1960s, Crime/Detective, Epic, Horror/Eerie, Japanese cinema, Thriller

A Fugitive From The Past (1965)

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Kiga Kaikyo; aka Straits of Hunger

Director: Tomu Uchida
Screenwriter: Naoyuki Suzuki

By Roderick Heath

A Fugitive From The Past has been repeatedly voted by Japanese critics as one of the best films ever made in their country. But the film and its director, Tomu Uchida, remain largely obscure outside it. Uchida’s life contained some swerves worthy of his own epic narratives. Born in 1898, Uchida was born with the given name Tsunejirō but chose a professional name that translates, most evocatively, as “to spit out dreams.” Uchida gained a reputation at Nikkatsu Studios as a screenwriter and quickly graduated to directing. His films were hailed for their politically progressive bent and dashes of satire, but only four of his pre-World War II works survive today. Foiled in his time by increasingly strict censorship to ply his political agenda, Uchida quit Nikkatsu in 1941 and, after a failed bid to start his own production company, joined a Japanese sponsored film company being set up in occupied Manchuria. Uchida never got to make a movie there, but after the war’s end he stayed on in China until 1953. When he finally returned to Japan, Uchida joined Toei Studios, and quickly re-established himself with Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955), a comeback that won him immediate plaudits. He sustained his commercial fortunes with a series about Miyamoto Musashi, which some prefer to Hiroki Inagaki’s better-known Samurai trilogy.

Uchida’s subsequent work became admired in spite of his nominal status as a studio hand for his ability to take on any studio assignment and bend it to fit his interest, and tackle it with such restive creative energy that even as a new generation of spiky filmmaking talents emerged in the so-called Japanese New Wave, Uchida not only kept up but forced the pace. Many perceived Uchida’s post-war work as taking on a darker, less idealistic hue, bearing the imprint of what he had seen in the war’s closing years out in the failed imperial annexes, and remained even more determined to wrestle with social issues, including with his 1958 film The Outsiders, which dealt with the often marginalised Ainu people of Hokkaido. A Fugitive From The Past was not his last film (that would be the sixth entry in his Musashi series, released in 1971), but it’s generally taken to be his crowning achievement. Uchida’s film takes up an expansive vantage, connecting the fetid post-war climes and the rapidly evolving, wilfully blinders-wearing country it was becoming by the 1960s, and noting how one connects to the other. A Fugitive From The Past, based on a novel by Tsutomu Minakami and produced at Toei Studios, can be broadly described as a crime drama, a manhunt tale familiar from generations of police procedurals, but mixed in with a contemporary, cinematic take on classics of early realist fiction, particularly Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and added dashes of film noir and neorealism.

Uchida uses this framework to depict Japan’s recovery from hard-scrabble desperation to economic powerhouse, but with suppurating wounds to body and soul still under the veneer of restored prosperity. The film begins in September 1947, a time when the landscape is crawling with repatriated servicemen and colonists left deprived and without a toehold in a land that’s already been devastated by war. A powerful typhoon rolls in from the Pacific to pummel northern Japan, destroying towns and causing the sinking of the Sounmaru, a coastal passenger vessel, whilst crossing the Tsugarū Strait between Hokkaido and Honshu. This event, whilst fictional, seems inspired by a destructive typhoon that did much the same in 1954, and Uchida uses some newsreel footage from it. Two ex-servicemen and jailbirds, Hachiro Numata (Itsuma Mogami) and Chukichi Kijima (Mitsuo Andô), break into the house of a pawnbroker named Sasada to rob it, finally killing Sasada, his wife, and child, and set fire to the house to cover their tracks. The fire spreads and soon consumes the entire town of Iwanai, driven by the typhoon’s strengthening wind. The two criminals meet up with a third man, Takichi Inugai (Rentarō Mikuni), a big and muscular man, and they try to make their escape by train to the coast and then by ferry, but the typhoon shuts down the train. Walking to the shore, the three men see the frenzied rescue operation being thrown together to save the passengers of the Sounmaru. The fugitives take a rowboat and pretend to be in the rescue party, braving the choppy seas.

