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Nomura Yoshitarō

Posted by keith1942 on May 5, 2014

Nomura [lower left] on the filming of The Demon

Nomura [lower left] on the filming of The Demon

The Bradford International Film Festival included a retrospective of this Japanese film director. The programme was titled The Crime films of Yoshitarō. We saw five films, all adaptations of novels by Seichō Matsumoto. The first screening enjoyed an introductory over view to the director and his films by Alexander Jacoby. There is profile of the director in his excellent A Critical Handbook of Japanese Directors (Stone Bridge Press, 2008). Nomura followed in his father’s footsteps, both by becoming a film director and by working for his entire career at the Shochiku Studio. After a typical apprenticeship with a more experienced filmmaker Nomura started as a director in 1951. Between then and 1985 he directed over eighty feature films. He worked in a number of genres. Alex comments: “Though his work was relatively conventional in style, Nomura was never less than a competent filmmaker, and he displayed, at his best, a subtlety and finesse rare among studio artisans.”

There were also introductions to the individual films by Tom Vincent, The Festival Co-director, and Omori Chiaki, from Shochiku’s International Department. Tom mainly talked about the writer Matsumoto Seichō. Matsumoto was in the 1950s the most popular and highest-paid writer in Japan. His crime stories reflected the changing and modernising Japanese society. One distinctive feature, present in the films, were recurring journeys, often to areas remote from the thrusting urban centres and still featuring more traditional aspect s of Japanese life.

Chiaki talked about Nomura’s working practices. Once he became an established director he seems to have had a penchant for ‘ultra-realism’. On the film Stakeout there was one scene set at one a.m. and Nomura insisted on shooting it at one a.m. For another scene set on a sweltering hot summer day he insisted on turning off the air conditioning to that the actors were sweating real perspiration.

Stakeout (Harikomi, 1958, black and white scope) was the earliest of his films screened and the one that impressed me the most. It seems that this was his ‘breakout’ film after a series of genre movies, and one to which he devoted much time and resources. The basic plot follows two Tokyo detectives who journey to a remote island in South Western Japan to track down a murder suspect. They believe he will contact his ex-lover Sadako who has married a business man with three children. The first part of the film involves a pre-credit train journey and then the police procedural detail as the detectives secretly keep watch on Sadako. She finally leads them to the suspect. However, at this point the film changes dramatically. No longer involved with police procedures it become Hitchcockian as one detective follows and observes the fleeing pair. The film becomes reminiscent of Mizoguchi’s Crucified Lovers (Chikamatsu monogatari, 1954) or Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937).

The ending of the main plot is predictable. However, there is a subplot as well. The younger detective is wrestling with a possible marriage: and we see messages to and flashbacks about his fiancée. And as the two detectives wait to return to Tokyo he finally comes to his decision. The cast are excellent with Oki Minoru as the young detective, Miyaguchi Seiji [the master swordsman in Seven Samurai) as his partner, and Takamine Hideko as the ex-lover Sadako. Takamine was an iconic presence in several films directed by Naruse Mikio.

The second feature was Zero Focus (Zero no Shōten, 1961, black and white scope). In this film a newly married woman journeys to the North of Japan when her husband on a business trips apparently goes missing. As she delves into the mystery we are given a series of flashbacks. These become complicated as they present different possible explanations of events from several viewpoints. The scriptwriter, also worked on Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon, and there would appear to be a debt to that film. The film is powerful at time, but the plot seems over complicated.

The Shadow Within (Kage no Kuruma, 1970) was in colour. The main protagonist is Yukio, who is married but begins an affair with an old school friend Yasuko. In part he is motivated by his wife’s pre-occupation with various businesses she runs involving a small clique of women friends. The film is set in the years of Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ but the plot seems rather critical of the economic pre-occupations of the times. There are a number of flashbacks to Yukio’s childhood in a small seaside rural setting. The use of such a setting crosses over with other films by Nomura and stories by Matsumoto. However, Yasuko has a young son and problems arise in Yukio’s attempted relationship with the boy. There is a touch of horror in some of the scenes between the two: rather as in a western film like The Omen, 1976). As the film progresses the actuality of these problems becomes ambiguous.

The Castle of Sand

The Castle of Sand

The Castle of Sand (Suna No Utsuwa, 1974) was one of Nomura’s most popular films in Japan: it was in colour and was also the longer of the films screened. The original novel was serialised in a major national newspaper. Two Tokyo detectives investigate a mysterious murder and have to travel to a remote northern area to solve the crime. What the detectives finally unravel involves a character inflicted with leprosy. Surprisingly it seems even in the 1970s in Japan there was a strong antipathy to any contact with sufferers. The film’s liberal treatment of the problem is a reason why the film it still regarded as a classic. In the course of the film a father and son wander across the rural Japanese landscape, suffering the aversion of most people to the decease. Some critics felt these sequences were a diversion from the central plot, but I found them deeply moving. And they paralleled in some fashion the wanderings of the two fatal lovers in Stakeout.

The final film in the series was The Demon (Kichiku 1978). This was not strictly a police procedural in the sense of the other films. Most of the film was concerned with a cheap printing business run by a married couple. The husband, Sôkichi, is suddenly saddled with the children he has fathered by a mistress. This unexpected burden leads the married couple in to ever more extreme attempts to rid themselves of the unwanted children. This was a really downbeat film which was [to a degree] based on recorded events.

THE DEMON

The whole series was rewarding and fascinating. I tended to agree with Alex Jacoby that Nomura is not a front rank Japanese director, but he is always interesting and all the films we saw had memorable sequences within them. The depiction of less frequently seen areas of Japan [which comes from the source novels] was fascinating. Moreover, Nomura has a tendency for strong women characters which I enjoyed.

It seems Nomura’s films are rarely seen outside of Japan. Two of the prints screened were in 16 mm black and white scope: the reason being that these were the only prints with of those films with English subtitles. Alex Jacoby’s study suggests that there are other Nomura crime films, and films in other genres, which are worth seeing. I hope that the opportunity to see these will arise in future.

 

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