Zero Focus

Zero Focus


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

One of Japan's most famous literary mysteries, written by one of its most acclaimed authors, Seicho Matsumoto, and translated here by the masterful Yoshitaro Nomura, Zero Focus should really be something special. But it's an odd story, and one which struggles to wprk for Western audiences, partly because it's so strongly rooted in Japanese history and partly because, in its structure and tone, it is deeply derivative of Western art.

This is the story of Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga), a young woman who falls for a man ten years her senior and marries him despite knowing next to nothing about him - in the years following Japan's defeat in the Second World War, people didn't want to pry. When her husband goes missing, Teiko is distraught, but she takes the bold step of travelling by herself to the place where he was last seen and asking people much older and more powerful than her what might have become of him. In the process she meets the terrifying bully Mr Murota (Yoshi Katô) and his glamorous, forthright wife Sachiko (Hizuru Takachiho), either of whom might have something to hide. Sachiko is devoted to a campaign to elect Japan's first female mayor, a controversial action that could dramatically change the country's future. Everywhere there is a sense of impending change, of cultural shifts which will irrevocably alter the balance of power. Some people are willing to resort to violence to hold onto it.

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Out of her depth amid these power games, Teiko quietly soldiers on, trying as a respectable Japanese woman should never to show emotion in public, even in the face of her awful loss. In her neat suit with her fragile yet determined manner, she's the perfect Hitchcockian heroine. She's also a gothic heroine. When we hear that she wrote her thesis on Jane Eyre, it's just the first of many such literary references in a story which ultimately transforms from chilly mystery into full blown gothic melodrama, complete with dramatic clifftop showdowns, swirling waves, unrequited love, betrayal and madness.

The problem with the gothic as a storytelling form has always been its unevenness. It tends to have moments of brilliance and we certainly find those here, enhanced by breathtaking cinematography from Takashi Kawamata, but the tale itself doesn't really hold together either logically or emotionally, at least not once we step outside the very particular rules of literary psychodrama. Applying these rules to Japanese culture at such a pivotal time is fascinating but the subtleties of what's going on will be lost on most viewers and they don't, overall, provide a very satisfying experience for a modern audience. What results is an intriguing curiosity which, as a thriller, doesn't quite pull it off.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2010
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A young woman begins to uncover dark secrets as she searches for her husband who has disappeared shortly after their wedding night.
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Director: Isshin Inudou

Writer: Seicho Matsumoto

Starring: Ryoko Hirosue, Miki Nakatane

Year: 2009

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: Japan

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