Shadows within the studio

Tom Vincent, film programme manager at the National Media Museum and a director of Bradford International Film Festival, pulls focus on Japanese crime movies and reviews the work of Yoshitaro Nomura

In April this year the Irish comic thriller film Calvary opened to enthused reviews and robust tickets sales. A fine, salty mystery about a priest in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland who experiences a crisis of faith, Calvary is a genre film that takes itself and its genre seriously in order to also tell us something about society.

In this way Calvary is a throwback to classic 1970s studio-baked crime films like The French Connection, Get Carter and Chinatown, films that were unafraid to talk about the here and now of America and Britain via stories set in New York, Newcastle and Los Angeles.

They were financed by studios where risk-taking could be accommodated and this kind of studio filmmaking, combining company craft trust placed in directors and writers, produced terrific films all over the world, from San Francisco to Seoul.

In 2014 Calvary could only have been made independently. But as a series of previously unknown Japanese thrillers reminds us, 1960 and 1970s commercial cinema was full of these satisfying, risk-taking crime films, even as far away as the seemingly unlikely locale of Japan. Though his films seldom travelled outside Japan to film festivals, the thrillers of Japanese director Yoshitaro Nomura were commercial hits and Nomura was a trusted figure at Shochiku, the studio where he worked his entire career.

Nomura, part of the generation who had come of age during the war, was possessed of a vision that was dark and critical, pointing to a particularly Japanese kind of malaise

Nomura’s best-known films are adaptations of the left-wing crime writer Seicho Matsumoto, a specialist in downbeat thrillers and mysteries, whose stories featured characters left poor and dispossessed in the decades following the devastation of the Second World War.

Working for a commercially savvy and wholly integrated movie studio, Nomura was in some ways Japan’s equivalent of Hollywood genre maestro Howard Hawks, a director who could get the very best out of his assignments, whether working in comedy, crime or westerns, to express a personal vision of the world.

Nomura, part of the generation who had come of age during the war, was possessed of a vision that was dark and critical, pointing to a particularly Japanese kind of malaise.

The best known of Nomura’s films begin with journeys from Tokyo to some unshowy provincial place, there to unearth some guilt-laden crime. It’s a device shared with Get Carter (1971), which opens with a London to Newcastle preamble, the northern city in stark contrast to Michael Caine’s origin as a flashy metropolitan gangster. Yet unlike Get Carter and the classic Hollywood noir thrillers that preceded it, Nomura’s Stakeout (1958), Zero Focus (1961) and The Shadow Within (1970) foreground a serious interest in the fate of their female characters.

We view Stakeout through the eyes of two Tokyo cops who travel to the beautiful southern Island of Kyushu, where they come to sympathise with the downtrodden woman on whom they’re spying.

Yoshitaro Nomura - Stakeout 2
Yoshitaro Nomura

In the Hitchcock-styled Zero Focus, the troubled wife-turned-investigator learns, a week into her arranged marriage, that her husband has been leading a shadowy double life that’s obscured by a shameful legacy of wartime prostitution.

Yoshitaro Nomura - Zero Focus

1970’s The Shadow Within sees a striving young salaryman apparently all at sea in smart new post-Olympics Tokyo, upended by a love affair that’s conflated with memories of his rural hometown.

Yoshitaro Nomura - The Shadow Within

A pattern emerges of a director with a serious interest in the margins of Japanese life, who used commercial cinema to depict troubled contemporary lives. By the 1970s Nomura’s work with Matsumoto was proven to sell well at the box office, and Nomura, gaining impetus from Japan’s emerging independent and art film movement, began to strive for greater authorial control.

Nomura’s 1970s films The Shadow Within, The Castle of Sand and The Demon all have dual qualities. On the one hand they’re commercial melodramas, yet they include persistently troubling themes. All three films are about the abandonment of children by their carers, an idea that would have chimed well with the headlines and mood of the time as Japan forsook strongly traditional family life for modern self-sufficient living.

Matsumoto, a communist activist, was clearly the intellectual driving force in these subtle critiques on what Japan was losing to economic growth. But Nomura also strove for change within the system. Nomura was described by acquaintances as independent in spirit, someone who desired the flexibility afforded by lower budgets to create the films he and Matsumoto wanted to make.

Yet working with such a major studio was a slow process, and the Matsumoto works that were eventually adapted in the 1970s were in development for as long as 20 years, thwarted by Shochiku’s reluctance to tackle difficult themes at a time when audiences were being lost en-mass to television and more youthful-seeming film movements. Nomura and Matsumoto strove in vain for control in particular over casting, looking for the most populist of actors to portray the toughest of roles.

Yet Nomura would persevere, eventually to direct The Castle of Sand (1974), the high commercial watermark of the Nomura-Matsumoto films, and a blockbuster hit Japan that still features on best-ever polls. Once again two urbane Tokyo detectives go to rural Japan, to the northern city of Akita, to search for clues to solve a motiveless Tokyo murder.

Yoshitaro Nomura - The Castle of Sand

The denouement of their case comes to hinge on the deep stigma of leprosy. A mix of police investigation and outright melodrama, The Castle of Sand displays a blend of syrupy commercial studio style and sincere empathy for its marginalised characters that, when viewed at a distance, is quite an odd combination.

The Shadow Within and The Castle of Sand both feature pathetic men, and this failed masculinity would be repeated to a more profoundly disturbing degree in The Demon (1978), which depicts the total failure of a man to take care of his own family. It’s a story, inspired by real life, and marks Japan’s rapid shift away from traditional family life in favour of breakneck economic growth in the 1970s.

Yoshitaro Nomura - The Demon

In making The Demon, Nomura said that he wanted to describe ordinary people, normal, kind, but weak, who can be trapped in a dire situation, forced to be like a demon. To make this idea even starker, in the role of the father, Nomura wanted to cast Kiyoshi Atsumi, a hugely popular actor known for portraying the loveable everyman Tora-san in a long-running series of films. Shochiku vetoed this idea, a commercial risk too far for their star brand.

Like the best 1960s and 1970s studio crime films, Nomura’s movies reveal home truths about the society of the time. Like their British and American counterparts, his films were made at a time when commercial cinema produced serious genre movies, and when writers and directors could still invest their personal vision in the films they made.

This way of making genre films would eventually prove unsustainable American studios turned to blockbuster franchises by the end of the 1970s and genre filmmaking was lost to a cinema of increasing spectacle, while in Japan the studios turned evermore risk averse as the most interesting films of the 1980s and 1980s emerged from the indie sector.

Crime films now, indeed much of genre filmmaking, exists in the shadow of Pulp Fiction and its director Quentin Tarantino’s skilful remixing of late-twentieth-century culture. It’s hard to get back to films that take genre on its own terms. But if you like well-crafted cinema with a sense of people, time and place, Nomura’s films, and the hidden Japan they show, are waiting to be discovered.

Films by Yoshitaro Nomura, Stakeout, Zero Focus, The Shadow Within, The Castle of Sand and The Demo, are showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London from April 18 to 23

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