A Fugitive from the Past

December 20, 2022 · 0 comments

by Jeremy Clarke.

Voted third in Kinema Junpo magazine’s 1999 list of the greatest Japanese film of all time, Tomu Uchida’s A Fugitive From The Past (1965) is the pinnacle of a directorial career that also includes Bloody Spear At Mount Fuji (1955) and The Mad Fox (1962). In the poll, it was beaten by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) at number one and Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds (1955) at number two, For the record, the fourth title was Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) while the fifth was Yuzo Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyoden / The Legend Of The Sun-Tribe From The Bakumatsu Era (1957). While four of those titles were made in the mid-fifties, often considered the golden age of classical Japanese cinema, Fugitive dates from the mid-sixties, allowing it to look at Japan’s post-war period from a greater distance.

Uchida’s film is certainly ambitious, not to mention long – the version on Arrow’s disc runs a whopping 183 minutes. When the director originally delivered the film to Toei, it was even longer, coming in at 192, so to Uchida’s ire the studio chopped it down to 167. The 167 played most of Japan, but a compromise ‘director’s cut’ version – the 183 on this disc – played in four Toei theatres. Even with nine minutes removed, you don’t feel you’ve missed any key scenes (although, who knows?) but equally you don’t watch the film and feel that it should have been cut down from 183. That said, it’s quite bitty and covers a lot of ground, so it’s possible the 167 could have worked well. But I’d personally rather see the 183 that’s presented here.

The film, which spans the decade 1947-57, races through small-town and rural Japan, typhoon, arson, robbery, a capsizing ferry, murder, hunger, a medium, a boat journey, two train journeys, poverty, prostitution (all in the first 50 minutes), a police investigation in which the trail goes cold, Tokyo, street protests, more prostitution, yakuza, the outlawing of prostitution in 1956, change of identity, more murders, a lovers’ suicide pact and, finally, another police investigation with the detective from the earlier investigation brought in to help. Several people drown. The highly convoluted plot is impossible to adequately synopsize in a short paragraph.

All over the world, the new medium of television had been reducing audience numbers in cinemas and Uchida had become convinced that a new approach was imperative if movies were to survive. He thought the cinema needed to tell modern stories and it was in this spirit that he embarked on adapting Tsutomu Minakami’s serialised novel for the screen.

The involvement of Takichi Inukai (the remarkable Rentaro Mikuni) with two ex-cons who execute a robbery puts him in a tough spot when they are killed at sea in typhoon conditions, while he survives with the money, convinced the police won’t believe he didn’t kill the other two. Various conflicting flashback moments of this incident don’t clarify his guilt one way or the other. Falling in briefly with generous-hearted whore Yae Sugito (the charismatic Sachiko Hidari), he leaves her enough cash to pay off the family debts that keep her in prostitution. He’s gone before she has the chance to thank him. On his trail, but always one step behind, is detective Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban, previously a comic actor who astonishes here in his first serious role). Yae moves to Tokyo and starts a career in the red light district; Yumisaka follows but Inukai’s trail has gone cold… and he can’t find Yae either.

These three characters are outcasts. In his essay on the director’s life and career in the booklet accompanying the disc’s first pressing, Uchida blogger David Baldwin suggests that both fugitive and prostitute are members of Japan’s untouchable class of “workers in despised occupations”, which goes some way to explaining why neither trusts the police and either avoid them or don’t tell the truth when questioned. While this might not apply to Detective Yumisaka, his wife and kids barely have enough to eat on his regular policeman’s salary, so in some ways he’s like the two people he’s pursuing.

Years later, Yae recognises a photo of benevolent businessman “Kyoichiro Tarumi” as Inukai and visits him to finally thank him. The police in the form of Detective Ajimura (Ken Takakura, on the verge of becoming Toei’s go-to anti-hero in their yakuza pictures) investigate the resultant murder, with Yumisaka called in to confirm Tarumi is the same man he pursued years ago.

