Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is still trying to figure out what the dramatic title has to do with the plot of this Japanese noir melodrama.
"The north country. The dark, dreary sea of Noto. What I innocently yearned to see in my school days. Now I stand here on that very spot, a poor wife in search of her missing husband."—Teiko
Appreciation for cinematic genres waxes and wanes over the decades. The jingoistic Western has been in decline of late, while film noir has gotten hot again. Hitchcock has never gone out of style, but recent high-profile DVD releases of his work have brought him to the forefront of our attention. On another front, America's taste for Japanese cultural works is on a massive upswing, from Kurosawa to Woo to anime to horror/suspense/thrillers such as Ringu and Ju-on.
The timing is right for this Home Vision Entertainment release of Yoshitaro Nomura's Zero Focus (as well as his other works such as The Demon). Zero Focus is a Japanese suspense/mystery in the tradition of Hitchcock, with heavy shades of film noir. Is this simply good marketing on HVE's part, or is Zero Focus a worthwhile film?
Facts of the Case
A newlywed named Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga) sees her husband of one week, Kenichi (Koji Nabara), to the train station. He is handing the reins of his advertising agency's Kanazawa office to Mister Honda so that he can spend more time in Tokyo with his new wife. He tells her he'll return on the 12th. But that day comes and goes with no sign of Kenichi.
Teiko has scant experience with Kenichi's patterns of behavior, but even so she begins to worry. Calls to his home office and the Kanazawa branch indicate that he should have been home on the 12th as expected. Teiko speaks with Kenichi's brother, who becomes concerned and helps her investigate Kenichi's whereabouts.
The initial questions are obvious: Is Kenichi alive? Is he abandoning Teiko? If so, is it of his own free will? These questions will be answered, but they'll invite deeper questions about Kenichi and his acquaintances from the past. To answer those questions, Teiko will need self-reliance, perseverance, and a keen intellect.
Increased cultural thirst for all things noir and all things Japanese certainly explains why a release of Zero Focus makes financial sense. I'm relieved to report that the timing is good fortune rather than a marketing stunt. Zero Focus is a worthwhile film, one that reminds us of the world's vast untapped mine of cinematic treasures. DVD gives Region Oners the opportunity to see films they'd otherwise have little to no chance of seeing.
Having immersed myself in a heavy dose of noir lately, I can't help but draw parallels between the poverty-row noirs of the American 1940s with Zero Focus. (In fact, the comparison is prominently featured in Ed Halter's liner notes for the DVD release.) Film noir arrived on the American scene during and after World War II, a time when American optimism had suffered greatly. At the same time, the cultural climate was forcedly upbeat. Film noir was a reactionary and subversive voice of dissent. My uninformed reading of Japanese culture in the 1960s suggests a similar climate, where duty and gender roles were fastidiously adhered to despite burgeoning dissent. Treating Zero Focus as the Japanese woman's answer to film noir isn't much of a stretch. In fact, though the violence and grit are subdued, the central plotline of Zero Focus suggests noir: "Film noir, occasionally acerbic, usually cynical, and often enthralling, gave us characters trying to elude some mysterious past that continues to haunt them, hunting them down with a fatalism that taunts and teases before delivering the final, definitive blow" (from the website 10 Shades of Noir). As we'll see in the course of this picture, the past is indeed a fatalistic hunter.
The opening shots show the happy couple in a pool of light. He gets on the train and she stands beside it. Though they are physically separated by the train wall, that pool of light and the open window connect them. As the train pulls away, Teiko is increasingly drenched in shadow, until she becomes the merest hint of gray against a pool of black. Those familiar with the conventions of noir know what is coming: Teiko is suddenly and unknowingly isolated. When the phone calls come informing us of Kenichi's absence, it is only reinforcing what the cinematography has already told us.
Takashi Kawamata's deft touch with the camera continues to paint a picture of coldness and isolation. Film noir loves the dark, and we are treated to several dim interior scenes. But Kawamata's cinematography primarily lives in the daylight and takes on a distinctly Japanese quality while paying homage to noirish imagery. One telling shot presents Teiko's high-heel-clad, but nonetheless determined, feet plowing through heavy snow alongside the company man's more sensible outdoor shoes. It is a simple, telling shot, using a symbol of urban femininity in stark contrast to the masculine domain of hardboiled investigative work. Teiko trudges through the cold while the information she learns echoes the frigidity of her surroundings. Teiko later buys a chic-looking pair of snowboots, retaining her femininity while acknowledging the new reality of her circumstances.
The snow theme continues, with walls of snow closing in on Teiko from all sides. The whiteness of the snow walls is as constricting and dramatic as the cloistered shadows typical of film noir. Throw in dramatic shots of the churning sea and the forbidding Japanese coast, and Zero Focus paints a pretty grim picture in broad daylight.
