A poor young woman named Kiriko (Chieko Baisho) repeatedly begs Otsuko (Osamu Takizawa), a rich, successful lawyer to defend her brother from a charge of murder. After he brushes her off because she can’t meet his fees the brother dies in prison. So Kiriko frames the lawyer’s mistress on a murder charge and lets Otsuko know that only she has the evidence that can prove the woman’s innocence. With the shoe now firmly on the other foot it’s Otsuko the lawyer who pursues Kiriko, making nightly visits to the crummy bar she works in and begging her to release the evidence to him. When Kiriko finally gives in it seems the lawyer has won. But has he really?
An outstandingly well crafted film noir in which a complex murder plot is matched by a depth of characterisation that tugs us this way and that in our sympathies for both Kiriko and Otsuko. This insistent quality in an otherwise sensationalist plot rather recalls Mikio Naruse’s The Stranger Within A Woman (1966) and that may not be entirely coincidental since Mist’s director Yoji Yamada began his career as an Assistant Director for Shochiku in 1954 when the major directors there included Naruse, Ozu and Mizoguchi. It’s clear Yamada learnt his lessons well. During the climax Yamada makes clever use of a set of stone steps down which Kiriko is accompanied each night by Otsuko, deploying a range of effects – rain, wind, mist – each one an indicator of Otsuko’s increasingly desperate mental state as he pleads with Kiriko to save his mistress. That our sympathies are torn so equally between both characters is testament to how neither is simply good or bad.
The two leads, Chieko Baisho and Osamu Takizawa, are both excellent. Baisho has a timid – almost mousy – quality to her which makes a fascinating counterpoint to her increasingly ruthless actions. And Takizawa as the fat cat lawyer turns out to be a decent man led down the path to disaster for a single moral misjudgement. Indeed, part of the devious cleverness of Flag In The Mist is that for two-thirds of it we cling to the hope that both parties will put aside their differences and work together. Further interest is generated by the possibility that the killings for which Kiriko’s brother and Otsuka’s mistress are snared in may have been committed by the same person. Therefore if the real killer is caught then both Kiriko and Otsuka can clear their loved ones. Only right at the end does it become clear that what Kiriko really wants is not at all what we think she does and not merely the extent of her anger but the depth of her loss become chillingly apparent.
In terms of technique Flag In The Mist is a first class production. Tetsuo Takaha’s cinematography – whether it’s evoking the ambience of Tokyo’s cramped and crowded hostess bars, or fancy restaurants, or fog-shrouded streets – is spot on. Some of Hayashi’s compositions – such as the moment when Takizawa’s lawyer, having taken his wife out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, watches an American couple at a nearby table dote on their left-handed daughter and in a flash of insight realises the flaw in the prosecution’s case of Kiriko’s brother – are audaciously framed. Hikaru Hayashi’s score is a superb evocation of its principal character; sad and mournful but with ominous and discordant notes suggesting something ominous lurking within. This is a remarkable film noir.
A jilted teen named Kinya (Tetsuya Takeda) decides to quits his job, splurge his savings on a new car and embark on a road trip across Hokkaido. Along the way he picks up a couple of passengers; a shy, nervous female around his own age named Akemi (Kaori Momoi) and a taciturn, middle-aged man, Yusaku (Ken Takakura). After a day’s driving a stay at a guest house results in Kinya upsetting Akemi after making a clumsy pass at her. The next day Akemi accidentally runs the car off the road and when Yusaku takes over the driving there’s an even bigger surprise in store when they’re stopped by police and Yusaku reveals he’s a recently released convict who’s served a term for murder. As the truth emerges about Yusaku’s past Kinya and Akemi are faced with a momentous decision that will change their lives forever.