In one of the disc’s numerous scene-specific commentaries by academics ranging from around eight minutes to about half and hour in length, San Diego’s Erik Homenick offers a fascinating analysis of the film’s score. Prolific soundtrack composer Isao Tomita, best known in the West for his electronic music album of Debussy compositions Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974) and in anime fandom for scoring Osamu Tezuka’s Jungle Emperor (1965, US title Kimba the White Lion), executed only this one score for Uchida. The whole starts and ends with two very different, long, unbroken shots of the Tsuguru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido – the opening dark, tempestuous and foreboding; the ending calm, the wake of a ferry. Linking these opening and closing water images with Buddhist ideas of karma, the music emphasises the fate of the central character and his two thief / accomplice / victims, all of whom meet their end in the sea. About half an hour in, as Inukai flees through a landscape of hot springs suggesting the Buddhist conception of Hell, Tomita introduces repetitive chanting of the word ‘mizu’ (water).

In his filmed introduction From Past To Future, the disc’s producer Jasper Sharp similarly talks about the contentious narrative of Uchida’s history and the gaps within it, as well as detailing the various cast members and their filmographies, locating the film in wider Japanese film history.

Yale’s Aaron Gerow goes further in tackling the complex issue of how the film relates to director Uchida’s own past by looking at three scenes which interrogate memory, the past and history. Gerow refers to the detective story in which the detective must reconstruct the past. We know the criminal from the start: arson, money stolen, and two out of the three conspirators killed, probably by the third. As it proceeds, the film offers conflicting fragments of accounts of exactly what took place on the storm-tossed boat before two of the men went into the water, refusing to side with any one of the three. Ten years on, after hiding behind a new name and identity, the exposed suspect must finally confront his own past.

Unexplained gaps in Inukai’s story echo Uchida’s own past. His personal history remains somewhat murky during his time in the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria working for the Manchukuo Film Association between 1943 and 1945 and the remainder of his time abroad up to October 1953 (or to 1954 in some sources) when he eventually returned to Japan. Curiously perhaps, Uchida is making a film here about Japan covering several historical incidents in a period when many Japanese including himself were living outside the country. He wasn’t there for the duration so had no first-hand experience. Modern Japan, adds Gerow, is a narrative fissured by gaps and holes; in this film, the director refuses to offer us a complete account of either his or Japan’s history during this period, dominated by torment and remorse for the past.

According to academic Daisuke Miyao, the film’s images reflect the hunger from which many people suffered in post-WW2 Japan. Uchida had already attempted to get away from the usual “metaphorical view of nature” via Michiko Midorikawa’s quasi-documentary cinematography which he used to depict poor, Meiji Era peasant farmers’ lives for Earth (1939). The director took up naturalism again two and a half decades later.

The so-called W 106 system Uchida and cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa devised to shoot Fugitive comprised three elements. One, they blew up 16mm to 35mm to produce a rough and ready, documentary feel. Two, they disrupted the usual aesthetic of photographic positive by presenting sequences in negative, sometimes employing dissolves. Three, they exposed film to sunlight during the development process (solarisation, a technique originally pioneered in photography), for example in scenes of a medium chanting in a farmhouse and of Yae (who was present at the farmhouse) later imitating the medium to taunt Inukai in her room while a storm rages outside. The second and third elements added creative elements to the faux-documentary style.

Harvard’s Alex Zahlten talks about the film’s final 12 minutes under the title Inbetweenness, meaning the intolerable space in which Tarumi / Inukai finds himself, that of the irresolvable contradiction between his past life as a criminal and his present life as a businessman and philanthropist. Zahlten talks so eloquently about the images on the screen as they come up that he’s the one contributor here who you wish had done a commentary for the whole 183 minutes. While the other scene-specific commentaries leave you feeling satisfied within their allotted time constraints, Zahlten makes you feel that had he been allowed to talk through the film from start to finish, he could have contributed a great deal more to our understanding and appreciation.

The disc also includes a trailer while the booklet’s second essay by Tokyo’s Inuhiko Yomota helpfully covers the changes wrought in adapting the film and its screenplay from the source novel.

Each of the three Tomu Uchida films Arrow has released on Blu-ray has impressed more than its immediate predecessor. The reputation of A Fugitive From The Past as both his masterpiece and one of the greatest Japanese films ever made turns out to be entirely justified. It’s an extraordinary film which deserves to be far better known outside Japan, and disc producer Jasper Sharp has done it proud with this release.

A Fugitive From The Past is released on Arrow Blu-ray.

Jeremy Clarke’s new website is jeremycprocessing.com

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