Saturday, December 15, 2018

Inoue at the Japan Society: The Eagle and the Hawk

A rusty slow boat is always a good noir setting. The crew and stowaways on the good ship Kaiyo Maru would not be so out of place in classics like Across the Pacific and Journey into Fear, but they sing more. It seems like a stretch to call it a musical, but there is still a fair amount of crooning and uke strumming in Umetsugu Inoue’s The Eagle and the Hawk, which screens as part of Japan’s Music Man, the Japan Society’s weekend retrospective of Inoue’s musicals.

First Mate Goro’s father was murdered shortly before he shipped out with Captain Onizame, his dad’s old sea crony. They both always assumed he would marry Onizame’s daughter Akiko, but she has him pegged squarely in the raised-like-siblings corner of the friend-zone. Rather awkwardly, she is more attracted to the rebellious new sailor Senkichi Nomura, who rather recklessly implies he is the murderer to Sasaki, another new crewman.

Frankly, Akiko was not supposed to join her father on this run to Hong Kong, but she decided to play stowaway. She is not the only one. The dysfunctionally codependent Akemi has also followed her contemptuous lover Nomura on-board, setting the stage for a four-way romantic conflict. In all fairness, it should be stipulated Nomura and Goro are quite civil towards each other, considering the former most likely killed the latter’s father and is definitely romancing his presumed fiancée. For a hot-headed rebel, Nomura also gets on quite well with Sasaki, whom he and Akiko suspect to be an undercover cop. That is all fine and reasonable, but somebody must be behind the mysterious accidents plaguing the ship.

Eagle helped launch Yujiro Ishihara’s career, along with Stormy Man, but the real star for contemporary noir fans will be Rentarô Mikuni as the often bare-chested Sasaki, out-Mitchuming Robert Mitchum, in a way that is both steely and laidback. Ishihara might be the brooding heartthrob, but Mikuni is just ultra-cool. Of course, he leaves the singing to Ishihara’s Nomura.

The ensemble is packed with colorful characters, but Tôru Abe is probably the saltiest as Matsu, the fugitive bosun, who doubles as the voice of the film’s conscience. Ruriko Asaoka is the picture of plucky purity as Akiko, but Yumeji Tsukioka is far more engaging and poignant as the defiantly lovestruck Akemi.

Inoue’s narrative starts out as a gritty revenge thriller, but evolves into an even darker B. Traven-style tale of high seas exploitation. Yet, the music and mismatched romance give it a deceptively light vibe. Once again, he shows a knack for slightly bittersweet endings that still satisfy, but could never be dismissed as cop-outs. Highly recommended as some good old-fashioned entertainment, The Eagle and the Hawk screens today (12/15) and tomorrow (12/16), as part of the Japan Society’s Inoue musical series.