Shadow of Deception (Koichi Saito, Japan, 1971)

Director Saito’s excellent mordant drama tracks the development and eventual disintegration of an adulterous affair between Minako (Shima Iwashita), the wife of a rich but much older husband who can no longer satisfy her physically, and Shozo (Akira Nakao), a young archaeology scholar who has the prospect of an assistant professorship in front of him and is married to his teacher’s daughter. When Minako and Shozo meet on a field trip of Shozo’s it becomes apparent that while Minako is willing to leave her husband Shozo values his work and career more. Reluctantly agreeing to extend their trip by another day a succession of incidents – a reporter friend of Shozo’s sees the two together at Osaka airport, Minako’s housemaid, who has her own designs on the husband, photographs them together and then shows the pictures to hubbie – bedevil the pair and prompt Shozo into planning Minako’s murder by pushing her off a cliff.

Although Shadow of Deception is framed by the discovery of a woman’s body whose identity is concealed from us until the climax (not that it’s difficult to guess who the victim is) this is a film of shifting moods rather than plot twists, of emotional nuance and texture over melodrama. Saito began his career as a stills photographer at Nikkatsu and his photographer’s eye – aided by Hiroshi Takemura’s wonderful cinematography and Katsuhisa Hattori’s simple, wistful score – is well in evidence here. The beautiful seaside town with its little inlets and islands in which the affair is conducted are splendidly set up as both foreshadowing and counterpoint. Saito makes a point of emphasising reflections whether in windows or the water, underlining the double life these characters are leading. And Saito is clearly fascinated the idea of the personal guilt that these characters carry around and which is in constant threat of exposure and shame by the outside world. The result is intensely absorbing. In one scene Minako nearly falls to her death from an islet, a fate she tells Shozo she’s always believed in. When Shozo’s dig uncovers the skeleton of a young woman who appears to have been the centuries old victim of a love triangle Minako wonders out loud to Shozo what it would be like to be killed by your own lover. In these and other respects you get the sense of a destiny written, as if Minako in some vague half-sensed way already knows what’s going to happen. In a number of ways the film plays almost as a dress rehearsal for Saito’s follow up The Rendezvous (1972). Like that later film this too focuses on two characters whose personal feelings are in tremendous conflict with the outside world and it also utilises the framing device of kicking the story off from a point in the present time before flashing back to explain how such events (a dead body in Shadow, a woman waiting alone on a park bench in Rendezvous) came about.

Both films are dominated by their female leads. In the sublime The Rendezvous, Saito got a brilliantly nuanced performance from Keiko Kishi as a murderess on parole. Shima Iwashita isn’t quite in Keiko’s league but she’s a very fine actress and one of my favourite moments here is down to her where she watches Shozo on the phone making excuses to his family and in that moment she realises – and we realise – that the affair has run its course. There’s no dialogue, no histrionics, just a barely perceptible flicker of expression on Iwashita’s face, but it’s enough to tell us all we need to know. The climax proves wonderfully ambiguous. Minako does indeed fall from a cliff but only after Shozo tries to push her but can’t because his nerve fails him. So he flees in panic and as Minako pulls herself together, she hears a noise, turns and sees… something. There’s a scream and she falls to her death … but what it was, who it was, is left up to us to decide. Could it have been the housemaid? Minako’s husband perhaps? Any of these are possible but my own take is that it was in a way simply the destiny that Minako herself had always foreseen rushing to meet her. I agree that might seem rather pretentious but the film has the kind of dreamy, fatalistic quality that makes such an interpretation possible. In the blackest joke of all Shozo doesn’t escape either, condemned by one of his own coat buttons the police discover clutched in the dead woman’s hand.

A Legend Or Was It? (Keisuke Kinoshita, Japan, 1963)

Hokkaido: In the closing days of WW2 the fear, anger and resentment of villagers at Japan’s imminent defeat is directed against two recently arrived refugee families, the first is the Sonobe’s; sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), brother Hideyuki (Go Kato) and grandmother Shizuku (Kinuyo Tanaka) and the second, the Shimizu’s; grandpa (Tokue Hanazawa), brother Shintaro (Yoshi Kato) and sister Yuri (Mariko Kaga). The cause is Yuri’s refusal of an offer of marriage from the mayor’s son, a local war hero named Takamori (Bunta Sugawara) whom the Sonobe’s know is actually a war criminal. Before long malicious rumours put about by Takamori (a perpetually ominous figure on horseback) result in the destruction of the Shimizu’s crops and have the rest of the village blaming the new arrivals for every incident no matter how trivial or absurd. When Takamori then forces himself on Yuri her act of self-defence inflames the locals and the two families are forced to take up arms to defend their tiny homesteads against the villagers.

A powerhouse movie with a plot that could have come straight out of an American western. The predominantly female cast are excellent and their nemesis Bunta Sugawara (later the star of endless Yakuza movies) a most frightening figure; a rigid, unbending martinet with a fanatical gleam in his eyes. He’s the very epitome of the crazed military types who took the country into the abyss during that period. The film is directed with effortless mastery by Kinoshita in a succession of wide master shots with sparing use of medium shots or close ups. His blocking of actors in the frame never seems flashy or dull. Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda’s location work is flat-out breathtaking. The opening colour shots of the farming village embody the essence of a community at peace with itself and when the movie switches to black and white for the bulk of the story his images of this remote village, encircled by dense forest and snowcapped mountains, evoke the kind of fable-like quality implied by the film’s title. Also memorable is the unusual score by the director’s brother, Chuji – a weird rhythmic buzzing that sounds for all the world like Australian aboriginal music. One powerful setpiece follows another – the shock moment of recognition between Hideyuki and the loathsome Takamori that plunges us into a combat flashback from Manchuria – a lengthy tracking shot of two Chinese civilians fleeing through the torrential rain before Takamori murders one and then drags the survivor off to be raped in front of Hideyuki’s horrified eyes. Another sequence in which Takamori on horseback slowly approaches Yuri on a mountain path under an ominous skyscape (Kinoshita’s attention to roiling cloud formations could give Kurosawa a run for his money), the only sound the trot-trot of the horse growing in volume as he approaches, is a sequence of sheer nail-biting tension. We know all too well what’s going to happen but that doesn’t make it any the less easier to sit through.

Just considered as an exercise in tension the film is a smash but its vice-like grip and visceral impact owes much to its wartime setting. The villagers don’t turn into a mob hellbent on murdering the Sonobe’s and the Shimizu’s just because Takamori was jilted or even because their crops were ruined. They go beserk because the grim news filtering through to them about the state of the war, the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s imminent surrender, the deaths of all their sons, turns their grief into a raging torrent of emotion that needs an outlet and – manipulated by Takamori and his vengeful father – finds it in blaming the new arrivals. The final act, as the two families attempt to flee across a mountain pass pursued by bloodthirsty villagers who’ve lost all self-control, is an absolute nail-biter. So acutely does Kinoshita nail the turbulent emotions here – the villagers with their blood up, the families who will do whatever they have to do to protect their kin – that you feel like you’re being swept away by a tidal wave of emotion. During the body-strewn climax an image of a bullet slicing the heads off a row of wheat poignantly expresses the senselessness of what’s occurring.With A Legend Or Was It? Kinoshita not only made a gripping suspense drama but in ordinary men whose emotions are manipulated by unscrupulous leaders and turned into crazed killers a metaphor for what happened to Japan during the war. This is one helluva film from one of Japan’s greatest and most versatile directors.