Yoshitero Nomaro's ineffably weird The Castle of Sand (1974) is a very long movie that really delivers two pictures for the price of one. The first ninety minutes of the movie is a scrupulously detailed police procedural involving two Tokyo detectives' attempts to solve a murder. The last hour of the film is a rapturous music video that has something to do with artistic inspiration, the love between fathers and sons, and leprosy. Ambitious and epic in scope, the film exhausts the viewer -- it's one of those estimable projects that no one could possibly wish any longer.
The film's police procedural aspect involves the two hardest working detectives in the history of cinema, a grizzled older cop named Inspector Inanishi and his side-kick, the idealistic and naïve, Yoshimuro. The two men are tasked with solving the murder of a 65 year old man whose head has been beaten into pulp, the corpse deposited in a railroad yard to make it seem as if the homicide was a train accident. The cops marshal all sorts of clues -- there are learned disquisitions about Japanese rural dialects and the pronunciation of place names, forensic tests of various sorts, huge ledgers to be studied, and, at the climax, fifty letters, some of which Inanishi seems to have memorized by heart. An important part of the film, and I suppose an element of its appeal, is its travelogue character. The two cops seem to take trains to every part of Japan -- there are trips to Hokkaido and the western coast and much of the action occurs in provincial hinterlands, along the way, the detectives visit the great shrine at Ise and a number of bustling cities. Clues are literally scattered all over the country side and the indefatigable coppers hunt them down, follow all leads, and, apparently, interview, at least, half of the Japanese public before announcing their findings and obtaining a warrant to arrest the culprit. This part of the film is continuously compelling although fantastically complicated -- solving the crime involves thousands of place-names that are obscure to non-Japanese and ends up, as is often the case with Japanese movies made by people who survived the war, in dead-ends caused by bombing raids, children lost in the country when they were evacuated from burning cities, official records incinerated, and parents lost and orphans relocated to new families. (Nomuro's earlier film, Zero Focus, involves Japanese women engaged in prostitution in the post-war period on GI strips near American military bases.) Nomuro keeps things organized by using elaborate titles to announce what is happening. His story is so complex that there are no interstitial shots -- we don't really see the travel, just the interviews after the cops have reached the places where witnesses are located. The titles are comically profuse and detailed: we are told the time of the interview, the city or locale where it happens, and who is being interviewed. For instance, when Chishu Ryu, the great star from the forties and fifties appears, the subtitle in Japanese tells us the name of his character, that the interview takes place at 8:45 am at a certain address on a certain date, adding that he is a "maker of abacuses." Nomuro's use of the broad screen cinemascope aspect ratio is brilliant -- he energizes all parts of the big, long image. The cutting is brisk and, although the action is choppy, the film's police procedural unit is organized around the heat -- as in some of Kurosawa's cop films, it is very hot and humid and everyone is sweating profusely and, about half the shots, are composed around fans that anchor the images in a very densely observed, and plausible, reality. (The sound direction is also unifying -- we are constantly hearing menacing cicadas sawing away on the sound-track.) The rest of this review contains spoilers and, so, if you intend to watch this movie yourself, you may wish to stop reading here.
The solution to the crime is bizarre. A well-known composer has written a piano concerto called "Destiny". The composer has two girlfriends, a pregnant geisha named Reiki (who dies of a miscarriage) and the daughter of the finance minister, his patron. Reiki has killed a beloved police man, Officer Kunichi Michi, the man who separated him from his father, a leper. Officer Michi's identity is not known at first and so a half-hour of the police procedural is spent developing evidence as to his identity. Once, he is named, the film, then, intercuts the detectives' efforts with the composer's relationships with his two girlfriends -- the affair with the geisha ends in the composer demanding that she have an abortion. Instead, she miscarries and bleeds to death. In the last hour of the film, the movie is essentially silent -- we see the composer performing his piano concerto, music that sounds like a combination of Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky. As this music plays on the soundtrack, we are shown images of the leper father and his little boy (who has grown up to be the composer). The music of "Destiny" accordingly is supposed to represent the turbulent events of the boy's youth. This part of the film is beautifully shot in images that show huge and beautiful landscapes through which the leper (ringing a bell) and the little boy wander -- there are vast seascapes with the two walking on rough rocks next to the pounding surf, snow- and rain-storms, mountain vistas, and small rural villages. The compositions remind me of Hokusai, specifically that artist's graphic series engravings (for instance, "Fifty View of Fuji" or "One hundred famous waterfalls.") The leper is dressed like a coolie all in white with a small conical cap and, with his son, he looks like one of the insignificant little figures beholding nature's majesty in the Hokusai engravings. These landscape shots are intercut with the concert (a grandiose project involving a huge orchestra with two harps) and the two cops presenting their theory solving the murder to about a dozen skeptical fellow officers. The parallelism seems to be this: the composer has used his past, including the murder of the benign Officer Michi, to make his masterpiece; simultaneously, the absurdly hard-working detectives are describing to their peers their masterpiece -- the elaborate piece of deduction that has solved the murder case. Both the composer and the cops are artists, a parallel made explicit by the fact that the Inspector writes poetry. The composer has killed Officer Michi, it is argued, because the music that comprised "Destiny" has made the composer's past superfluous to his art -- if the past is superfluous, best get rid of it by killing those who know the past, in this case, poor Officer Michi. The film ends with two cops about to serve an arrest warrant on the composer who has achieved a transcendent triumph with his piano concerto. Some closing titles tell us that leprosy, that is, Hansen's disease, is completely curable, and that the real crime committed in the film was the superstitious hatred that resulted in the lepers exile with his little son. None is this seems plausible and the amount of work devoted to solving the labyrinthine crime is pretty much beyond belief. However, the film is very handsome and makes its dubious points effectively and the police procedural aspect of the film is not afraid to delve into the more tedious and complicated parts of detective work -- that part of the movie seems a precursor to David Fincher's disturbing and equally complex and detailed, Zodiac.