Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Japan Cuts ’10: Zero Focus

Japan’s defeat in WWII was a bitter pill to swallow, but the fall of old order represented opportunity to many, including Japanese women. Of course, they have to be the right sort of socially-advantaged women. One young newlywed gets a lesson in post-war sociology as she searches for her missing husband in Isshin Inudou’s remake of Yoshitaro Nomura’s 1961 classic Zero Focus (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of Japanese Film at the Japan Society.

While the war left many Japanese citizens deeply disillusioned, Teiko emerged with her innocence intact, with little experience in the world at large. Kenichi Uhara by contrast, literally carries the scars of war. Though he never discusses his past, their shy courtship eventually ends in an arranged marriage. Shortly after their wedding, Uhara travels to his company’s regional office in provincial Kanazawa to facilitate his successor’s transition. However, when the date of his return duly circled on Teiko’s calendar comes and goes without his arrival, she starts to worry.

Eventually, Teiko travels north in hopes of finding her husband. As soon as she steps off the train, she is whisked to the prefecture’s notorious suicide cliffs to identify a body matching her husband’s description. While his fate remains in doubt, Teiko starts her own reluctant investigation, quickly determining it may well involve two local women. One is Sachiko Murota, the powerful wife of her husband’s biggest client, who has been bankrolling the candidacy of Kanazawa’s (and Japan’s) potential first woman mayor. The other is Hisako Tanuma, an uneducated fallen woman working in the Murata factory through the personal intervention of Mr. Murota himself.

Focus captures a transitional point in Japanese history, when the Imperial autocracy had just been abolished and few were sad to see it go. The prospects for women are also improving, to the point where victory for Sachiko Murota’s candidate is not outside the realm of possibility. Yet, certain social strictures remain as cruelly inflexible as ever.

Originally based on a novel by Seicho Matsumoto, Focus is distinctly Cornell Woolrich-like in its approach to domestic drama. Indeed, Inudo consciously follows the Hitchcockian template, playing up the psychological aspects of Matsumoto’s story. The mountainous Kanazawa region is also a locale the master of suspense would love. One almost expects to see Kim Novak peering over the precipice. Unlike Hitch’s classics though, this is not a story of a wrongly accused man. Rather it is a film of women, varying from the innocent to the implicated. Yet the notion of guilty as such proves a bit slippery within the psychological context of the film.

Serving as a showcase for three of Japan’s top actresses, Focus features a trio of very strong performances. Probably most recognizable to American audiences as the wife in the Academy Award winning Departures, Ryoko Hirosue gives a knockout performance as the concerned young wife. Yes, she is sweet and vulnerable, but there is some nicely understated self-asserting character development going on as well. In contrast, Miki Nakatani seems to be channeling Bette Davis (in a good way) as Murota, while Tae Kimura is absolutely heartrending as Tanuma.

Lushly produced, Focus is an emotionally complex thriller that holds together quite well. Deliberately Hitchcockian yet distinctly Japanese, it is an intriguing selection for Japan Cuts. It screens this Friday (7/9) and next Thursday (7/15) at the Japan Society as part of the ongoing Japan Cuts festival.