Amidst the destruction and chaos wrought by the typhoon, evidence of malfeasance soon begins to emerge. Rescue workers sifting through the rubble of Iwanai discover the dead family. As well as the 532 victims from the Sounmaru retrieved from the waters of the strait, searchers find the bodies of two unidentified men who don’t seem to have been aboard that vessel and who bear signs of having been bludgeoned rather than drowned. The assigned police investigator, Detective Yumisaka (Junzaburō Ban), has the two men buried rather than cremated, so they might be identified later. He soon gets a visit from a prison director, Sumoto (Genji Kawai) who has guessed the two dead men are Numata and Kijima because the recent crime sounds very much like the one that landed Numata in jail in the first place. When one of Yumisaka’s deputies interviews the manager of a hot spring hotel the Sasadas stayed at, he learns Numata and Kijima stayed there at the same time in the company of Inugai, the one man now not accounted for. Yumisaka, assembling the clues he’s uncovered, theorises that Inugai killed the other two men to claim all 800,000 yen they stole, dumped their bodies in the strait, and continued on to land on the shore of Shimokito Peninsula, Honshu’s northernmost point. There, Yumisaka decides when he finds a pile of ashes that Inugai disposed of the boat not by trying to sink it, but used his great strength the drag it piece by piece up a cliff face and burn it up on a bonfire.

One reason perhaps A Fugitive From The Past speaks so potently to Japanese viewers but finds difficulty in translation is that Uchida offers the film as a succession of fractured and furiously alternated styles of moviemaking. To foreign viewers then and now, Japanese cinema might mean the observational domesticity of Yasujiro Ozu, the concerted naturalism of Kenji Mizoguchi, the hard modernist glaze of Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, the jagged iconoclasm of Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, or Seijun Suzuki, or the anxious fantasies of Ishiro Honda. Uchida defies any categorisation with this film because he seems to contain all of the above, compressing eras and modes of cinema into a uniquely effective gestalt that seems determined to try and use every tool at his disposal. Within the first half-hour he moves through aesthetic postures of coolly detailed docudrama, urgent noir adventure, and expressionist-surrealist spiritual fable. Uchida’s films had already experimented in radical stylistic shifts: his 1962 film The Mad Fox blended aspects of kabuki theatre and madcap animation for a result that’s been called one of the weirdest movies ever made. An introductory voiceover in A Fugitive From The Past recalls the kabuki tradition of the explanatory benshi, pronouncing sonorously over footage of the rolling waves of Tsugaru that “love and hate reside in its depths, people with great hearts tortured by misery.”

Uchida wields this instability to articulate his sense of things at war – past and present, law and criminal, nature and human systems, individual and cosmic order, earthbound bodies and spiritual planes. It also suits the film’s winding narrative flow, shifting between viewpoints at will to weave an impression of an epoch as well as individuals. The opening recounts the events of the typhoon, shifting from the benshi-like voice to a more familiar kind of narrator recounting the events of the disaster in dry, factual-sounding detail over interpolated documentary footage. This gives way to staged, frenetic impressions of disaster. Rescuers pushing boats into the surf. Survivors of the Sounmaru clinging to a life raft. Fishing boats bearing burning torches bearing down on the capsized hull of the ship. From the outset Uchida’s attempts to make the texture of the film itself expressive are apparent: he shot the film on 16mm and blew it up 35mm to achieve a grainy, rough-hewn look at war with the inherent elegance of the widescreen framing. He frequently makes recourse to vertiginous-feeling handheld camerawork. The three criminals flee the scene of the crime in shuddering tracking shots, and brave the pummelling elements in their need to reach the coast. As Yumisaka begins to piece together the various twists in the mystery, he first envisions the three criminals together burning their boat, an imagined scene that Uchida films in negative effect, a device he’ll return to repeatedly throughout the film to evoke delirium and frenzy in interludes suggesting the lurking, insidious presence of uncanny forces at work.

