Snow Flurry (Keisuke Kinoshita, Japan, 1959)

In 1940 the only son of an aristocratic family commits suicide with his pregnant wife (Keiko Kishi) by jumping into the river from a nearby bridge. However the latter survives to eventually give birth to a son, Sutueo (Yusuke Kawazu). Over the following decades both mother and son are cruelly treated by their in-laws who regard their very presence as an unwelcome reminder of their own son’s wartime dishonour. 19 years later, with the family having lost its aristocratic position along with most of its land, the adult Suteo harbours a deep love for his adoptive sister Sakura (Yoshiko Kuga). But when Sakura is lined up for marriage at the behest of a pushy mother (Chieko Higashiyama) desperate to reclaim the family’s former status it looks as though the pattern of tragedy and suicide may be about to repeat itself.

A flurry of snow blossoms = a flurry of memories. That’s the smart conceit at the heart of this slow but ultimately deeply poignant and moving story. Effectively an ensemble piece, writer/director Kinoshita once again explores the theme of family bonds which would dominate his work, although one of the refreshing surprises here is that while he maintains an overall sympathetic approach to his characters he finds just as much to criticize as praise in a family dynamic that proves suffocating for mother and son until a pivotal event gives both the chance to walk away over the bridge that holds such unhappy memories and begin their lives over. Although Keiko Kishi gives a typically solid performance as the mother, the film is all but stolen by Yusuke Kawazu’s near wordless turn as her son. His body language, the way he brightens up the minute Sakura is around, the letter he writes congratulating Sakura on her marriage even though it’s killing him inside, you really feel for this kid and it’s all achieved without a hint of melodrama. The film is also fascinating from a formal perspective. As usual Keisuke directs in a series of beautifully staged master shots with the actors so well blocked you’re barely even aware of his cutting but what really takes the viewer by surprise is his jumping back and forth between the two timelines of 1940 and 1959 in a style which clearly prefigures the editing techniques of the 1960’s Japanese New Wave and is at least contemporary with that of the French movement. The first act of Snow Flurry presents us with a blizzard of events featuring Keiko and Kawazu at different ages but with none of the cinematic punctuation traditionally attendant upon a flashback (no dissolves or fading from colour to black and white) and it is bewildering. But as you stick with it not only does the wider context gradually come into focus but so too does a genuine tension as we wait to see how the traumatic events glimpsed piecemeal in the opening came to be and if they get resolved. To sum up, if not a masterpiece then very close.

The Inheritance (Masaki Kobayashi, Japan, 1962)

A dying businessman named Senzo (So Yamamura) announces that his vast fortune is to be split equally among his three illegitimate children provided they can be located. To this end he orders his trusted and innocent secretary Yasuko (Keiko Kishi) to locate his oldest son while a bent lawyer (Jun Hamamura) is instructed to locate the other two. However it isn’t long before Senzo’s greedy wife Sato (Misako Watanabe) is conspiring with the lawyer to sabotage the hunt in return for a share of the inheritance, while the lawyer’s junior assistant (Tatsuya Nakadai) hatches his own plan to snare the cash by entering into an arrangement with Senzo’s murderously inclined daughter Mariko (Mari Yoshimura).

Enjoyable and entertainingly cynical portrait of amoral schemers, ultimately all done over by the one character in the film seemingly least likely to harbour a malicious thought. Part drama, part film noir and with a dash of corporate intrigue (this feels like a particularly acidic Billy Wilder movie) this is beautifully shot in b/w with cinematographer Takashi Kawamata contributing a succession of splendidly dynamic widescreen compositions. Toru Takemitsu’s terrifically cool jazz score somehow makes the events feel even seedier and the film boasts pitch-perfect performances from its classy cast, not the least of which is Keiko Kishi’s turn as the boss’s innocent secretary. Now admittedly The Inheritance is an ensemble piece and not a star vehicle for Kishi as such, but even so the film gives her the opportunity to play both sides of her screen persona and it really works because it’s Kishi’s character the viewer relates too as everyone else is just too horrible for words. There’s a scene right near the end where Kobayashi’s camera closes in on Kishi’s face as she gives a growing smile at the carnage unfolding around her and it’s a great moment – the visual equivalent of a slap in the face for the viewer -which works precisely because this woman’s had our sympathy right from the start.

