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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yoshitaro Nomura | ゼロの焦点 (Zero no shōten) (Zero Focus)


future meets past
by Douglas Messerli

Shinobu Hashimoto and Yoji Yamada (screenplay, based on the novel by Seicho Matsumoto) Yoshitaro Nomura (director) ゼロの焦点 (Zero no shōten) (Zero Focus) / 1961
 

A newly wed woman, Teiko Uhara (Yoshiko Kuga), suddenly discovers that she does not truly know her husband, Kenichi (Koji Nambara), after he disappears on a short business trip only one week into their marriage. Yoshitaro Nomura’s Zero Focus begins slowly and politely, as the executives of the company for which Kenichi works, reach out to Teiko in an attempt to find out what happened to her husband.

     Traveling from Tokyo to the snowy north of Japan, Teiko attempts to uncover clues to where her husband is or what happened to him. Only a couple of suicides have been reported to local police, and neither of the dead men match the appearance of her husband. Was Kenichi even capable of suicide. A company spokesman refers Teiko to the home of Sachiko/Emmy (Hizuru Takachiho) and her wealthy husband, who had entertained Kenichi several times.  
     Visiting them at their home, she recognizes the building as the same as pictured on one of two postcards she has discovered in one of her husband’s books before her travels. Yet this visit also ends in a dead end.
     Police suggest that Kenichi may have gone to a village, Noto, somewhat further north, and Teiko makes that arduous trip as well, even visiting a famous cliff nearby where many suicides have occurred in the past. There she also recognizes a second house pictured on the postcards. Without further leads, however, she returns to Tokyo, leaving Kenichi’s brother Sotaro (Kō Nishimura) to further pursue clues.
      What Sotaro knows, and she does not, is that Kenichi had been living 10 days of every month with a former prostitute, Hisako/Sally (Ineko Arima), who he first met when he worked as a vice cop during the Occupation, a woman with whom he had intended to break off all relations in order to take good care of Teiko. Sotaro also travels to Noto, but is killed there, having evidently been poisoned.

       Gradually the quiet and obedient Teiko comes alive, a bit like an Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple, without her eccentricities. With steely resolve she sets out to discover the truth about her husband’s disappearance and his brother’s death. 
     Returning to Noto, she confronts Emmy about the three missing and dead people, positing a version of events quite close to the truth: arguing that Emmy, herself a former prostitute whom Kenichi recognized, killed Kenichi, pushing him off the cliff and then Sally, fearing that one of them might attempt to blackmail her and destroy her wealthy marriage. When Sotaro visited, she poisoned him as well.
     Emmy corrects the details, but in so doing, admits her guilt in front of her husband, and so Teiko brings the murders to justice.
     Nomura’s beautifully filmed black and white work, with its excellent musical score by Yasushi Akutagawa, is a quiet but excellent noir mystery, and the fact that its detective is female makes it quite exceptional in Japanese cinema. If Teiko begins as a passive wife, she ends the tale as a kind of intelligent avenger. And the fact that the murderer is, herself, a strong woman determined not to have her pass life revealed, makes Zero Focus a kind of early feminist work wherein it is the males who are ultimately weak and powerless. 
      I might add my observation that so many Japanese films portray women forced into prostitution in order to survive, that it has almost become a genre unto itself.

Los Angeles, January 24, 2017

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