The script is as precisely considered as the camerawork. Zero Focus is an adaptation of one of Seicho Matsumoto's popular crime novels. The film moves briskly, meting out information in a purposeful rhythm. We're never bored, and we're kept involved as each new facet rotates into view. I don't know if Matsumoto's novel is influenced by Hitchcock, but Zero Focus borrows openly and liberally from his work. There's no mistaking its heritage, yet Zero Focus never seems like a rip-off. The story is told through overlapping flashbacks and possible versions of reality that will not seem stale forty years later.
Though they often slip into conventions of melodrama, the actors are compelling. We eventually learn that Zero Focus is a tale about women and their roles in Japanese society. One of the women, of course, is Teiko. Yoshiko Kuga's sure screen presence is demure while retaining a dogged backbone and a ferocious appetite for the truth. Ironically, we never get the sense that abiding love for Kenichi is at the root of Teiko's curiosity. Teiko showed little inclination to marry, but she jumped onto the Kenichi bandwagon readily enough when she perceived his good looks and high company standing—and learned that he would be away ten or more days per month. The marriage seemed to be about social standing and way of life more than love. The obvious chemistry and attraction between the two seems like a bonus more than an impetus. As the story progresses, we grow ever more attached to and fond of Teiko, and we grow to trust her logical mind and motivated sense of curiosity. This attachment is entirely due to Yoshiko Kuga's abilities as an actress. She is nice to look at, and she uses the glint of her eyes and the set of her shoulders to suggest worlds of meaning. The other two women she meets are just as compelling, though in radically different ways. I cannot say too much about them except to congratulate the actresses for performances worthy of a long noir heritage.
Mood, story, acting, pacing, and cinematography collide to make this Japanese B movie just as enjoyably suspenseful as the American and British B movies it emulates.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"B" movie? It sounds pretty good so far, why knock it a letter grade? Zero Focus is peppered with off notes that sour the melody.
Like most film noirs, indeed like most films, Zero Focus relies heavily on the soundtrack to impart mood and meaning. While cleaning Kenichi's things, Teiko uncovers a pair of photos of run-down buildings in the Kanazawa province. At this moment of discovery, the score washes over us with a dread that screams "bloody carnage" or "axe murderer" or something unspeakably heinous—but all we see are two nondescript buildings. Were I to clean out my wife's desk and find a picture of a warehouse, I don't think dread or anxiety would be among my first emotions. In other words, Zero Focus has to rely on heavy-handed cinematic contrivances to get the message across.
The score continues to pound us at key moments, and this is annoying because of the noticeable clipping that occurs when the volume gets too loud. Zero Focus shows a deft visual touch, but its aural subtlety is nonexistent. The poor condition of the soundtrack highlights our annoyance.
In contrast, the video quality is rather good. There is a healthy amount of dust and scratch, but nothing that makes me shield my corneas. Black levels, or any other levels for that matter, are not stable. The color temperature and brightness wobble back and forth, and at one point I swore the snow drifts were mustard yellow with blue highlights. However, these are expected signs of print aging, and they failed to detract from the impressive cinematography and careful composition.
To return to the B movie hijinks, the ending is entirely too drawn out. Here, Zero Focus falls prey to its own convoluted structure. The general nature of the crime and the identity of the perp become clear to us about two-thirds of the way through, which gives us half an hour of extended mop-up duty. It is as though I told you it was Miss Scarlet in the Billiard Room with an AK-47, and we spent the next half hour hashing out whether Miss Scarlet had entered from the north or the south wing, or whether or not the victim was wearing pearls or diamonds at the time, or whether Miss Scarlet gave the victim a chance to say a few words before tasting hot lead. The discussion is academic at this point; we want to see the villain impale herself on a steel spire after an 8.5 point reverse somersault with a half twist.
To be fair, the ending may contain cultural subtleties that make it more palatable for Japanese audiences. Though much of the disclosure is foregone, some of the points made in the final act have a subtle power. For example, one nefarious person professes redemption and steers away from the dark path, but recent acts of treachery catch up anyway. There is a heavy discussion of social pressure that may resonate more strongly with the intended audience. If we Westerners are frustrated by this slow denouement, it is only because we were so appreciative of the fluent use of Western conventions up to the point of revelation.
I have little enthusiasm to spare for the extras, which basically amount to liner notes. The trailer is an ad, and the filmography can be found at the IMDb. The liner notes are informative, though.
If you're a fan of Hitchcockian suspense, film noir, or classic Japanese cinema, there's something here for you. Toss in excellent cinematography, compelling acting, and taut pacing, and you have yourself an intriguing hour of film. Just try to overlook that the film lasts 95 minutes.
We'll go with not guilty, just for the memorable shots alone. There's a lot of cinema wrapped up in this gift from the Far East.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Selected Director Filmography
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