Tuesday, April 12, 2016

In short: Murder(s) in the Doll House (1979)

Original title: Midare karakuri

aka Crazy Doll Trick

aka Random Mechanism

After losing big at the bicycle races (what’s a “horse”?) affable loser Katsu (Yusaku Matsuda) takes a look at a newspaper and wanders into the office of the detective agency of one Meiko. He finds himself hired practically immediately, despite his only qualifications being ownership of a literature degree and an ambition to be just like Philipp Marlowe (or so he says). The first case Katsu assists Meiko on turns out to be rather more interesting than anyone could have expected.

Theoretically, Meiko is just supposed to investigate the relatives of an elderly toy industrial boss, specifically two cousins who loathe one another for mysterious reasons. However, family members soon start dying left and right in increasingly bizarre ways, and Katsu seems like just the guy to solve the case, if only because he’s rather – in a very low-key manner – into the family member who quickly becomes the police’s main suspect (Hiroko Shino).

The big wave of Japanese mystery films of the 70s (as well as the films in the genre made before or after) is still a pretty unexplored part of cinema in other countries, with even the bootleg circuit not offering many of these films. Going by the handful of entries in the genre I’ve managed to see by now, that’s a bit of a shame, for there clearly are quite a few shallowly buried treasures to find.

Calling this Toho production directed by Susumu Kodama a treasure would probably go a bit far, though. It looks and feels very much like a typical example of Japanese late 70s studio films, when many of the more maverick directors weren’t terribly active anymore or even shifting their interest (as did that of their audiences) towards the TV screen, and the lesser lights behind the camera weren’t exactly going out of their ways to become honorary outlaws themselves.

So Kodama’s direction is more professional than inspired and rather too conservative to be really exciting with only a handful of scenes – most of them in the final third – having much visual impact, the rest being more functional than anything else. However, a conservatively directed film made in 1979 Japan generally is still very much worth looking at, if only to enjoy the way the country adapted Western fashion of the day and to get a good look at the architectural idiosyncrasies of its day and place.

As a mystery, the film is not quite as weird as I like my more traditional mysteries, even though there’s one inexplicable and unexplained moment quite late in the film that saw my jaw drop in joy. Again, the film is rather too restrained in how it portrays the weirder aspects of its plot, as well as in the way it portrays the emotional repercussions it has for its characters. I don’t want to overuse the word “conservative” to describe this approach, but I can’t find a better descriptor.

Still, Midare karakuri is a perfectly watchable film. Its narrative flows well enough, the actors are likeable and competent, and while the whole affair never rises above being a competent if conservative genre film of its time and place, it is at least rather good at being that.

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