Yumisaka’s detective work is on the money, as Inugai meanwhile is making the arduous trek across a stretch of blasted and ash-strewn volcanic ground. Gaining forested area, Inugai comes across a hut and peeks within. There he sees an Itako, a kind of medium, performing a spirit-summoning rite for some mourning relatives: Inugai is highly disturbed by the woman’s performance, including her seemingly blind white eyes and baleful promises of hell and damnation, as if sensing his presence and addressing him. Again Uchida shifts into negative image, smudging distinction between Inugai’s pathologically guilty viewpoint and the actual presence of uncanny forces. Fleeing onwards, Inugai boards a train to the town of Ominato. Yae Sugito (Sachiko Hidari), a young woman also on the train, sees Inugai’s desperately famished expression and shares some rice dumplings she has. Later, when he reaches Ominato, Inugai again encounters Yae, who is working as a prostitute in a local brothel in a failing effort to pay of some lingering family debts because her father is unable to work. Yae, delighted to see Inugai again, invites him into her room in the brothel. Inugai proves an eccentric, unstable, obsessive personality, immediately smitten with Inugai, despite his deeply alienated and traumatised disquiet. She tries to groom him, clipping his ragged nails and cutting his hair and shaving him, and soon she provokes him into having sex with her.

Uchida turns this seduction into a vignette at once intimate and peculiarly, almost indescribably epic. Yae is driven into paroxysms of laughter and wild behaviour as she mocks the rhetoric of the Itako that so frightened Inugai. She freaks out Inugai by wrapping herself in a blanket to impersonate a ghost, still howling with laughter, and wrestles with him until she provokes him into sex, bodies twisted in weird angles with intimations of violence – Inugai wraps his fingers around Yae’s throat in the throes of orgasm. Over all lurks the fog-shrouded heights of Osorezan, “the mountain that makes dead people talk,” the same volcano Inugai hiked over, and a candle flickers by a shrine dedicated to the mountain. Uchida deploys negative effects here again, and shoots the whole thing in one long, disorientating handheld shot, and scores the scene with uncanny-sounding monk chants. The next day Yae finds Inugai gone but has left behind 35,000 yen from the loot, an amount that allows Yae to quit whoring, get medical aid for her father, help her siblings, and finally set out on what she hopes will be a life-changing journey to live in Tokyo. Before she can depart, Yumisaka interviews her, having heard she entertained a tall stranger, but Yae puts him off the scent by giving false details for Inugai: “Help the cops?” she mutters disdainfully to herself after he leaves.

A Fugitive From The Past’s story traces the geographical length and historical breadth of Japan, with its bifurcated structure eventually leaping to the late 1950s, by which time the country has settled with at least an acceptable façade of calm and prosperity. The survey of the state of Japan in the first half presents a bleak picture of poverty-stricken, hopeless, violently uprooted people, a common state that connects people even if they’re not aware of it. The damage wrought by the typhoon can be read as a metaphorical version of the wartime bombing the country suffered, much as the storyline itself deals with the spectre of many wrongs taken and given during the war without explicitly hinging on this legacy. Uchida tells several different stories entwined with the core detective story, and the film’s multiple focal points – cops, criminals, waif – each elucidate a different reality contained with the nominally shared one. Inugai’s flight and attempts to elude capture, and the deliberate ambiguity of just what transpired out there on the stormy strait, is one story. The detective chasing him at first is the hero of another, if a semi-tragic one. Early on Uchida offers a scene of Yumisaka and his wife (Sachi Shindô) and two sons, who despite his having a solid job still resort to rationing to keep food on the table, and connects this with Inugai’s desperation and Yae’s entrapment. Yumisaka, who suffers from a chest ailment causing him to have coughing fits that only seem to grow worse over the course of the decade portrayed, becomes obsessed with locating Inugai and bringing him to book, the classic cop’s “white whale,” the cold case they can’t let go of. This fixation we later find causes his downfall and reduction to working as a guard in a reformatory. But it’s Yae whose viewpoint becomes the bridge of the two eras.