One of my favourite Japanese actresses, the seemingly ageless Kishi, who began her screen career in 1950, spent most of that decade cast as ingenue types, playing suffering sisters or wives. But from the 1960’s onwards directors seem to have recognised in her elegant beauty a potential for something darker. She was a favourite of Kon Ichikawa, who cast her as one of the murderesses bought together by their lovers infidelity in his black comedy 10 Dark Women (1961). Kobayashi used her again in the most memorable segment of Kwaidan (1964), where that combination of darkness and beauty made her ideal casting in the dual roles of a Snow Witch trying to pass herself off as a human wife, and in The Fossil (1975) in which she played Death, and Keiko gave an absolute tour de force performance as the killer on temporary release who falls for a young man while en route by train through the snowy wastes of northern Japan in director Koichi Saito’s wonderful romantic thriller The Rendevous (1971).

The Rendezvous (Koichi Saito, Japan, 1972)

To the accompaniment of an instantly memorable score that sounds a little like something the American composer Dave Grusin might have conjured up from the same early 70’s period, an attractive middle-aged woman (Keiko Kishi) sits alone on a park bench watching the world go by – children at play, couples arm in arm strolling past. At the end of the film we’ll come back to this scene and understand its significance but after this intriguing opening we’re on a train journey along the coast of snowy, northern Japan. On board is the mysterious woman we’ve just seen in the park. A young man joins the train and tries to engage her in conversation without success. Eventually we learn that the woman is on the way to visit the grave of her recently deceased mother. Accompanying her is a stern faced older lady whom the woman enigmatically refers to as ‘My guardian.’ When two cops bring a handcuffed prisoner on board the train and we flash back to a shot of the woman in handcuffs we begin to get a sense of why she’s so reluctant to talk. But there’s more than one offender here and as attraction between the woman and the younger man begins to grow the stage is set for a tragedy that will take us back to that lonely figure in the park.

This largely train set romantic thriller, quite well known in Japan if largely unknown outside of it, won’t win over the impatient viewer but for those who can cope with films which emphasise character, performance and mood over plot this consistently engrossing study of two societal outcasts who connect builds to a knockout emotional punch and offers the pleasure of a fabulous performance from its leading lady. Keiko Kishi gives a marvellously underplayed performance here, conveying her character’s turmoil almost entirely through a seemingly infinite variety of subtle facial expressions and body language. A perfect example of the latter is when she emerges from checking in at a police station en route to her mother’s grave and her whole body just seems to shrink into itself as if ashamed to be seen in public. This inherent conflict between society and outsiders dominates all of Saito’s early 1970’s work and finds a striking expression here in a subplot that has Keiko attempting to deliver a message, in the shape of a letter from a fellow female prisoner named Kayo to her husband (Kaneto Shindo regular Taiji Tonoyama), only to find the man so full of disgust he denies ever knowing her. Such visceral disapproval from law abiders toward law breakers needs a charismatic figure to bridge the divide and the film finds it in young Kenichi Hagiwara. He’s ideal casting as the boyish hoodlum whose puppy love for Keiko (both the character and the actress’ name) gradually disarms this woman’s defenses and convinces her to emerge from her self-imposed shell. Though the film is essentially a two-hander between Keiko and Hagiwara there’s nice support from Yoshie Minami in a near wordless turn as Keiko’s stern guardian and Rentaro Mikuni has a tasty cameo as the persistent cop (sporting a facial scar we’re told is a consequence of the Hiroshima blast) on Hagiwara’s trail.

