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March 17, 2009

Zero Focus

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Zero no shoten
Yoshitaro Nomura - 1961
Home Vison Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I might be surprised, but I can not imagine the remake being as good as this first version by Yoshitaro Nomura. It should also be noted that Zero Focus was also included in a recent retrospective of Japanese Film Noir. And if the classic American film noir was a reflection of an anxious time following World War II, the same can be said for Nomura's film about life in post war Japan. Author Seicho Matsumoto has just begun to have his novels translated into English which will no doubt add to the currently fly-weight scholarship that exists on Nomura. Nomura is still under-represented in available English language subtitled DVDs.

Teiko, married for just a week, sees her husband off at a train station in Tokyo. Kenichi is an advertising executive visiting his old office, in northern Japan, to oversee the transition. Scheduled to return after twelve days, Kenichi is not heard from, either by Teiko, his brother, or his employer. Seeking some clues, Teiko discovers two photographs of two very different houses, one large, indicating financial fortune, the other, not much more than a dilapidated shack. The increasingly frantic Teiko travels to Kanazawa, where Kenichi was last seen. Following some false leads, misinterpreting clues, Teiko finally learns some unexpected truths about Kenichi.

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Had Zero Focus not been based on a novel by Matsumoto, one could easily assume that the story was inspired by Cornell Woolrich. Some of the story elements, an impulsive marriage between two virtual strangers, a husband who seemingly disappears, and shameful hidden pasts are reminiscent of the author of Phantom Lady and The Bride wore Black. As in Nomura's best film, Castles of Sand, the screenplay is by Shinobu Hashimoto and Yoji Yamada. At this time I have no way of qualifying how much of the film was already in Matsumoto's novel, but much of Zero Focus plays like an homage to American film noir in the fractured narrative.

The film begins with first person narration by Yoshiko Kuga as Teiko. The very opening made me think of Hitchock's Rebecca. While trying to find out about the whereabout of Kenichi, there are flashbacks from the point of view of different characters. Eventually, Teiko explains what she has assumed to be what has happened to Kenichi and some other characters. Teiko's stories are contradicted by Sachiko, the youngish wife of a much older Kanazawa industrialist. The differing stories, shown in flashbacks, may have taken its queues from Hitchcock's Stage Fright. In both cases, the filmmaker plays on the audience assumption that what is being viewed is as the objective truth. It is probably also worth noting that Nomura served as an assistant to Akira Kurosawa, so that Roshomon could have been another influence. In her demeanor, Kuga reminded me of such mousy Hitchcock heroines as Joan Fontaine and Jane Wyman.

There is something of a critique of Japanese women and how they are perceived in Japanese society. Teiko is newly married at the age of 36, comparatively old by Japanese standards then and even now. She would probably be assumed to have still been a virgin. This point is important because Teiko is contrasted with women who turned to prostitution to survive in post war Japan. In a symbolic way, Zero Focus is about Teiko's loss of moral virginity. While she is not corrupted by others, she is forced to confront realities of lives outside of her sheltered existence in Tokyo. The snow, with its vast whiteness, acts as a symbol of Teiko's purity. The most beautiful place in Kanazawa, a cliff overlook the sea, is also know as a popular spot to commit suicide by falling onto the rocks below. The snow serves a second purpose in Zero Focus, as a reminder of surface beauty covering something less attractive and deadly underneath.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 17, 2009 12:04 AM