After Inugai’s pay-off to Yae, the film follows her entirely for a time. Just as Yumisaka remains preoccupied with Inugai as the emblem of all that’s evil at loose in the world, Yae keeps alive the flame of worship for him not just as a lover but a symbol of beneficence in all manifestations, whilst trying to make her way in the melting pot of Tokyo. Here the film pivots away from the police investigation and the running fugitive to become a quasi-neorealist portrait of Yae’s experiences, a city teeming with desperate and uprooted people. The capital proves a violent, dirty, teeming place, with a home in a shack on the fringe wastelands whilst working as a waitress-cum-spruiker for a tiny bar in the shanty world that’s sprung up in the lower depths of the cityscape. Uchida saves his most impressive technical feat for his first shot locating Yae in Tokyo, a long-take that begins with a rapid pullback zoom shot as he finds Yae trying to attract customers to the bar amidst prostitutes and good-time girls flocking about American GIs and other men. A gang of cops start chasing the hookers, driving Yae and the other women through the streets, camera tracking them as they dash until Yae breaks away from the others and takes refuge behind a pillar, the cops running past her. A poster Yae leans on comments, “to pay your taxes makes democracy work”. The shot still continues as it reaches as high as possible in a tracking crane shot, watching as Yae threads her way through the streets teeming with humanity and commerce, until finally reaching the refuge of her bar.

Yae’s workplace is a glorified cupboard with liquor bottles, frequented by local small-time hoods, and soon bigger gangsters looking to control the area. Blackouts are common. “Nothing to eat, no electricity, the girls sleep with the Yankees – it’s the end of the world!” one hood groans. Yae finds herself unwillingly caught between two mobs, one gangster showing her favour by giving her a gift of money, another taking the gift and then giving it back in a show of coercive magnanimity. Later Yae beholds a violent battle between the gangs, sparking a police intervention. Meanwhile Yumisaka has tracked Yae to Tokyo, after he becomes newly convinced she met Inugai, and he starts a stakeout of her home, only for Yae to see him as stares off in distraction when she comes home, and flees. Finally Yae finds work in another brothel, and even after the manager warns her, ““Certain clients are very brutal – do you know what I mean?”, she breaks tearfully in her happiness to have found refuge from the world. In the brothel she amasses a sizeable sum of money over the next few years. Finally Yae and the other whores in the brothel are told their trade is going to be outlawed, a signal step in the enforcement of a new age of moral and social order. At the same time, Yae sees a newspaper article about a reputable flour milling magnate named Kyōichirō Tarumi who’s recently made a large charitable donation for rehabilitating ex-cons, and immediately recognises his photo: Inugai.

Yae’s consuming passion for Inugai manifests in a most singular fashion, in a touch reminiscent of Luis Bunuel: she keeps a piece of Inugai’s clipped toenails as a totem, even fetish, of her benefactor. She occasionally unwraps it carefully from the piece of old newspaper she keeps it in, to pay homage and talk to as if personally communing with Inugai, dedicating her earnings to it, and even lying flat and caressing herself with it. Later, this totem of a deep and abiding passion becomes an exhibit in a crime investigation, transformed in the most dramatic fashion whilst remaining comically inert. Yae rather strongly recalls Les Miserables’ Fantine in her pathos, and she’s just as doomed. She travels to the town of Maizuru where the man named Tarumi lives, and settles down to talk with him in his house. When she reveals herself, Tarumi laughingly denies being Inugai, but when Yae sees his hand, still bearing the deformed marks of an injury he had when she met him, she erupts in hysterical delight and embraces him in frantic fashion just as she did years before. Inugai, desperate to dampen her shrieks, clamps his hand over her mouth, only to accidentally throttle her. When one of his employees, Takenaka (Junnosuke Takasu) enters and sees him with the corpse, Inugai chases him down and kills him too. He takes the two bodies to the coastline and dumps them in the ocean, hoping that even if they’re found they’ll be presumed to be a pair of lovers who killed themselves. When the bodies are found, the police investigator assigned to the grim discovery this time is the young and robust Detective Ajimura (Ken Takakura), who has his job made a little simpler by finding Yae’s newspaper clipping of the story about Tarumi still in her pocket.

