Thursday, July 10, 2008

Japan Cuts: The Inugami Family 1976 & 2006

In a perfect example of ill karma returning to the wicked, the Inugamis relived their spectacular fall from grace in 2006, thirty years after Kon Ichikawa directed the family’s murderous demise in his classic film, The Inugami Family (trailer here). Remade by Ichikawa himself, Murder of the Inugami Clan (trailer here) is often a shot-for-shot remake of his 1976 film. Both screen as part of Japan Cuts’ Inugami X 2 tribute to the master director, and are both recommended.

Inugami Family was not the first film adaptation of the slovenly, dandruff-ridden detective Kosuke Kindaichi, often likened to a Japanese Columbo, but it was by far the most successful. Set in immediate post-war Japan, Kindaichi is summoned to a provincial resort town at the behest of a lawyer’s apprentice, who is inconveniently killed before briefing the detective on his prospective case. Fortunately for the fiscally challenged sleuth, his boss retains Kindaichi’s services anyway, since obviously some kind of crime is afoot.

The will of the Inugami patriarch, a local chemical magnet, is due to be read now that Sukekiyo, the prodigal grandson thought lost in the war, is finally returning home. The terms bequeath the entire estate to the grand-daughter of his mentor, provided she marry one of his grandsons, which pits his three daughters against each other, inevitably leading to murder and calamity.

The Inugami story is a satisfying mystery that takes on tragic overtones, resembling a posthumous King Lear, with the three daughters (each by different mothers) scheming for the family fortune. (Photos of the late old man Inugami even vaguely resemble the Lear-like figure of Kurosawa’s Ran.) Although later Kindaichi mysteries reportedly contain supernatural elements, Inugami haunts his family only in the metaphorical sense, continuing to manipulate their lives from beyond the grave. However, plot elements, like the Phantom of the Opera like mask of the disfigured Sukekiyo, give the films a gothic horror flavor.

If you choose to see only one version (which would not be unreasonable), I would lean towards Ichikawa’s first take. Although a few names are altered, the murderer is the same in both films and you have to love the funkier 1970’s soundtrack of the earlier film. Koji Ishizaka also gets the nod for bringing greater charm to the role of the shaggy dog P.I. However, in the concluding scene of Murder, it almost seems like the ninety-one year-old Ichikawa uses Kindaichi to say his farewell to the audience.

Kindaichi would appear in many other Japanese films (several also directed by Ichikawa) and his grandson is featured in an anime series, but he is not well known in America. An American DVD release program would be welcome, because Kindaichi is an entertaining screen sleuth. The Inugami Family screens Friday night and The Murder of the Inugami Clan runs the following night at the Japan Society.