Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Yoshitaro Nomura Files: Stake Out

The title sequence of Yoshitaro Nomura's debut film, "Stake Out" (1958) lays its claim to the tradition of hard boiled cinema through its full screen display of one man's eyes, intently staring off into the distance, with the film's title scribbled across the image. It's an opening worthy of Sam Fuller or Robert Aldrich. But the rest of the film is specifically Japanese... and completely in line with Nomura's penchant for 'proceduralism' coupled with the devastating personal consequences that law and order often bring upon the individual.

But, in the hands of Nomura, that devastation is parceled out carefully and distinctly. After a lengthy opening sequence in which two men travel by train through an oppressive heat to an unknown town, we begin to piece together the reason for their journey. They find a house where a seemingly non descript woman is sending her children off to school. The two men discover the perfect vantage point of the woman's house across the street in a hotel and take up residence where they begin to watch her activities every minute of the day. Through a parallel narrative, we find out the two men are detectives, sent to the town in hopes that a wanted fugitive will reacquaint himself with the woman who was his lover years earlier. The first two-thirds of "Stake Out" is just that.... the two cops watching, observing, note taking and following the woman as she goes about her daily routines and walking to the market. But there are subtle moments that raise the tension level profoundly. Nomura frames the first half of "Stake Out" from the men's high vantage point across the street. Mailmen and stumbling drunks become chess pieces in a mounting puzzle of suspicion. When will the fugitive show up? Is this seemingly normal woman a red herring? Like Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window", the frame of spying becomes an intense visual metaphor for our own viewership and expectations on the genre. And then something does happen and "Stake Out" spirals into another direction... one that had me rooting not for the cops but for the woman caught up in the middle.

Like Nomura's later masterpiece, "The Castle of Sand" (1974), "Stake Out" uses the police procedural genre to touch on larger themes in life. In that film, the body of an unknown man uncovers a disastrous history of one family. In "Stake Out", the damnation is more intimate to one person. Without giving too much away, Nomura certainly emphasizes this drama in the way his camera collapses down as the woman does the same in the penultimate scene. After a series of images caught up in the perspective of watching and being watched, its an acutely personal moment that realizes there are personal consequences to all this.

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