Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trial and Error: Yoshitaro Nomura's "The Incident"

Being a huge fan of Japanese director's Yoshitaro Nomura's 1974 film "Castle of Sand", it's easy to see what attracted him to the subject matter of "The Incident", which was released four years later and racked up numerous Japanese film awards. Lengthy, dense and ultimately concerned with the shifting perspectives surrounding the murder of young Hatsuko (Keiko Matsuzaka), "The Incident" plays like a John Grisham novel transposed to Japan. By playing with the viewer's expectations.... giving us snippets of possibilities... parading a host of possible suspects, witnesses and innocent bystanders.... the film expertly navigates the murky waters of young love short-circuited by affairs, questions and insidious personalities. And, since its based on a novel by respected writer Kaneto Shindo, there's plenty of talk about the impact of environment on man. Long a subject of fascination for Japanese culture, "The Incident" makes it clear that the man accused of the murder, Hiroshi (Toshiyuki Nagashima), certainly seems to have little control over the spiraling judicial body firmly deciding his fate. It's no surprise he confesses to the murder in the opening ten minutes of the film. Things only get more complex from there.

Hands clutched to his side and eyes fervently poised downward, filmmaker Nomura constantly frames Hiroshi as some sort of fallen Greek god aimlessly watching the jury deciding his fate. There are onlookers as well- namely members of the press, his current impregnated fiance Yoshiko (Shinobu Ohtake, who's also the sister of the victim) numerous witnesses and elderly family members perched just behind him throughout the trial. Alternating between measured, careful dialogue of examination and cross-examination within the courtroom and the moments leading up to and including the murder, "The Incident" walks a precarious line of fact and blurred memory fiction. Just how reliable is the testimony of the witnesses? What exactly is the relationship of Hiroshi and Hatsuko? What do all those furtive glances between suspect and sister in the courtroom really mean? Over the course of two hours and twenty minutes, Nomura carefully builds a web of "Rashomon"-like events that fold and twist and bend around each other. Like he did in "Castle of Sand"- another film interested in the reverberations of the past on the present- Nomura mines an especially stringent intellectual thriller.

If the final verdict of the film is far less interesting than the serpentine-like path it took to get there, I feel that's the point. Compared to Nomura's other works (and its a shame more are not available on DVD, including this great film) "The Incident" fits neatly into his worldview of panoramic events whose real apocalypse can only be felt in the hearts of an unlucky few. A father and son in "Castle of Sand". A couple in "The Incident". A weathered, somewhat evil husband in "The Demon". While the whole world seems to be caught up in their own self-satisfying objectives in the death of beautiful Hatsuko, Nomura reminds us in a lyrical yet subtly dark closing shot that, perhaps, the greatest victim of this particular incident hasn't even been born yet.

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