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Tomu Uchida: Part 3

April 14th, 2008 (10:43 am)

Movie #3: A Fugitive From the Past (Kiga Kaikyo). A shift forward in time, to post-WWII Japan.

© 2008 D. Gordon.

By 1964, Tomu Uchida was no stranger from policier films (his Police Officer will be shown later in the series); however, the focus with his A Fugitive From the Past is Japan immediately after World War II. The story itself starts with a robbery / murder in a small seaside town which coincides with a ferry disaster. After a few days, when the waves have calmed and the victims accounted for, the authorities have two more bodies than victims. They turn out to have been ex-convicts with ties to the robbery / murder; but what happened to the "big man, about six feet," seen with them in the days leading up to the murders? And why is a local prostitute lying about last night's customer?

On the surface, the story is interesting enough, as it takes the viewer on a ten-year chase which grows cold then heats up again. The police tend to figure out events a little too easily, often rely on conjecture over evidence, and hint at using methods that aren't exactly, well, legal. And clocking in at 182 minutes, the movie could have been shorter and achieved the same impact; it frankly drags in places. But this is still a very good movie, for a number of reasons.

On a technical level, Uchida's using black and white but still very much experimenting with the image to further his story. The movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm to give an effectively grainy, gritty, pseudo-noir texture to events. When Lieutenant Yumisaka, the intrepid detective assigned to the murder, reasons out events - for that matter, when the fugitive Inukai and the prostitute Yae have their one sex scene during a fierce rainstorm - Uchida chooses to reverse the negative, with a touch of what looks like double exposure. (It's a technique, I suppose, although I'm not sure that most interior monologues would look like... a reversed negative.) There are other spots, such as the more common shot of train wheels in motion, which work to varying degrees.

Although the movie was released in 1964, the action takes place from roughly 1947 to 1957. As the film is shot, its impact comes much more through its documenting the conditions faced by the Japanese in that period. Lieutenant Yumisaka has a professional white-collar job, but his family is still just making ends meet, living on insufficient rations. Yae the prostitute is actually rather cheerful about her profession; she's able to care for herself and her family and put some money aside. Tokyo contains more expansive prostitution, and the police carry out periodic raids; but the situation is so out of their control they're forced to tolerate it - how else are most of these women going to eat? There are gangs and protection rackets aplenty, while American soldiers appear on the periphery - this spans the period of the Occupation, after all. Given what's out there, it's no surprise that Yae ends up back in prostitution. And many, many people are able to disappear, remake themselves, start over with no past to hinder them. So as a social document, Fugitive From the Past is a fascinating film. It's quite possible that the police are unable to find Inukai / Tarumi for ten years not because of ineptitude, Yae's covering for him, or his skill in slipping away, but because the chaos of the times prevented it. It would take a more stable Japan, in which brothels were outlawed and black market activities curtailed, to allow for a resolution to such a crime. That's why I think Uchida is getting at, and that makes for a much more powerful message than crime not paying.

To finish: the end is actually unexpected (in that subversion of tradition that Uchida's already shown). Justice is served, yet not in the way these things usually turn out - and not everything is resolved. Yet another symbol of the times the characters are living in.