Japanese Title: ゼロの焦店
Release Date: November 14th, 2009
Running Time: 131 mins.
Director: Isshin Inudo
Writer: Seicho Matsumoto (Novel), Isshin Inudo, Kenji Nakazono (Screenplay)
Starring: Ryoko Hirosue, Miki Nakatani, Tae Kimura, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Takeshi Kaga, Tetta Sugimoto, Hiromi Sakimoto, Toru Nomaguchi, Fukumi Kuroda, Hirotaro Honda, Hana Matsumoto, Yoshie Ichige, Shunta Watanabe, Kansai Eto
The final film I saw at the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme was the sold out screening of Zero Focus where the film’s director Isshin Inudo was present and gave an enlightening Q&A at the end (and I had my picture taken with him!). Part of the reason for my selection is because I like a good mystery but I had no idea how popular the source novel was in Japan. Lengthy review with some slight spoilers.
Sadako (Hirosue) has just married Kenichi Ubara (Nishijma) after meeting him through a matchmaker. The two know little about each other apart from surface details like the fact that she can read and write English and adores the classic English novel Jane Eyre and he enjoys swimming, he was wounded in war and now works for Toyo Advertising and is stationed in Kanazawa in the snowy north of the country. His marriage means that he asks for a transfer back to Tokyo. Despite not knowing each other they feel comfortable together and look forward to starting a new life.
1 week later, December 01st, 1957
Sadako is at Ueno Station with Kenichi. He must depart for Kanazawa to wrap up his business dealings and pass on contracts to his replacement. “It’s only a week,” he assures her but he never returns. He just vanishes.
Against the advice of her brother-in-law Sotaro (Sugimoto), Sadako heads to Kanazawa where Kenichi’s replacement Yoshio Honda (Nomaguchi) guides her around a town which undergoing tumultuous political changes thanks to a woman named Sachiko Murota (Nakatani) the wife of a powerful industrialist named Gisaku (Kaga). Sachiko is helping a woman become the first female mayor of the city. With her organisational skills, money and her influence it could happen. Sadako approaches Sachiko for help when she learns that her husband once worked with Kenichi. Sachiko and her husband Gisaku comply but they seem to be hiding something.
Whilst at Murota’s company, Sadako encounters a receptionist named Hisako Tanuma (Kimura) who seems to act oddly around her and has poor secretarial skills. As Sadako meets these people she learns that they are connected to Kenichi in more ways than she could ever have imagined and she knew so little about him.
Seichi Matsumoto’s novel comes from the early days of Japanese detective fiction. His works dispensed with formulaic plot devices and used human psychology and contemporary politics. Zero Focus is one of the biggest selling books of all time in Japan and it has been made into a drama six times and made into a film twice. The first was in 1961 and this is the second film adaptation and it was made to mark the centenary of the birth of Matsumoto. To give his film something to make it distinctive from previous versions, Isshin Inudo chose to add material in the form of the mayoral elections in order to expand the focus on the massive cultural changes going on around the characters, the differences between the generations and the emergence of women as a force in Japan and the way people scramble to become a part of a modern Japan.
The film is beautifully shot and the mise-en-scene is highly atmospheric thanks to the sense of history and period details seen in the set design. There is plenty of mystery in the plot but the most compelling thing is the way the intrigue of the central mystery surrounding Kenichi’s disappearance is linked directly to darker aspects of Japan’s recent history in unexpected ways and the way past and present are intelligently mixed in every scene so the audience witnesses a nation’s uneasy transition from past to future.
It opens with black and white footage from a farewell ceremony for students conscripted into the army and graphic images of death mixed in with cheering crowds and the destruction suffered by Japan after the war. The film then cuts to the first meeting between Sadako and Kenichi where old begins to mix with new. Kenichi, a former soldier, is about to start a new life with a woman ten years his junior in an arranged marriage being conducted in one of Tokyo’s new high rise offices.
As the two look out of the window of the high rise they see a Tokyo rapidly modernising. Distractedly, Kenichi says “So much more neon these days,” and the crowded skyline is reflected in glass. The comment may sound fearful but reading the demeanour of the two actor’s one can sense a calmness and, in Kenichi, relaxation and hope as if he is letting go of something. He is a survivor from a generation shattered by war and she offers him new hope. They stare into a brighter future together.
The journey between old and new continues in a montage of newspaper headlines and film reels which take the audience through the transformations of the nation. Colour comes in again as we see Sadako in her modern home setting up a traditional Japanese meal while listening to The Platters Only You on her record player. As she comes to realise that Kenichi has disappeared she ignores advice from her older home-maker sister-in-law and ditches acting like a traditional woman who would stay at home and wait for news and heads out north to Kanazawa by herself to investigate.
