Mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) was long to the Japanese entertainment industry what Stephen King has been to Hollywood — a one-man fiction factory who supplied material for dozens of films and TV dramas.

One of his most popular novels, “Zero no Shoten” (“Zero Focus”), was made into a 1961 film by Yoshitaro Nomura. Now Isshin Inudo has directed a new version, evidently quite faithful to Matsumoto’s novel — unread by me.

Since his feature debut in 1995 with “Futari ga Shabetteru” (“Two People Talking”), Inudo has made a mix of indie and commercial projects. What both types of films often share, though, are strong female characters and a visual richness, even on an indie budget.

Zero no Shoten
Director Isshin Inudo
Run Time 131 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Nov. 14, 2009

So Inudo was a natural choice for “Zero no Shoten,” which belongs to its three female leads and unfolds in and around Kanazawa, Ishikawa Pref., one of Japan’s beauty spots in the 1950s.

The film, which centers on a woman’s desperate search for her missing newlywed husband, evokes the work of Alfred Hitchcock in everything from its saturated colors and portentous, dreamy tone (a la “Vertigo”) to its spectacular location where a character takes a long, fatal plunge (as in “Saboteur” and “North by Northwest”).

But I also caught echoes of German filmmaker Douglas Sirk, the 1950s master of the “woman’s picture,” who dramatized the unpleasant consequences for women whose life choices violated the era’s social and moral rules, such as the upper-middle-class widow’s relationship with her younger gardener in “All that Heaven Allows.”

Inudo, like Sirk, treats these choices — and the punishments inflicted on the women who make them, with a seriousness that is both right and thrillingly over-ripe. His heroines suffer all right — but with costumes, makeup and lightning that accentuate their tragic, noble beauty, as the violins swell. Call his approach melodrama, if you like, but it has an undeniable power.

The story begins in 1957 with the arranged marriage of the naive, fresh-faced Teiko (Ryoko Hirosue) to Kenichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a pleasant, if guarded, man who works for the Tokyo branch of an advertising company. Seven days after their wedding, he leaves for Kanazawa, his former posting, for what he says will be a brief business trip. But when he doesn’t return on the promised day, Teiko becomes worried, and then frantic.

She then travels to Kanazawa alone — in the dead of winter — to find answers, but realizes she knows next to nothing about her husband’s background. From one of his former colleagues she learns that Kenichi was close to Gisaku Murota (Takeshi Kaga), the gruff president of a local-building materials company and a major client, and his elegant, sharp-edged wife, Sachiko (Miki Nakatani), an ardent supporter of a female candidate for mayor who, if elected, will be the nation’s first woman in such a post. This pair, however, has little to tell her about Kenichi’s possible whereabouts.

Teiko also encounters Hisako (Tae Kimura), a company receptionist whose ability in English — a rare ability in a provincial city then — is offset by her lack of education. She got her coveted job though a connection, Teiko learns — but how and why?

These women, Teiko starts to understand, are not what they seem — and have connections with Kenichi that go beyond Kanazawa. But she does not know how her investigation poses a threat to certain people until bodies begin turning up.

One reason the Japanese murder mystery — a hugely popular fiction and film genre here — has not made much headway in the West are the lengthy explanations often appended after the killer is unmasked. It’s as if Hitchcock had ended “Psycho” with a 10-minute disquisition by the arresting officer.

“Zero no Shoten” is no exception to the genre rule, but it’s also more than a whodunit. Its larger theme is how women in the early postwar period struggled against social and political strictures, while trying to escape poverty and, in some cases, their own pasts. It also vividly illustrates how one breath of scandal could blow away their carefully (and artificially) constructed personas.

The three leads — Ryoko Hirosue (“Okuribito”), Tae Kimura (“Gururi no Koto”) and Miki Nakatani (“Kiraware Matsuko”) — were cast for their acting skills as well as their star power, as indicated by their shelves of Best Actress prizes. Nakatani, however, gloriously dominates as an upstart provincial aristocrat, her icy, imperious gaze masking a raging ambition — and knawing insecurity. Sirk would have loved her — his Japanese Barbara Stanwyck.

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