Directors, as they age, usually must either move with the times or find themselves waiting by a silent phone. Since the days of D.W. Griffith, Hollywood has been full of once lordly directors who, having fallen out of fashion, are relegated to telling anecdotes about their glory days to deferential young film buffs, while plotting comebacks that never quite materialize.
|Akira Terao and Kazuo Kitamura in “Nihon no Kuroi Natsu”|
The situation in Japan is somewhat different, since graying directorial sensei are more likely to find a sympathetic ear from the graying executives who have green-light authority, even when said sensei haven’t rung the box office gong in years or, in some cases, decades.
Still, most over-60 directors, who may have come into the industry when it was in its postwar Golden Age, are no longer making films in the manner of their Golden Age seniors. The directors filming the Ozu tributes are all boomers or younger, and can afford the luxury of looking retro.
Kei Kumai, who was born in 1930 and released his first film, “Teijin Jiken: Shikeishu (The Long Death),” in 1964, is a stubborn exception to this rule. At a time when the themes of many under-40 directors are either personal or generational, and their treatment of said themes is informed by pop culture (manga, anime) or influenced by certifiably cool foreign filmmakers (Tarantino, Wong Kar-wai), Kumai’s serious, straightforward treatment of historical and contemporary themes is almost defiantly untrendy. There is, I think, something heartening about his against-the-tide stance: It’s nice to know that a few grownups are still out there making movies.
A lack of cool can be a great virtue, but Kumai tends to overdo the earnestness and sincerity in the manner of an irony-free editorial writer whose intentions may be faultless, but whose points are obvious and whose prose is soporific.
In “Nihon no Kuroi Natsu (Darkness in the Light),” Kumai takes up the true story of the trial by media of an innocent man in the Matsumoto sarin poisoning case. It is suited to his talents and temperament: This is one story that requires not smirking postmodern irony, but real reportorial digging and truth-telling. Kumai supplies both, albeit in the style of a 1960s “problem film,” complete with a pure-hearted teenage news reporter who could have been played by Sayuri Yoshinaga (in fact played by newcomer Nagiko Tono).
Nothing prevented him from filming it in the style of “The Insider” or “Traffic,” but his own approach, old-fashioned though it may be, communicates his hero’s plight with clarity, passion and, particularly in the last scenes, force.
This hero is Toshio Kanbe (Akira Terao), a middle-aged salaryman with a typical family (wife, two teenage children), living quietly in a provincial city (Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture), who wakes up one morning in the summer of 1994 to find himself the prime suspect in the biggest mass-murder case of the decade.
Someone, somehow, released clouds of poison gas that killed seven and sickened nearly 600 in his apartment building and neighborhood.
Though Kanbe and his wife were both victims (his wife to the point of convulsions and coma), the police quickly tag him as the perpetrator. Using information supplied by the local cops, the national media spread the story that agricultural chemicals found in Kanbe’s possession had been mixed to create the deadly gas clouds and that Kanbe was the probable mixer.
When Kanbe, after a near brush with death, becomes well enough to speak, he denies everything. This doesn’t satisfy the police who, led by the veteran detective Yoshida (Renji Ishibashi), press Kanbe relentlessly for his confession.
Meanwhile, the media continue their collective howl for his hide. One exception is a local TV station whose news editor, Sasano (Kiichi Nakai), values facts over the next spoon-fed scoop. As he and his dedicated team of reporters, led by the tireless, if annoyingly brash, Asakawa (Yukiya Kitamura), dig for the truth, they learn that the official police story is a house of cards, and its builders less than upfront about their motives. For them, framing an innocent man is the price for saving face — a price that all their training and experience have prepared them to pay.
Kumai tells this story in flashback, using the framing device of two high school students interviewing Sasano and his team for a documentary. Though the sight of veteran reporters spilling their guts to a couple of teenagers strains credulity, this device brings the facts and, just as importantly, the morality of the case into sharper focus.
Corny and obvious? Yes, but more effective than the hard-boiled, stuff-happens-so-deal-with-it approach would have been. The victims were innocents, who deserved to have the real culprits found out, as in the end they were: the Aum Shinrikyo cult.
In filming “Nihon no Kuroi Natsu,” Kumai may have fudged some facts (one is the real name of the hero, out of privacy concerns), but he gets the important things right. One is that whoever falls into the maw of the media or the hands of the police may or may not have truth on their side — but justice is often looking the other way.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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