Sunday, December 16, 2018

Fine, With Occasional Murders (1984)

Original title: 晴れ、ときどき殺人

Twenty-year old Kanako Kitazato (Noriko Watanabe) returns home to Japan from studying abroad in the USA only to find her businesswoman mother nearly on her death bed. As the audience knows, and mother will tell on her actual death bed, she was witness to the murder of a prostitute. She didn’t actually see the killer, yet he somehow manages to find her, threaten her daughter’s life and blackmail the tough old bat into wrongly identifying an innocent as the killer. Said innocent promptly commits suicide by jumping from a window and landing right in front of the woman’s feat, because this is just that kind of movie. Mom’s already ill heart can’t stand all this, therefore the death bed. She did hire a private investigator in the meantime, though, and even found evidence all on her own which connects the blackmailer and killer with someone very close to her. Unfortunately, she dies just when she’s about to reveal the name of this traitor to her daughter. Because it is that kind of movie, too.

So it’s left to Kanako to sort through the whole affair, with the help of another guy the police is hunting for another prostitute murder, and whom she’ll hide away in her mum’s secret office where he proceeds to design a flying bike (I got nothing). As it turns out, it’s good there’s at least one nice man in poor Kanako’s life now, for everyone else surrounding her is either a jerk, a sleaze, a would-be rapist or just an all-around shit, providing her not only with a very unhappy time but also with more suspects than an Edgar Wallace movie.

At the beginning of the 80s, Japanese cinema was commercially at its lowest point, apparently unable to withstand the repeated battering it received by television. Media company Kadokawa developed a method to get their movie business back in the red again by developing what we’d today probably would call cross-media franchises, making a movie based on a book published in-house, probably with a manga adaptation, and casting an idol in the lead to sell records and photo books, too. It was certainly a forward-thinking and highly influential way of going about things, and the films the company made were certainly commercially successful; it’s not exactly how you get genre cinema with much of a personal feel, of course.

Still, director Kazuyuki Izutsu’s film doesn’t feel as completely like a product as one might perhaps expect. It does, at the very least, contain quite a few peculiarities of the kind I know and love from Japanese genre cinema of all decades and places in the budgetary hacking order. There is, particularly, a decided strangeness about many a moment in the film that doesn’t feel focus group tested but personally idiosyncratic. Quite a few scenes here are just too plain peculiar for the film they are in not to be at least interesting. At least if you’re like me and like your comedic mystery thrillers with a dollop of the inexplicably weird, like the only good man’s flying bike, which certainly has a metaphorical meaning to a guy hunted by the police and a girl beleaguered by a horde of utterly shitty people but is just a bit too goofy to be only that. Or take moments like Kanako doing a sad aerobics dance after the death of her mother, which is just an inexplicable thing to include. Unless someone involved in the production confused sad aerobics and sexy aerobics.

Tonally, this thing is all over the place, usually in a highly entertaining manner, reaching from kitschy melodrama (some of mom’s early scenes are like Hitchcock as seen through a supermarket romance novel sensibility) to various kinds of comedy – from slapstick to Japanese deadpan over puns – with some surprise sleaze and your more expected moments of normal thriller business.

It’s all very light and fluffy, in a way, and nobody will expect things to turn out badly for Kanako in the end, but this feeling of fluffiness comes from Izutsu underplaying his film’s darker sides rather purposefully. And there’s quite a bit of darkness here. This is, after all, a movie where a childhood acquaintance our heroine is supposed to marry (news to her, of course) tries to rape her in front of her mother’s corpse, where the killer is basically a giallo character, and where everyone around her turns out to be a horrible human being. These, obviously, are not elements you’d usually find in an early 80s movie trying to be commercial, but their inclusion at the very least makes With Occasional Murder quite a bit less predictable, and therefore much more entertaining than you’d probably expect going in.

That Izutsu’s direction is always stylish and interesting to look at goes nearly without saying – Japanese studio cinema was never anything less – as does the fact that he’s from time to time getting downright artful (my personal favourite is the change to very mobile handcamera for the wake scenes to emphasise their stress and confusion).

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