Director: Inudo Isshin
Adaptation from: Matsumoto Seicho’s bestselling novel of the same title (1959)
Screenplay: Inudo Isshin, Nakazono Kenji
Cinematography: Takahiro Tsutai
Soundscore: Ueno Koji (Theme song: Nakajima Miyuki)
Cast: Hirosue Ryoko, Nakatani Miki, Kimura Tae, Nishijima Hidetoshi, Kaga Takeshi, Nomaguchi Tori, Sugimoto Tetta, Kuroda Fukumi, Honda Hirotarō
Runtime: 131 min
Distribution: Toho (Japan)
Seen at the ICA as part of the Japan Foundation’s 10th Touring Film Programme “Once Upon a Time in Japan”. The film screened February 3 (sold out) and 5 (nearly sold out), with a Q&A with the director following on both days. The JPF also organised a Director’s Talk with Inudo on February 6. For further screenings in the UK see Bonus Bits below.
To make an author’s most popular bestseller into a successful film can never be easy, but imagine the challenge if that the story has already been told on the screen multiple times – once as a film (1961, dir. by Nomura Yoshitaru), sixfold as a TV dorama (1961, Fuji TV; 1971, NKH; 1976, Nippon Television; 1983, TBS; 1991, again Nippon Television and 1994, NKH Nagoya). It also doesn’t help if the tale in question is a mystery drama and everyone, thanks to the original’s and the numerous screen adaptations’ popularity, already knows whodunnit. Yet this is the challenge that Inudo Isshin, commissioned by the production studio, took on when setting out to make another Zero no Shōten film in time for the 100th anniversary of the novelist’s birthdate.
How to make the umpteenth remake of a story relevant among all the other adaptations? As Inudo explained in the Q&A session that followed the screening, there were a number of decisions he took to create a new Zero no Shōten worth watching. With most Japanese viewers already knowing the identity of the killer, suspense took the backseat (though worry not, there is still plenty of mystery and tension) and the criminal is revealed quite a bit ahead of the film’s ending.1 Focus was instead on the scenery and creating the atmosphere for all the dark happenings taking place, but also the overall feeling of the times – 1957, a moment in history when Japan let go of the post-war era and moved on to a more modern and (hopefully) brighter future.
It is the year when Sadako (Hirosue Ryoko), a young woman, gets married to Ubara Kenichi (Nishijima Hidetoshi), a man ten years her senior. Their marriage is an arranged one, and the two do not know each other but for their single omiai (お見合い) meeting. A week after their wedding, Kenichi travels to Kanazawa to arrange final things for his permanent transfer to Tokyo, where the couple will be living. It is a trip from which he never returns, leaving dutiful new wife Sadako at a complete loss at what to do. Realising Kenichi is a complete stranger to her and receiving no real help from her in-laws, she decides to travel to Kanazawa herself to look for her disappeared spouse. There, however, no one seems to know anything and some even refuse to consider her search seriously. Although one of her husband’s colleagues (Nomaguchi Tori) is fatefully willing to engage in detective work, another (Honda Hirotarō) is in denial, dismissing the disappearance as a purely “private” affair with which the company will have nothing to do. There is also Murota Gisaki (Kaga Takeshi), a powerful businessman, who patronisingly laughs at her enquiries, and his wife Sachiko (Nakatani Miki) who appears sympathetic towards the younger woman’s plight. Sachiko however also projects a somewhat cold persona and possibly knows more than she will admit, something is true for Hisako (Kimura Tae), a suspicious-acting receptionist, as well.
Sadako’s investigations play out against a background of a town in turmoil over the upcoming municipal elections: a woman is standing for the office, hoping to become Japan’s first female mayor, a campaign that is forcefully backed by Sachiko. Although the original novel of Matsumoto Seicho did indeed also convey a sense of the era, this specific subplot is an addition of Inudo’s – and a much successful one as it brings out the dichotomy of past and future. As the fate of various characters slowly become apparent, the ones that leave the scarred postwar Japan behind to create a modern nation stand opposite those who remain victims of their own histories and are left behind. From Kenichi to Sachiko, from Gisaki to Hisaki, there are individuals who seek to bury the truth to hide it, and others who strive forward, like Sadako, who will not rest until she knows “what happened, either way”, and the somewhat anonymous but highly symbolic women’s group fighting for the election of Jojo Yasuko (Kuroda Fukumi).
Inudo however has not only added material to the story, he has also omitted parts. No explanation is given for Gisaki’s final act (due to lack of time, according to the director himself) and while some motivations are provided for Sachiko’s behaviour, one is left with the feeling that some particulars – especially about the woman’s relationship with Kenichi – have been left untold. Was there, possibly, any unrequited love? Did he spurn her at some moment in the past? We also never learn how exactly Sadako uncovers the finer details of the truth for though it is disclosed to viewers through the omniscient narrative framing, the character herself is absent from these confessional scenes. It may be that those already familiar with the story are able to fill such gaps (or may not notice them in the first place), but new viewers will find the partial omissions slightly puzzling or even lazy.
How does Inudo’s Zero no Shōten fare amidst all other adaptations in the end? Not having watched any of the earlier versions, there is no possibility for comparison, but the added subplot certainly injects new life into a story told many times already. Although the director presents us, to some extent, with yet another detective story, yet another reinterpretation of a well-familiar tale, this addition plus the superb acting performances all around – in particular from the trio of female leads – and highly atmospheric cinematography, including a closing scene that elegantly transports us to the future without revealing too much, make Zero no Shōten a film worth watching.
1 According to the director the revelation is made half-way through, but to me it felt more like 2/3 or 3/4 through the film.
Overall Verdict: Zero no Shōten is a finely crafted murder mystery reflecting tumultuous times of change when old Japan moved towards its future, mercilessly leaving behind those that are victims of their past.
- The film is set to screen in several more locations as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme: Sheffield (8 Feb, with Q&A), Belfast (25 Feb), Edinburgh (5 March), Newcastle Upon Tyne (20 March) and Birmingham (26 March). More info here.
- The meaning of the film title Zero no Shōten is uncertain – not even the son of the late Matsumoto seems to know. Inudo himself suggested that the title points to the change of times and to having to start – with a concerted, focused effort – from scratch, from zero to reach that new future.
- Slight Spoiler Alert: In the Q&A Inudo offered another explanation for Zero no Shōten: that it is a story of the revenge of women, for while the murderer has no hesitation about killing men, she falters the one time she is faced with a woman.
- The contrast and similarities between the three main women in the film is quite interesting – without revealing too much, their shared experiences and different actions and reactions pass strong judgment on the events that occur in the film.