The further north Sadako goes from Tokyo the more the country changes, as if she is going back in time, and the film takes a much darker turn.
The journey is a dramatic one with great shots of the train plunging through a snowy landscape to Kanazawa, a place which clings to a brutal coastline made up of sharp rocks and cliffs with sheer drops. It is sublime in the gothic sense of the word but still romantic. The sets change from modern Tokyo to a snowbound city with much more traditional architecture¹. Does the average house in Kanazawa have central heating like Tokyo? Not likely. Probably roaring fires and the inhabitants huddled together! The people are brusque, noisy and nosey as Sadako experiences when she finds an audience joining her as she views a corpse but she is unperturbed and presses on
Her growing independence as a woman is matched by what is happening in the town with the prospect of a female mayor. More traditional, older men are derisive of the idea while men from a younger generation seem more relaxed. The mixed reaction forces the women on the campaign to work closely together due to the occasional hostility but one can sense a real change and the national press soon flood into town.
For Sadako, this is merely a sideshow as she pushes on trying to clear up the mystery and she realises that people are not being honest with her. She also realises that she never knew Kenichi but as she discovers more he becomes less of an absence and more of a person in unexpected ways and a new aspect of the Japan’s past is revealed to her and the audience. As Sadako’s investigation begins to threaten people the film turns into a bit of a subdued giallo thriller what with a serial killer bumping off people with knives and poison.
The film could coast along on these themes of old and new and the gorgeous historical accuracy but Inudo’s decision to focus on the role of women in Japan is key in what makes it so interesting and is seen clearly in the way different generations have been affected by the war and the way the female characters have survived it and try and make new lives for themselves. (Slight Spoilers in the Next Paragraphs)
Sadako is characterised as a more independent and modern woman who is willing to grapple with unpleasant aspects of life in her investigation. She has an inner-strength and at every point she defies advice to go home or duck the hard tasks until she is personally satisfied she has found answers. She is also clearly not as affected by the war as others and is naïve when she is placed against women from an older generation who are haunted by the war’s after-effects because they were forced into desperate circumstances. There is the more aggressive and intelligent Sachiko and the mayoral candidate Yasuko who have clearly been hurt by men and intend to change the modern world for the betterment of women while there is also the submissive and good-natured but desperate Hisako who has little control of her life. The plot that reveals Kenichi’s involvement with these women brings this all out and the resulting death and melodrama shows how the war has affected them so profoundly. This is brought into stark clarity by the sharp and assured characterisation and acting.
There are great male actors like the gruff and highly masculine Tetta Sugimoto who is amusing as the loquacious and confident brother-in-law and Takeshi Kaga as the hyper-arrogant Murota, a character who radiates confidence and a reassuringly old-fashioned tough and ambitious masculinity. The two men are easily at home in this new modern Japan but ultimately they are upstaged and undone by the female characters/cast members who have the most importance and give the best performances. They are the heart of this new adaptation as the movie posters and adverts signal so well.
Ryoko Hirosue is the figure who leads us through the tale through her narration and the fact that she has most of the screen time. She can easily play a loyal and innocent wife as her turn in Departures shows but she can also do comedy as revealed in Key of Life. Here she goes from innocence and naivety to determined and vengeful in a believable way with no melodramatics. She is a real more independent and outgoing woman and one capable of transforming herself and she remains a sympathetic and engaging lead throughout the twisting narrative. (slight spoilers in the next paragraph)
She is ably assisted by Tae Kimura and Miki Nakatani (especially) who have the devastating histories of their characters to power their performances and they get the more headline grabbing moments. Nakatani has played innocents in Loft and Ringu 2: Spiral and eccentric geniuses in Keizoku but she is totally different from the way I perceived her. She is ice cold and dominant and presents a brilliant façade and her abilities to modulate her acting in subtle degrees is fantastic and one is never certain of her. She gets a number of barn-storming scenes which Inudo captures in great long takes. Kimura is beautiful and tragic and delivers a sort of hopeless naivety in her own role that makes her endearing. End of Potential Spoiler
Whether the audience is familiar with the mystery or not, the film has a bite thanks to the atmosphere. The verisimilitude of the sets, the costumes and the acting gives the feeling that this is a real insight into Japanese history and the sharp analysis of women creates a gripping tale fraught with many twists. There are weaknesses in the script like certain character motivations but overall the tale is entertaining and classily shot that gives a fascinating take on a time full of chaos which is given strength through its use of female characters. As Inudo explained in the post-film Q&A, 1957 was officially considered the end of the post-war years in Japan, where the war was officially consigned to history and people looked forward to a new era. Zero Focus zeroes in on those who have to make the transition and the traumas that give them the impetus to act.
¹The location is actually in Korea!