Trial by media, conviction by word of mouth

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Yoshihiro Nakamura makes movies that puzzle, surprise and illuminate their themes both cleverly and literally (the fireworks of “Golden Slumber,” the comet of “Fish Story”). Everyone’s heard of the “butterfly effect” — how a small action in one place (a butterfly flapping its wings in a South American jungle) can cause a large impact in another (a hurricane in Florida). But in “Fish Story” (2009), his masterpiece to date, Nakamura takes us brilliantly and entertainingly though the entire baffling process, in telling a multi-layered but finally satori-like story of how a long-forgotten punk band’s song saves the world.

Based on a 2012 best-seller by Kanae Minato, his new film “Shirayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken (The Snow White Murder Case)” has the look of a conventional puzzler about how a little brown wren of an office lady (Mao Inoue) becomes the leading suspect in the murder of her gorgeously plumed romantic rival. Enter Miss Marple!

What is not conventional, however, is the important role of social media in the story, with tweet-like comments flying on the screen, no doubt giving the film’s poor subtitler conniption fits. “Members of my staff in their 20s and 30s were OK with it, but my art director and other people on the team in their 50s just didn’t get it,” Nakamura says with a wry grin in the office of the film’s distributor, Shochiku.

Born in 1970, Nakamura understands both sides of the age gap, but his film is obviously not for elderly Miss Marple fans. Also, while being mostly faithful to the novel, it is quite different in tone from other darker films based on Minato’s work, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Shokuzai (Penance),” originally a 2012 TV series for Wowow, and Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Kyokuhaku (Confessions)” in 2010.

“Minato herself said that films based on her work all resemble each other, so I’m really glad to hear you say mine is different,” says Nakamura, smiling again, this time sincerely.

His working methods with frequent collaborator Tamio Hayashi, who also wrote the scripts for “Fish Story” and “Golden Slumber,” have not changed much from film to film, however. Though he has written film scripts himself, including one for Hideo Nakata’s 2002 J-horror hit “Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara (Dark Water),” Nakamura totally entrusted the script for “Snow White” to Hayashi.

“When I write a script I cram everything I want into it,” he explains. “But when I leave it up to Hayashi, the story becomes stronger. Also, the feeling and emotion you have after watching the film becomes stronger. With me, the individual scenes may be interesting — that’s what I’m good at. But with Hayashi, the story is strong even though the scenes may not be so interesting seen in isolation. I can feel confident when I ask him (to write the script) since he’s so good at making strong stories.”

Absent from Hayashi’s script (and Minato’s novel for that matter) is the all-wise detective — that standard figure in Japanese mystery films since time immemorial. “That kind of detective is like a parody,” Nakamura says, laughing. “The level of something like that is a lot lower than the audience for films today. I think it’s more interesting not to lead the audience by the nose.”

While not leading the audience, the film is also careful not to betray it. “When the criminal is finally revealed,” Nakamura says, “I don’t want the audience to go, ‘What? Isn’t this a violation of the rules?’ ” So even though there is no detective explaining every mystery, there is also no confusion when the film ends.

One after-the-fact surprise, Nakamura confesses, was the film’s resemblance to “Golden Slumber,” in which the average-guy hero, played by Nakamura favorite Gaku Hamada, becomes a hunted suspect in the assassination of a prime minister. “I truly did not notice until after I had finished (making ‘The Snow White Murder Case’),” he says with a loud laugh a shade nervous. “A big theme of both is human ties: how strongly people are tied together. But this time I wanted to do a film on how the media takes people in an ordinary incident and makes them into something completely different.”

His example is a decade-old murder case in Hokkaido similar to the one Minato wrote about in the novel and Nakamura transferred to film. Two office ladies were rivals for the affections of the same man — and one ended up dead. The victim’s rival was later tried and convicted of her murder.

“The media completely distorted the world of those involved and their feelings at the time of the incident,” says Nakamura. “I’d wanted to do something on that incident for 10 years, so when I read (Minato’s) novel, it really grabbed me.”

One big change from the era of the original incident, he says, is the burgeoning power of social media. “Back then it was only the mass media,” he explains, “but in just the two years since the novel appeared, Twitter and the like have really become powerful tools. Reading the novel, I had the impression that was somewhat the case, but not to the extent it is today. Now you get these floods of comments too overwhelming for one person to respond to.”

Asked if he tweets himself, Nakamura answers emphatically in the negative. “I had a kind of blog,” he says. “I tried hard to express myself and make it interesting. I really worked at it. But I got so tired that I didn’t have energy for films. That’s no good.”

For a chance to win one of five packs of “Shirayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken (The Snow White Murder Case)” bath salts, visit jtimes.jp/film.