Great stuff, this. A fabulous road movie from a master director equipped with a great script and a perfect cast. Yamada’s love for character-driven drama – see also his brilliant Flag In The Mist or any of his ‘poor samurai’ trilogy, The Twilight Samurai (2002), The Hidden Blade (2004) and Love And Honour (2006) – is most evident here in the performances he gets out of his ensemble cast, all of whom have terrific chemistry with each other. Tetsuya Takeda is painfully believable as the gauche and hardly handsome Kinya who hasn’t a clue about life (something underlined by Yamada having the character constantly trip over things) and who initially sees in his pickup of Akemi not just a travelling companion but the opportunity to get his leg over. If that sounds like Akemi is just there for sex appeal, far from it. Momoi matches Takeda’s performance in her thoroughly naturalistic portrayal of a nice young girl who’s been dumped by her partner (just like Kinya has) and whose low self-esteem means she’s forever bursting into tears whenever Kinya tries to get a kiss out of her. But she’s also smart and her sensitivity means she’s the first to perceive that in his willingness to just ride around with them the older Yusaku is really circling around some inner trauma he daren’t face. As for Ken Takakura, the actor forever saddled with the title of ‘The Japanese Clint Eastwood’, watching his performance I’d suggest the reason he deserves that moniker is less his hard nut persona than his ability to project, like Eastwood himself, a tough exterior while hinting at something vulnerable and sensitive underneath. He’s very good here as Yusaku, a loner who accepts a lift without knowing or caring where he’s going but who comes to recognise in his companions a pair of good hearted kids whose juvenile squabbling reminds him of the mistakes he made when he was their age. By the time he sits Kinya down for a man to man talk and tells him how to behave respectfully around Akemi he’s more than earned our belief that he’s a good sort.
But then it turns out that Yusaku has only just been released from prison after serving a stretch for murder! A judicious use of flashbacks fills us in on what happened and the relationship between Yusaku and Mitsue (Yamada regular Chieko Baisho, also very good), the woman he wooed and married but now believes no longer wants him. There’s just one sliver of hope. In his last letter to her Yusaku requested that if Mitsue still loved him she should fly a yellow handkerchief as a sign from a tall pole outside their home. Yusaku is too afraid of what he might find to make the trip but he’s reckoned without the youthful determination of Akemi and Kinya who instantly decide to take him all the way home. In this way the story cleverly elides the fate of Yusaku and Mitsue with that of Takeda and Akemi. Even though it’s never explicitly stated we sense that if the yellow handkerchief is indeed flying outside Yusaku’s old house then things will also be OK for the two teens. Inspired by a story written by an American journalist Pete Hamill and turned into a screenplay by Yoji Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama, this is a fine story with universal appeal. There’s a subtle point made here about how both young and old can learn from each other. All the action gives the appearance of stemming organically from the characters themselves and the dramatic arc of Takakura’s Yusaku is nicely counterbalanced by the innocence of his companions and some uproarious humour. A lovely scene in which the trio bond over a meal of fresh crab gets a hilarious payoff when poor Kinya subsequently gets the runs. So funny is this that you can actually see the usually stony faced Takakura burst out laughing at Kinya’s distress and you have to wonder if that was scripted or if the actor just couldn’t help himself. Yamada’s film is full of sentiment but it never tips over into sentimentality. Even Kinya’s beloved car – a gleaming cherry red Datsun that ends up battered, banged up and covered in mud over the course of its epic road trip – feels like a supporting player.
One of the other great strengths of this road movie is Yamada’s use of landscape which under his direction is also practically a character in its own right. Instead of falling into the trap of using scenery as mere travelogue he has a knack for linking it to the emotional state of the characters so that as they open up emotionally so does the landscape around them. Tetsuo Takaha’s cinematography juxtaposes images of rural beauty with an eye for detail and local colour so rich you can taste it. After it’s established that Yusaku is a man who has all but given up on human contact Yamada so peppers the final journey through the town that is Yusaku’s old home with the sights and sounds of everyday life (enhanced by Masaru Sato’s jaunty score) that it feels like a Greek chorus urging Yusaku out of his self-imposed shell. The climactic moments – as the kids get out the car and look around them for the hoped for sign – are orchestrated with utter mastery by director Yamada. The final scene between Kinya and Mitsue is a beaut. Touching, moving and uplifting in equal measure, this excellent humanist drama comes highly recommended. Incidentally, if the story of a convict writing to his wife asking her to tie a ribbon around a tree in their back yard to signify she wants him back sounds familiar that’s likely because of the 1973 pop hit from Tony Orlando and Dawn. However both the song and Hamill’s story appear to be simply two of numerous variations on what is actually an old oral folk tale whose origins go back at least as far as the American civil war. There’s a fascinating Wikipedia piece on this here.