Uchida released A Fugitive From The Past at a fraught moment in the history of Japanese cinema when the great classical period of the national cinema in the post-war moment was in decline and facing a change in generations and outlooks. Mizoguchi and Ozu had died, and Kurosawa had just released Red Beard (1965) ahead of a subsequent decade of heartbreak. Uchida’s film on the other hand seems like the work of a director just getting started, his unstable aesthetic melding some of the most classically admirable aspects of the national cinema with a new boldness, charged with nearly punkish energy in places, alternated with a dreamy poise and terse realism. A Fugitive From The Past bears some resemblance to a couple of Kurosawa’s well-known crime dramas: his post-war manhunt tale Stray Dog (1949) and the similarly odyssean, crisply widescreen-clamped kidnapping saga High and Low (1962), and the scenes of Yae in Tokyo recall not just Stray Dog but the likes of Mizoguchi’s reconstruction dramas too, like Women of the Night (1948). It also has similarities to Anatole Litvak’s The Night of the Generals (1967) in portraying the hunt for a murderer after years of eluding police, similarly spanning and describing the post-war age. But A Fugitive From The Past is very much its own thing, scarcely with a likeness in cinema then and now, with its blend of rigorous detail flecked with surreal touches and overtones of spiritual parable, although Uchida’s much younger compatriots like Suzuki and Kihachi Okamoto were in a similar zone. The film’s influence would in turn be felt: Shohei Imamura would offer a direct tip of the hat to A Fugitive From Justice with his own epic depiction of a wandering killer, Vengeance Is Mine (1979), by casting Mikuni as the father of his nefarious outlaw.

Uchida connects Yae and Yumisaka in their disconsolate and meditative states, picking out in dawn vigils weighing the needs and quests that possess them. Yae, after fleeing her workplace when cops look for her there, sits staring down at some homeless urchins huddled around a scrap wood fire on some steps by a garbage-clogged canal. Yumisaka wanders from his home down to the shoreline, in a scene of hazy poetry, the detritus of a pummelled modern civilisation – beached hulks and dreary lights and spidery power masts – littered amidst swaying reeds and shrines and distant mountains under watery clouds out of a Ukiyo-e painting, as the policeman ponders the details of the case all the while. The shift from one timeframe to another is simply stated by the sight of a train trundling through the rebuilt Tokyo, giving way in turn to the sight of a crowd enjoying festivities, Yae and other prostitutes merrily rocking in their midst. The crucial scene of Yae and Inugai’s first tussle, with its depiction of chaotic emotions and bodies, matched to dread-provoking musical and visual cues suggesting this is taking place in a hellish netherworld, recalls Nabuo Nakagawa’s efforts at illustrating a Buddhist concept of Hell after a similarly realistic crime drama in Jigoku (1960), although Uchida stops short of actually depicting the netherworld. He rather presents this sense of dread presentiment as psychological, pushing Inugai and Yae towards destruction.

Yae’s wild and inchoate passion for Inugai seems to come of a distant past, a survival of primal feeling into a septic modern age, violently contrasting Inugai’s status as a construct of that modern age, fleeing poverty and a grim determinism in identity – he’s later revealed to have come from a dirt-poor background – in favour of a constructed veneer of respectability. As a young policeman notes late in the film when trying to formulate an understanding of his quarry, the very presence of a large sum of money to a man like Inugai entirely distorts gravity and rewrites all morality. Uchida contrasts his hunger, however understandable, with Yae’s use of the money he gives her, using it to save her family, and becoming a spur to accumulating her own small fortune, however painfully earned. Inugai proves no Monsieur Madeleine, but his lot is laden with bleak ironies that could break a saint – the only deliberate crime he’s ultimately guilty of is the murder of Takenaka, even if both his end and Yae’s stem directly from his overriding need to hang onto the identity he’s given himself in the world.

