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Zero Focus - Zero no Shoten (Nomura Yoshitaro 1961)


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Zero Focus
[Zero no shoten]

Genre: Contemplative Mystery

review in one breath

When a newlywed husband suddenly disappears while on a business trip, his wife spearheads the effort to find out what happened. Her search brings her to a remote northern town lined with steep cliffs descending into the turbulent winter sea. In a plot filled with twists and unexpected turns, this comes across as a very effective early Japanese crime drama.


intro

This tale is based on the work of author Matsumoto Seicho whose various novels have been the basis of more than 35 Japanese films. Among these are three, including the current film, by director Nomura Yoshitaro (1919-2005). Nomura's directorial career was quite prolific with 94 films. There is also a very long list of other films in which he was either producer or screenplay writer. Perhaps the most well-known of Nomura's films among Western audiences is the 1977 Village of Eight Gravestones (Yatsu haka-mura).

The current film is one of the handful of Nomura's Matsumoto-based films (others include The Castle of Sand (1974), The Demon (1978) and Bad Sorts (1980)) and consists of the methodical solution to a unique crime mystery. Where this film really excels is in the quality of its acting and its effective storytelling. The cast is led by Kuga Yoshiko who plays Teiko, the young newlywed wife determined to discover the fate of her missing husband. This is intended to be a serious and stark crime mystery, and Kuga convincingly plays the role of a distraught yet tenacious young woman who is suddenly thrown into a very strange and questionable situation. Though appearing much younger, Kuga is thirty years old at the time of this filming, by which time she had already appeared in eighty other films, one of the earliest being Akira Kurosawa's 1948 Drunken Angel.

Also appearing here are Nanbara Koji as Teiko's missing husband, Nishimura Kou as the brother-in-law, Takachiho Hizuru as the aristocratic wife, and Arima Ineko as the other woman.

The flow of the storyline is quite remarkable and is rightly compared to that of Kurosawa's 1950 Rashomon wherein the "truth" surrounding a mystery is often merely in the eye of the beholder. While the backbone and progression of the narrative is the gradual and methodical investigation into the disappearance of Teiko's husband, dramatized flashbacks and theories abound, causing audiences to find themselves presented with several plausible yet conflicting scenarios. This mode of storytelling heightens the mystery and the impact of its resolution.

The film is shot in black and white and consists predominantly of outdoor location scenes at a remote and wintry sea-side town. The bleak scenery and architecture also adds to the increasingly dark and sinister undertones of the tale as it progresses.

story

After meeting Kenichi, a successful and passionate young man, Teiko is soon wed to him, though without knowing fully his past. The day after their wedding, Kenichi is sent by his company to a remote northern town in order to finalize his business involvements there, telling Teiko that he will be back in three days. But the deadline for his return comes and goes, and when she inquires at his office, they too are surprised by his sudden disappearance.

Since no one has any clue as to his whereabouts, the company sends one of their men, accompanied by Teiko, to the northern town. There they enlist the help of local police, but to little avail. Unwilling to simply leave things as they are, Teiko doggedly pursues any and every lead, through which she gradually uncovers a very complex and mysterious web of backgrounds and possible relations between several in the small town. But each time she tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, a new piece causes her to rethink her conclusions and start from the beginning.

verdict

This is a good film, both narratively and visually. The pace is brisk, with very little pause in the progression of the story, though not every path followed leads toward the correct conclusion. This is a straight-up, early Japanese crime thriller which explores the darker side of human nature. By "thriller" is meant moral shock at the turn of events rather than any high-paced pursuit or danger-filled scenarios. This is definitely a good example of an early genre film which some have called "Hitchcockian".

You'll notice that the three main characters here (excluding the missing Keichi) are all women and that this tale, or at least it's hidden reality, involves the inadvertent relationship amongst them and their personal survival (or lack thereof) through this ordeal. While watching the film, this female-centric aspect does not come across strongly, since male characters outnumber female, once you throw in all the cops and company men. But in retrospect, it becomes apparent that the main male characters do little more than revolve (or mysteriously disappear) around the female characters. Since the three women are given top billing in the film, I suspect, in some subtle way, this tale is far more about the fate and role of women in contemporary society than about a simple missing persons mystery.

Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD with English subtitles. Available via all mainstream venues.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Entertaining early crime genre film by prolific director Nomura. Murderous and suicidal foul play abounds. Some randy french kissing followed by a hot bath, followed up by Kenichi declaring what a youthful body Teiko has (which makes her suspicious that he has been looking at not-so-youthful naked women...). Quaint and dramatic Japanese crime drama involving an interesting storytelling method.

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