Saturday, October 29, 2016

Tomu Uchida at MoMA: Straits of Hunger

We’re not saying Tomu Uchida’s three-hour film noir masterpiece is dark, but it starts with a ferry disaster killing hundreds of innocent people. Those currents off the coast of Hokkaido are so treacherous, they even spit up two extra bodies. It turns out they were ex-cons, mostly likely responsible for a lethal home invasion. Det. Yumisaka will pursue the “third man” like Javert in Les Miserables. The cop from The Fugitive might be an even more apt comparison. Although Takichi Inukai (if that is his real name) is not a one-armed man, he has a crushed finger that definitely counts as an identifying characteristic in Uchida’s Straits of Hunger (a.k.a. A Fugitive from the Past), which screens as part of MoMA’s ongoing retrospective of the major Japanese auteur.

During the immediate post-war, black market years, it was not just those straits that were hungry. Nevertheless, Inukai seems genuinely distressed by the fate of his traveling companions and also their victims. With the cops out in full force, Inukai takes refuge with hostess-oiran-prostitute-borderline dominatrix Yae Sugito, who gives him a bit of hard time, but rather takes a shine to the rough but shy character. The feeling is somewhat mutual judging from the whopper of a tip the mystery man left behind.

As Yumiska spends years following-up false leads, Sugito uses Inukai’s money to pay off her family’s debts and start leading a relatively straight life in Tokyo. Ironically, she will return to her former profession, preferring the stability of life with her new paternalist mom-and-pop employers. Alas, the government eventually decides to be progressive and reformist by shuttering legal houses of prostitution. Forced to make yet another new start, Sugito happens to notice a provincial philanthropist’s picture in the newspaper. Mr. Kyôichirô Tarumi certainly bears a strong resemblance to the man responsible for her nest egg, who has taken on almost saintly status in her own head.

It is not hard to understand why Straits (or Fugitive) is regarded in Japan as one of the finest Japanese films of all time. It truly combines elements of the sympathetic (if not wholly innocent) fugitive thriller, in the tradition of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, with the sweeping scope and tragedy of Les Mis (which Uchida adapted straight-up in 1931). His use of gritty widescreen 16mm also gives it a 1960s docu-drama vibe. Yet, what makes the film so appealingly idiosyncratic is the delight Uchida takes in breaking all the rules. Inukai disappears for a long period of time, allowing the second movement to become an empathetic woman’s story, roughly akin to Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

Sachiko Hidari is remarkably sensitive and forceful as Yae, commanding the screen and keeping viewers tightly focused even when the noir skullduggery is at a low ebb. Rentarô Mikuni is indeed generous with the spotlight, but he brings some seriously hardnosed intensity in the first and third acts. Noir fans will also appreciate Junzaburô Ban’s wheezy Yamisaka, who projects world-weary fatalism worthy of Inspector Maigret.

Aside from the three-hour running time, it is hard to puzzle out Straits’ under-screened and unsung status outside of Japan. Perhaps Uchida’s lurid color washes used during times of extreme psychological stress have not aged so well, but the exquisite work of Hidari and Mikuni gives this ironic tale the ring and heft of classical tragedy. Very highly recommended, Straits of Hunger screens again next Sunday, November 6, as part of MoMA’s Tomu Uchida retrospective.