Monday, June 17, 2013

Zero Focus (aka- Zero No Shoten, 1961) Movie Thoughts

One week into an arranged marriage, a Tokyo woman's salaryman husband(Koji Nambara) vanishes during a business trip. No longer willing to sit at home, waiting to call the husband's employers yet again, Teiko Uhara ventures toward the rural corners near Kanazawa in hopes of best finding the clues as to Kenichi's whereabouts. Forgiving the fact that the pair certainly had a healthy future in store due to his elevated rank at his company, a number of clues reveal with terrible urgency, that she may have never truly known him at all. It is in the snow covered and borderline desolate countrysides of Japan that Yoshitaro Nomura's Zero No Shoten is another intimately composed reminder that a mystery's key power lies in the potency of its clues, and in the miniscule shockwaves they send bouncing off and around our central characters. And in the role of the quietly determined wife, Yoshiko Kuga, we have what functions almost seamlessly between domestic mystery noir, and telling melodrama.

And to think it all depends on calculated execution..

In near breathless fashion, we are given flashes forward and backward in time. Laying down the central couple's arrangement and subsequent marriage as if to imply that where most films end, ours is mere prelude. And all seems well, until the inciting incident hits like a rift opening. And Teiko's growing concerns over how little is actually known about her husband, even by people whom he has worked with for years. Train and bus rides, meetings and more questions as the clues never seem to gather steam. And initially, it even feels like Kenichi's brother, Sotaro(Ko Nishimura) is unwilling to fear the worst as time grows ever desperate. So when matters begin to touch a somber tone, this is where the film spirals into truly volatile territory and never lets up. Rather than relying on a "mystery box" format, this is a piece that is aware of the importance of character motivation, as well as the power of solid atmosphere.

Doing all I can here to avoid revealing too much in regards to plot, but will just state for the record that this is a very model of carefully written and directed tale told in a most broken down of environments. The script was co-written by crime novel legend, Seicho Matsumoto, who's stories often carried tight narratives laced with troubling social commentary, and Zero No Shoten is no exception. As carefully played as the film's structure is , it all seems to be in the name of calling out some of the less considered shades of collateral damage strewn about in the wake of World War II. The further away from the growing noise and lights of Tokyo, the more we are witness to more ignored parts of the country, often with their own plights often coated in quiet sadness, with only so much employment, and even more women unable to have what Teiko just recently stumbled upon. Where options are minimal, and name is final. And when we discover the truths behind all that has happened, it is with the delicately planted & enabled silence of a bomb.

And all of this in no small way comes from some truly effective acting across the board. Most notably by Kuga, who's painfully real beauty and determined gaze make for some deeply memorable images. There are also wonderful turns by Hizuru Takachiho, as a gal who has risen to local prominence due to marriage to an elder local businessman, and Ineko Arima in a small but pulverizing role. As we are made witness to testimonials, and turns leading to some of the film's most inescapable concerns, the drama of what we come to understand between the women of the story remains as potent now as it likely had back in 1961. Merely one out of eight films Nomura made with Matsumoto as consultant and co-writer, this is a disquieting journey that continues to enthrall as well as challenge societal norms in an era flirting with miniscule change.

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