Zero Focus Yoshitaro Nomura

This 1961 Japanese murder mystery pays homage to Akira Kurosawa as much as Alfred Hitchcock. The film opens when newlywed Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga) bids farewell to her ad-agent husband Kenichi (Koji Nanbara) at a Tokyo train station from where he will travel to his branch office in distant Kanazawa. When Kenichi fails to return home, Teiko embarks on a search for him. She retraces his steps and discovers that Kenichi has been harbouring a secret past full of sex and deception. Her investigation takes her to the Noto Peninsula where whitecaps churn against steep, rocky cliffs — a popular place for suicide, or murder. Zero Focus was made at a time when Nomura's studio, Shochiku, briefly allowed its filmmakers more freedom to innovate. This period coincided with the foreign influence of Hitchcock, as well as Nomura's countryman Kurosawa. Though it's hyped as a noir, Zero Focus is really a thriller that criss-crosses time according to different points of view, à la the groundbreaking Rashomon. It's hard to tell which of the suspects is telling the truth in these complicated flashbacks. In fact, the constant back-and-forth, particularly in the last 30 minutes, can grow tiresome instead of suspenseful. Apart from this flaw, Zero Focus is remarkably made. The pace of the film is furious and energetic due to fine editing and clever script structuring. Nomura allows his seasoned actors to flourish on screen, articulating the insecurity and confusion of post-war Japan. Meanwhile, cinematographer Takashi Kawamata captures some noir-ish images but also a realistic documentary feel to the street scenes, and crates painterly landscapes in the Noto Cliffs sequences. Zero Focus is not a classic of Japanese cinema, but can sit proudly next to Hitch in any DVD library. The black-and-white DVD transfer is sharp and superb. Apart from the obligatory trailers, there are no extras on the disc, though the liner notes offer some welcome background information. (Home Vision/Criterion)