Thursday, November 24, 2016

Zero Focus

Zero Focus (1961) is a Japanese crime film directed by Yoshitaro Nomaro, a director previously unknown to me.  Nomaro worked for Shochiko Studios and did his apprenticeship with both Kurosawa and Ozu.  On the evidence of Zero Focus, he seems to have been influenced by Hitchcock, although this film also has a rough-hewn, brusque documentary texture, a bit like Kurosawa's crime films of the same period.  It's a puzzling film because of its extreme emotional reticence.  In effect, a remake of certain aspects of Hitchcock's Vertigo, the movie eschews any sort of strong emotion -- in fact, the picture's affect is bizarrely depressive.  Vertigo deployed every possible cinematic effect to depict obsessive love; Zero Focus, reprising a similar plot, strips the story to its cinematic skeleton and avoids any display of emotion at all -- this is peculiar because the movie involves a number of killings portrayed as suicides committed by doomed lovers.

The premise of Zero Focus is that a young woman has been married one week when her husband departs to a distant part of Japan, Kanekawa, ostensibly for a business trip.  The young woman doesn't really know much about her husband and there is never any suggestion that she has grown to love him (the marriage was arranged) -- indeed, their parting in the train station is strangely without passion.  The husband, Kenichi, never returns and, in fact, we really don't see him except for glimpses in the rest of the film.  The bride, Teiko, waits four or five days and, then, departs by train to look for the missing man.  The husband's firm, which makes ceramics, sends a company man to assist Teiko.  The audience expects that some bond will arise between the bereaved widow and the salary-man appointed to search for the missing executive -- but nothing happens and, after forty minutes, the company employee is no longer needed to develop the byzantine plot and, so, he disappears from the movie.  Teiko has a romantic interest in Japan's far north where this story takes place -- she has mentioned to her husband in one of their few scenes together that she would like to see the Northern Sea.  Her husband tells her that the northern promontories are lonely and desolate and this is what the film shows -- ugly looking fishing villages with their backyards in the turbulent sea and grim, frigid cities with heaps of snow piled higher than the roofs of the houses.  Ultimately, the bride discovers that her husband either committed suicide or was killed at a place called Noto Cliff, a nasty stretch of rocks where local people hurl themselves into the icy ocean.  Noto cliff plays the role of the Mission bell-tower in Vertigo -- it's the primal scene to which the action keeps reverting in a dreamlike, surreal way.  (It's also a bit like the churning waters of San Francisco bay into which Kim Novak hurls herself in Vertigo.)  We learn that the missing man, Kenichi, had a common law wife in the far north and that she was a former prostitute, a streetwalker who plied her trade near an American military base.  A number of the women in the film have this background, something of which they are ashamed and that they have concealed.  Kenichi's marriage threatens to expose the shady past of a factory owner's wife who was also a streetwalker profaned by her contact with American GIs.  This woman turns out to be at the center of the elaborate plot.  As in Vertigo, the complex story involves mistaken identities and a botched attempt to forge a new identity.  The plot, also, involves lengthy exposition and, in fact, the last third of the film takes place on the windswept and icy edge of Noto Cliff where the heroine harangues the villain and explains how she has unraveled the mystery -- it's like the coroner's summation in Vertigo expanded to a thirty minute set-piece and conducted on the parapet of the fatal bell-tower at the Mission.  The emotional aspects of the film are confused -- the heroine, particularly as an avenger, is strangely unattractive and the audience ends up siding with the Lady Macbeth-style multiple murderer (we have the sense that all the killings were essentially unintended).  The film, as cold as the landscapes that it portrays, ends with a voice-over reminding us that most people carry within their hearts "a sea of sorrow".  The film is extremely well-made and relentless -- it's basically a series of ninety second encounters between the heroine and those attempting to conceal the motive or nature of the killings from her.  Some features of the movie are inexplicable -- for instance, we don't see the villain's death even though it would seem a simple thing to show this to us.  I recommend the film but with some hesitation -- it's Hitchcock without the swooning excess, the x-ray or diagram of a Hitchcock movie.

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