Meanwhile the two generations of detective, Yumisaka and Ajimura, try to understand such jagged, cruel, incoherent personal experiences via the scant traces left in their wake. Yumisaka keeps a bundle of ash from the burned boat in a handkerchief, a rhyme and companion piece of tell-tale evidence to Yae’s toenail shrine: both prove crucial in the climactic scenes to cracking Inugai’s mask of denial, signifying as they do to him moments of terrible consequence for himself, events that suddenly have physical substance, rather than remaining quarantined in memory. Yumisaka and his fellow cops’ efforts are recounted with a precise depiction of method, trackers following virtually invisible threads that lead off into the tangled heart of a frenzied age. In these portions, A Fugitive From The Past tells a relatively conventional detective story, albeit one that’s patient and countenances the apparent breakdown of the method: Yumisaka eventually runs into a dead end, and realises it’s a human foiling him, in the form of Yae, who has the natural peasant’s disdain for representatives of power, however well-motivated. Even the briefest moment of taking his eyes off the prize, when he fails to see Yae at her Tokyo shack, costs him to an incalculable degree. Despite all this the detectives become the only ones left to testify to Yae’s life, gleaning great facts from signifiers as seemingly pathetic as a toenail, the cops revealed as frustrated artists and priests trying to understand the nature of desire, loss, guilt, and death. The very idea of detective work is then ultimately changed from something dryly factual to a process demanding empathy and a feel for implication.

Central to this is Yumisaka’s redemptive arc: rediscovered looking shabby, defeated, and forgotten by Ajimura, the former detective nonetheless recalls his old case in perfect detail, and Ajimura decides to bring him in on the investigation. When Yumisaka takes leave of his wife and now-grown sons, the boys refuse to loan him some money for his trip, as they still feel the sullen humiliation of his father’s downfall for an obsession that’s suddenly awakened again. Nonetheless, one of the sons, Ichiro (Mineo Matsudaira), has a sudden change of heart and gives a wad of cash to the other son (Kiyoshi Matsukawa), who then runs after his father to hand it over, in a droll long shot and fade-out that scribbles a simple, sufficient signature on one aspect of the drama. Later, Ajimura’s chief (Susumu Fujita, one-time star of Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, 1943) is seen performing a tea ceremony for Yumisaka, indicating his resurgence as a man worthy of respect and honour, an elder of the tribe finally installed in his rightful place as sage counsel. Once Ajimura, the chief, and other cops settle down to interview “Tarumi”, with Yumisaka looking on in silence, Inugai fends off their questions ably with clear and vehement answers, but something about his manner leaves the chief unsatisfied, and he orders his men to go out and check on every detail of his story. Ajimura turns up the crucial evidence amongst Yae’s possessions of the toenail clipping and her stash of money, which was still wrapped in a newspaper page reporting on the Sounmaru disaster that Inugai left her his gift in.

Finally, when confronted by the toenail clipping Inugai breaks down and begins explaining the events of 1947, swearing that Numata and Kijima caused their own deaths by trying to kill each-other and Inugai himself, in their determination to claim the money. Inugai becomes insistent on the cops saying they believe this part of his account before saying anymore, and the police argue over how to make sure Inugai keeps confessing. Even Yumisaka admits that, after years of hating his phantom quarry, he thinks Inugai is telling the truth. Nonetheless he confronts Inugai in a holding cell with the bundle of ashes and tells him he hates him for his cruelty to Yae. But Inugai demands anxiously to be taken back to Hokkaido before he’ll say more. Uchida gives insight to Inugai’s mental space as the police take him north by train, as he’s haunted by Yae’s protestations of love. On the ferry crossing the Tsugarū, Yumisaka urges Inugai to aid him in a prayer ritual for Yae, tossing flowers over the side into the waters, which on this day are placid and pellucid in their shimmering beauty. Inugai promptly leaps over the railing and plunges into the sea, sinking into the depths, the cops roaring out and dashing to the stern in total impotence. Uchida fades out only after a long, boding shot looking back along the ship’s rolling wake, with the ghostly choirs echoing on the soundtrack as if welling out of the depths, a scene at once eerie and beatific, resolving a film constantly in restless motion with a last note of mourning reverie.

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