Jun is a young man in his twenties who runs a bar near the airport, a tiny cube plopped down in the middle of a desolate stretch of land where the only things growing are the weeds in the cracks of the asphalt. He has a girlfriend, Keiko, a playful young woman who works for him in the bar and has a dreamy, off-center manner about her that could be simplemindedness, or calculated seduction.
Jun’s parents are convinced it’s seduction. They run a truck-tire repair shop in another part of town, and have nothing but suspicion for Keiko. Jun’s father, in particular, is most opposed to anything between them. He has his reasons: he hired a private detective to look into Keiko’s past, and found sordidness that he wants no one in his family, especially not his son, to be involved with. Jun resents the intrusion, but Dad’s holding the strings: he owns the bar, and he can dismiss Jun just as easily as he would any other employee. There is far more resentment smoldering inside Jun’s skin than we’re allowed to see immediately, but we get our first big clue about that when the next shot after the argument with his father is Jun standing over the other man’s corpse with a blood-stained knife.
This would seem to be setup for one of those films where the young and the doomed take to the road and try to stay one step ahead of the law. Young Murderer doesn’t follow that path. I suspected it would deviate freely from whatever formulas it might have initially employed when I saw the logo for the Art Theatre Guild on the DVD box. For decades, the ATG were behind many of Japan’s most adventurous directors and artistically-accomplished cinematic productions that didn’t have major studio backing—from Double Suicide to Eros Plus Massacre, from Shuji Terayama (Grass Labyrinth) to Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Procession of Roses) and Akio Jissoji. From the outside, Young Murderer looks a good deal more conventional than those productions, but it doesn’t take long for that distinctive ATG flavor, that mix of radical politics and intimate emotional fervor, that characterized so many of their best features. Here, the institution being rebelled against (at least superficially) is the smothering and domineering Japanese family, but that turns out to be more of a proxy for the kind of shapeless rage that once spawned, seemed better at that time to vent rather than suffocate.
Two things, both very much in the ATG tradition, set Murderer apart from most other movies that might be lumped in with it, however loosely. The first is the exact story being told, which was derived from a novel by Kenji Nakagami (The Cape, et al.), itself based loosely on true events. Jun and Keiko don’t break free and go on the road, as might be demanded of them in a more formulaic treatment of this material. Instead, they buzz back and forth like flies in a bottle—they meet at the bar, run back to the tire shop, throw the bodies into the ocean, retreat briefly to the beach, and then return once more to the bar for a final confrontation. There’s no escape here, just dashing one’s brains out against the walls.
Then again, the entire movie is constructed like this: it’s not about finding freedom, but discovering just how trapped you really are. Consider the whole sequence where Jun murders first his father, then his mother—a sequence which takes up nearly a quarter or more of the movie’s entire running time. At first the whole thing seems bizarrely indulgent, especially in the moments when Jun’s mother tearfully insists that she’ll help get rid of the body because no laws of men are going to come between her and her son, etc. But as it goes on, and one family hurt after another is spilled out into the open, it’s clear the scene is being used as a way to recapitulate the whole wounded psychic history of this family.
That’s the second thing—the way the film feels more like theater, not cinema, especially in terms of how the actors are handled. Scenes are closed-ended, not open, even if they are photographed with a freedom of camera movement and an eye for beauty that you don’t expect at all from material this claustrophobic. When Jun and Keiko go to the beach, they spent most of the time in their car—or, worse, enclosed within fantasies or retroactively-reconstructed versions of the past. I mentioned the drawn-out sequence between Jun and his mother, which is as openly sadistic to both characters and audience as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And then there’s the climax, where neither suicide nor self-immolation nor just plain running away brings anything like salvation or a sense of peace.
Then again, the “theatre” in the name Art Theatre Guild was not simply an affectation. ATG’s core members were big fans and sponsors of modern drama, so it came as less of a surprise and more as a fulfillment of artistic holism to see ATG productions that were explicitly theatrical in tone. Young Murderer was only one of many such works, but it was unusual in that it borrowed at least as much from other peculiarly Japanese genres: the nihilistic youth-in-revolt movie (Ecstasy of Angels, Go Go Second Time Virgin, etc.), and the Nikkatsu-style exploitation picture (where emotional and physical sadism went hand-in-hand). It’s rough going, but for a purpose, and even when the movie doesn’t quite work it still creates a flavor of its own that’s hard to shunt aside.
I watched Murderer without being aware of any of the credits behind it apart from ATG, and was surprised several times over when the credits rolled. Yutaka Mizutani (Jun), whose troubled eyes and twitching face dominate most every shot he’s in, was in a smattering of other films I’ve seen: the ninja-fantasy Oniwaban aka Demon Spies, the minor cult item Tokyo Conflagration, and Kon Ichikawa’s Kofoku (itself an Ed McBain adaptation). Even more striking, not just for this role but as contrast against future roles, is the actress who plays Keiko—none other than Mieko Harada, in her first screen role. There’s almost nothing to connect the fresh-faced young woman seen here with the obsessive, murderous reptile she plays in Kurosawa’s Ran. And last of all, the director: Kazuhiko Hasegawa, he who also gave us The Man Who Stole the Sun—again, a movie as dissimilar to this one as you could come up with. This and Sun ended up being his only stints as a feature director, which makes his batting average for twisted masterpieces a solid 1.000.
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