightforward movie if he wanted to. Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Kagenaki Koe) is exactly what it sounds like – a fifties style, US inspired noir however, Suzuki adds his usual flourishes and manages to wrong foot us pretty much the whole way through so that we never end up where we thought it was that we were going.

To begin with, our story is fairly straightforward. Reporter Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) provides our film noir style voice over as switchboard operator Asako (Yoko Minamida) accidentally dials a wrong number only have it picked up by a strange man who tells her she’s rung a crematorium then laughs hysterically. It turns out that the number was actually for a pawn shop which was in the process of being knocked over and the owner killed – Asako heard the perpetrator’s voice and thanks to her switchboard experience isn’t going to forget it. Ishikawa grows closer to Asako as the case becomes a media sensation but backs off after learning she’s already engaged.

Three years later Asako hears the voice again – a friend of her husband’s who keeps co-opting their living room for mahjong games that go on for days and cost everyone but him a lot of money. Before long Hamazaki (Jo Shishido) is found dead and Asako’s husband is the prime suspect but did he really do it? And if he didn’t, does Ishikawa really want to find out who did?

As you can see it’s a story that wouldn’t be out of place in any B movie noir from the fifties and the telephone set up is even a little reminiscent of Sorry, Wrong Number (though that film has a very different conclusion indeed). Based on a short story by Seicho Matsumoto, Voice, Voice Without a Shadow is full of the classic play of light and shadow that characterises the best film noir and the mood is ably supported by a suitably jazzy score from Hikaru Hayashi. If there’s a criticism to be made in this area, it’s that Nitani’s Ishikawa is a little too nice and pure hearted in comparison to the broken hearted heroes from the detective serials. He seems content to try and help Asako whilst uncovering the truth even if it ends up costing him in the end.

Although Asako herself is technically the leading character she quickly gets relegated to a more conventional woman in peril role. She is the one who recognises Hamazaki’s voice and the only clue linking him to the pawn shop murder three years ago but, while he’s alive anyway, Hamazaki is more interested in having fun terrorising everyone rather than trying to rub her out. In fact, the sudden demise of Hamazaki, played by an extremely young Jo Shishido, is one of the most surprising things about the film in which you’d expect him to remain the central antagonist right up until the grand finale.

Voice Without a Shadow is then a fairly conventional, noir inflected B movie which wears its Hollywood influences on its sleeve. However, there are glimpses of Suzuki’s individual style leaking through such as in his occasional and surprising use of double exposure, innovative composition and other modernist techniques which all help to lift the rather workmanlike script onto another level. In someways, it’s all a little too nice – even Hamazaki’s nasty lowlife activities are neatly skirted around almost like a film noir that’s been through a car wash though its strange pleasantness also has a nicely refreshing quality.

A minor film from the master of the surreal then, but an interesting one none the less. The mystery element proves satisfying even if it could do with a little more dirt under its fingernails and the committed performances also do their bit to enhance the mood. A prime example of its genre, Voice Without a Shadow is a notably restrained entry in Suzuki’s back catalogue but its classical style mixed with an offbeat, absurdist undercurrent make it one worth seeking out.


Voice Without a Shadow is the first film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.