Performances aside The Rendezvous is another strong vehicle for Saito Koichi’s direction. The filmmaker always prized the visual quality of cinema above all else (none of his movies from this period could seriously be described as dialogue driven but even by that standard the dialogue here is minimal) and his combination of immaculate formal compositions using long (telephoto) lenses combined with a loose limbed, New Wave-ish approach in which hand-held camera and long takes follow the actors in the streets with the accompanying sound sometimes dropped completely in favour of the score really evokes an intensely cinematic feel on the theme of loneliness (not entirely coincidentally also one of cinema’s great themes). Saito’s technique gives the emotions that are roiling under the surface here a palpably sensual quality and he gets a great assist from Miagawa Yasushi’s achingly romantic score which plays out in a variety of arrangements from lushly emotional to trendy urban chic. I really love this score! The tense and moody tone Yasushi sets for the opening scene, in which couples and groups of kids at play in a park are contrasted with the lonely figure of Keiko, proves instantly intriguing. Then, as the camera singles out Keiko’s face and she begins to remember the events that brought her to this place, her expression changes, the score blossoms into this gloriously full on romantic melody and we go straight into the flashback that comprises the bulk of the movie. It’s a beautiful moment and a real shame the score never got released.

The film boasts some wonderfully lyrical touches too. A moment where Hagiwara tries to cheer Keiko up by pointing out the sight of fireflies lighting up a boat at harbour, or the scene where the two escape the train to share a long, lingering kiss as the director plays the sound of its warning bells over the kiss, like church bells at a wedding, really stir the emotions. Saito is very subtle in his handling of the thriller elements of Fumio Ishimori’s screenplay. Everything, from the sight of Keiko made uncomfortable by a newspaper headline about a drunken husband stabbed to death by his wife, or another prisoner brought aboard the train in handcuffs by a couple of detectives, to a deliveryman teasing his customer about her randy husband in a conversation overheard by our heroine, serve to poignantly remind us of her outcast status. A chase and confrontation in which Hagiwara’s character stabs a Yakuza is shot in a clipped, almost elliptical manner that nonetheless feels like exactly the right stylistic choice. Anything more spectacular would have unbalanced the film and made it seem like it was more about Hagiwara’s character than Keiko’s. The same applies to Rentaro Mikuni’s detective who is so casually introduced that he never seems like an imminent threat even when he’s sitting in the same train carriage as the two lovers. It’s a nice bit of misdirection by Saito as well as performance by Mikuni. For this detective turns out to be very dangerous indeed and when he finally pounces it’s a brutal moment the emotional impact of which reverberates over the closing scene of Keiko alone in an emptying park and clearly fated to remain so. Keiko and Hagiwara’s chemistry here is such that it’s no surprise they were reteamed as screen lovers in 1975’s Two In The Amsterdam Rain directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara.

Aside from being arguably Saito’s best film, The Rendezvous occupies an interesting position in his filmography since it both builds on and deepens elements explored in 1971’s Shadow Of Deception (about the guilt over an adulterous affair that leads to murder) and contains much that is reworked in the following year’s equally great Tusgaru Folksong. The stars of that film, Kyoko Enami and Akira Oda, are not only dead ringers for Kishi and Hagiwara but the film utilises the same narrative structure of a story told in flashback and bookended by present day scenes and once again there’s a thriller element involving the Yakuza which simmers in the background until the climax. The Rendezvous itself also has an interesting history. Although relatively obscure to European audiences inside Asia the story has actually been remade no less than four times! The original is a South Korean movie from director Lee Man-hee called Late Autumn (1966) which reportedly no longer physically exists. Koichi’s 1972 version is the first (Japanese) remake, followed by a second from the brilliant South Korean director Kim Ki-young called Promise Of The Flesh (1975). Two more South Korean remakes from directors Kim Soo-young and Kim Tae-yong followed in 1982 and 2010 respectively. Both films reverted to the original title of Late Autumn. Given the presumed popularity of the story and its universal appeal it’s curious there’s never been a European or American remake. There’s nothing in the story that would need much in the way of changing and it could quite easily be a very good vehicle for a leading lady and an up and coming male co-star.