From a House of the Rising Sun
A far cry from the usual razzmatazz that makes it across the Pacific to screens here, Zero Focus/Zero no shoten is an underplayed, overlong mystery melodrama in the mold of Hitchcock and, in visuals, societal deprivation and women who labor against sexist taboo, of Douglas Sirk. Not just one, but three femmes fatales figure in. Actually, one is stunning and deadly, a second plays it young and virginal, with the other simple if loyal, duped and pregnant.
On the printed page and in films, the genre is a favorite in Japan, though export success is limited because of traditional lengthy explanations that make Chandler look uncluttered. Director-cowriter Isshin Inudou’s remake of a 1961 version from a bestseller by Asia’s answer to Stephen King, Seicho Matsumoto, this puzzlingly titled crime story is certainly complicated. What we and the voiceover heroine-ingénue manage to piece together is spotty and confused.
Impelled by the three doll-faced women, nevertheless, it plays out well. The involved explication, harking back to postwar poverty and a brothel-bar and its Pan-Pan girls, is a bit suspect as the link among them and the connecting man who is lover, husband, protégé and victim. The key lies in his past and present up to just weeks ago.
Prefaced in at first seemingly unrelated b&w World War II footage, Kenichi Uhara (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a decade older than the girlish bride Teiko (Ryoko Hirosue) who adores her arranged husband for his silence and unrevealed past. Days after the wedding, he trains north to brief his Toyo Advertising replacement in Kanazawa and clear out his lodgings there. When he fails to appear back in Tokyo to accompany his wicker-trunk possessions and loving note, the anxious bride heads up to investigate in the snowy town.
Met at the station by his sympathetic coworkers Aoki and Honda, she verifies that the latest suicide body on this sea- and cliff-girt Noto Peninsula is not Kenichi’s, that he had vacated his rented rooms eighteen months earlier, and that he had been taken under the wing of gruff, lewd firebrick magnate Gisaku Murota (Takeshi Kaga) and his gorgeous tough second wife Sachiko (Miki Nakatani).
At Murota, Inc., Honda calls the newcomer’s attention to the incongruous, apparently irrelevant rough hands and good English of receptionist Hisako Tanuma (Tae Kimora), but these are forgotten and pale against the stormy one-upsmanship relation between the Murotas. He wants to dominate, drinks, and womanizes; she is sleek, aloof, wears trousers, and is the éminence grise behind that receptionist’s being hired and candidate Kamijo’s run for election as the nation’s first female mayor.
The hundred-thirty minutes needs pruning of excrescent red herrings like Mrs. Murota’s alcoholic artist younger brother Toru. Still, bodies accumulate, poisoned or stabbed by a grainy sunglassed women in red, as the dauntless newlywed digs into events and is drawn back to 1948, when local law enforcement was bullied by Occupation MPs. She will find that her husband was a good guy who loved and found redemption in her, and that he indeed sought to do the right thing but was irrevocably tied to the past and Public Morals Section police contact with notorious Okuma House, its girls and clients.
Thus the past, via brief flashbacks. Present intentions notwithstanding, atonement and reparation are not easy, especially when there are those that would forever bury those days and deeds of darkness.
Her icy white porcelain face set off by a black hooded cloak in turn against uncontaminated snow, Nakatani resembles Death from The Seventh Seal, overshadows her fellow actresses, and is herself alone reason to see Zero Focus. Sentimental strings and the Platters’ 1955 “Only You (and You Alone)” help to relate this Japan Society Japan Cuts Stateside première to Western noir of years ago and even to social-awareness rarities like Marked Woman before the Hays Code defanged it. But landscape, season and historical context also couple the stylish film to a distinctly Eastern sensibility.
(Released by Toho Company; not rated by MPAA.)