Deep Dives

The Crime Thrillers of Studio Maverick Yoshitaro Nomura

The slow-burning 1958 thriller Stakeout begins, as do many films by the prolific genre auteur Yoshitaro Nomura, by showing its principal characters en route to unfamiliar territory. Lasting for nearly eight minutes, this opening sequence documents every stage of the train journey taken by two detectives from Tokyo to the city of Saga, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, where they’ve been dispatched to watch and wait for a murder suspect to appear at the home of his former lover. In a scrupulous yet economical series of shots, Nomura establishes the thousand-kilometer trip as a long haul: the iron horse hustles down the coast, only fleetingly idle during several station stopovers, while inside one of the overcrowded passenger cars, the policemen struggle to keep from wilting in the height-of-summer heat. When it finally comes time for them to disembark at their destination, there is a strong sense that they have not only traveled far from home but endured a physical test in the process—a sort of preparatory trial for the extraordinary patience and focus their surveillance work will require of them.

On its way toward a sprawling, impeccably orchestrated chase sequence that takes up most of its final third, the spare, black-and-white Stakeout displays a number of standout qualities: a cool and methodical approach to building suspense, location photography brilliantly attuned to atmospherics, and a careful avoidance of stock characterizations—here, even the pursued killer is presented as a complex human being, a misguided prisoner of his past rather than a villain beyond the pale of sympathy. As it turns out, these are virtues that distinguish all five features by Nomura currently available to stream on the Criterion ChannelStakeout, Zero Focus (1961), The Shadow Within (1970), The Castle of Sand (1974), and The Demon (1978), all of them adaptations of works by Seicho Matsumoto, a popular and prizewinning author renowned for his densely researched and psychologically intricate detective stories. Taken together, these impeccably made and distinctively drawn films serve as a highly intriguing introduction to the underappreciated filmmaker’s nearly ninety-feature career.

The Castle of Sand
The twenty-first century has seen a slight uptick in Western interest in Nomura—two of his titles were released on Region 1 DVD just before the director’s death in 2005, and a mini-retrospective of the Matsumoto-derived thrillers toured the UK in 2014—but it’s no mystery why he remains largely unknown outside his native country. In the first place, Nomura was more of a commercial craftsman than an uncompromising artist, one who remained as loyal to his employer as to his own personal vision, spending the entirety of his four-decade career at the very same studio—Shochiku—where his father, Hotei Nomura, had made a name for himself in the silent era. Furthermore, Nomura fils never had the benefit, in audience-awareness terms, of full membership in either of the two midcentury national-cinematic movements that would go on to make the most significant waves abroad. He was, essentially, too young for one and too old for the other: Nomura was just getting his feet wet in the film industry during the so-called golden age of Japanese cinema, working as an assistant director on such films as Kurosawa’s 1951 Dostoyevsky adaptation The Idiot; by the time he had taken the directorial reins himself, the New Wave was still on the horizon, though he was able to nurture its leading iconoclasts, Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, giving the former his very first AD credit and becoming a mentor to the latter.

At Shochiku, Nomura proved nothing if not versatile, making movies in a variety of commercial idioms—including musicals and period dramas—but it was the crime thriller that became his true métier. Not long after Stakeout established his reputation as a skilled storyteller and technician, he strayed even deeper into noir territory with Zero Focus, from another Matsumoto adaptation by Rashomon and Seven Samurai screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto (a credited collaborator on all the Nomuras under consideration save for The Demon). The narratively complex, vaguely Hitchcockian film follows a woman as she travels from Tokyo to the unfamiliar industrial city of Kanazawa to investigate the disappearance of the salesman she just married—and winds up uncovering some deeply buried secrets from his past. The fast-moving and flashback-heavy Zero Focus gradually reveals itself to be a social thriller of sorts, using the situation of an arranged marriage gone awry to set up a mystery involving the legacy of rampant prostitution during the American occupation. Nearly a decade later, Nomura was examining the subject of domestic disquiet from a different angle altogether with the woozy color melodrama The Shadow Within, a romance that develops into a psychological suspense film spiked with hints of horror. In it, an unhappily married Tokyo travel agent initiates a torrid affair with a woman he knew as a child, though the threatening behavior of the widower’s six-year-old son begins to cast a dark cloud over his extramarital bliss.

Four years after Shadow, Nomura made the movie for which he remains best known in Japan. A substantial commercial and critical success, rated by many Japanese critics as among the greatest films the country has produced, The Castle of Sand is based on a popular Matsumoto novel (available in English as Inspector Imanishi Investigates) whose adaptation had been stalled in development at Shochiku for years. What starts out as a granular and wayfaring procedural—in the relative absence of clues, the investigation of a murder at one point hinges on the quirks of regional dialects—gives way, in its final third, to an extended sequence intercutting a wartime flashback with a high-wire orchestral performance. With its bold structure, intense performances, and scenic and varied locales, the sprawling Castle of Sand abounds with evidence of Nomura’s skill as a filmmaker—though as a whole, contrary to its reputation, it doesn’t quite hang together.

The Demon
More roundly effective is The Demon, for which Nomura and star Ken Ogata (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) won Japanese Academy Awards in 1979—though today such mainstream approbation for the film is hard to fathom, given its frank and unsettling portrayal of child abuse. Like The Shadow Within,The Demon explores a warped family dynamic in a vernacular combining shades of horror and melodrama, although this time out the director also adds a more heaping portion of grim realism into the mix. The film gets underway as the mistress of Ogata’s Sokichi unceremoniously leaves their three young children at his sweltering print shop on the outskirts of Tokyo, much to the anger and disgust of his until-then-unsuspecting wife, Oume (Shima Iwashita, herself the wife of New Wave filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda). The least stylized Nomura movie on FilmStruck also turns out to be his most daring and horrifying, and in it, Ogata, his face constantly gleaming with sweat, offers an extraordinary portrait of inner torment and anguished submission, as the vengeful Oume torments the weak-willed Sokichi into mistreating his own children.

“Nomura . . . displayed, at his best, a subtlety and finesse rare among studio artisans,” reads the final verdict rendered by critic Alexander Jacoby in his entry on the filmmaker in his 2008 Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors, a brief bio that is nonetheless one of the few useful overviews of Nomura’s career available in English. The director was certainly something more than an ace at operating within any given genre, often avoiding clichés, combining narrative modes in unusual ways, and wisely taking a page from Matsumoto in his eye for telling details and attention to contemporaneous social realities. Nomura’s films are perhaps most remarkable, though, for their immersive sense of place, most strikingly felt when their protagonists find themselves amid what is to them foreign terrain, if still on Japanese soil. From the Kyushu geothermal fields traversed during the drawn-out chase in Stakeout, to the lush and overgrown Ishikawa Prefecture countryside that’s crossed on foot by father and son in The Castle of Sand , to the Noto Peninsula cliffs that frame the dizzying climaxes of both Zero Focus and The Demon, Nomura’s settings throw into relief not only the high dramatic stakes of his films but also the depth of their mysteries. All the while, his films double as regional travelogues, canvassing an archipelago linked by rail but nonetheless not quite interconnected, a place of overlapping but highly individual landscapes and microclimates. As these five films attest, the cinema of Nomura—or at least this one rich vein of it—is itself uniquely transporting.

You have no items in your shopping cart