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  • 18
  • Drama
  • 1966
  • 99 mins

Violence At High Noon

Violence At High Noon

Synopsis

In this tale of a serial rapist/murderer and his two female protectors, Nagisa Oshima (Ai No Corrida, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) transforms sensational true-crime material into a dissection of his nation's pathology

About

As 20-year-old Shino (Kawaguchi) is first harassed, then threatened with a knife, bound with rope and sexually molested by drunken Eisuke (Sato) in the house where she works as maid, she does not scream and seems strangely resigned to her fate - even when Eisuke, passing a mirror, declares his murderous intentions with the words: "This'll be our last reflection together."

Eisuke is mistaken. Interrupted in his assault on Shino, he instead rapes and murders the mistress of the house before fleeing into the daylight and Shino lives to see another day. In fact Shino knows Eisuke well from her past, and immediately writes to his wife, the schoolteacher Matsuko (Koyama), to denounce Eisuke's crimes - but both women choose to withhold the true identity of the serial 'phantom killer' from the investigating police inspector (Watanabe), even as more violent crimes are committed.

A mosaic of flashbacks offers a long 'reflection' on the ties that bind together Shino, Eisuke, Matsuko and the suicide of Genji (Toura), all from the same Shinshu village, and each embodying the extremes of a nation's idealism and disillusionment, humanity and bestiality, death and survival. As Eisuke continues his compulsive onslaught through the cities of Japan, it emerges that Shino and Matsuko are themselves trapped in their own repeating cycles of complicity, guilt and despair, all going back to the catastrophic collapse, several years earlier, of a collective farm on which the four had worked together.

If Nagisa Oshima's Night And Fog In Japan (1960), with its jaundiced view of progress, showed the first ripples of the Japanese New Wave, then the similarly themed Violence At High Noon, made just six years later, was a veritable tsunami of innovations in cinematic expression.

Both films feature state-of-the-nation plots that unravel through a complicated series of flashbacks and repetitions, and both films deal with political disillusionment and the eternal return of the past. But where Night And Fog was dominated by the sort of long sequence shots that typified the classical cinema of Mizoguchi or Ozu, the narrative of Violence At High Noon is slashed and fractured, whether through the compulsive restlessness of Keiichi Uraoka's editing or the delirious mobility of Akira Takada's Cinemascope camerawork.

It is as though Eisuke's neurotic tension has infected the whole world, in a film that is dissecting the pathology of a nation as much as of any individual. Cruel, drunken Eisuke holds up a mirror to the aggression, rapacity, misogyny and inhumanity within a society still coming to terms with both its brutal wartime conduct and its rapid post-war transition to Western-style capitalism (with all of the political compromise that such a transition entails) - and it is a mirror in which Shino, Matsuko and Eisuke all see themselves uncomfortably reflected.

If the past and present look bleak in Violence At High Noon, there is not much more hope for the future either. Shino, the youngest member of the original collective farm, is last seen literally biting through a rope that binds her to another character as though she were cutting an umbilical cord - but her earlier attempts to be 'reborn' and to sever her links to the past have all ended up bringing her right back to where she started, leading her at one point to declare, "I'll never be free". The best that can be said for her prospects is that she is a natural survivor (several times over).

Meanwhile the next generation, as embodied by Matsuko's young school pupils, may well turn out to be just like Eisuke (who after all was himself once a pupil of Matsuko's), and they are last glimpsed standing confused in the middle of an imposing modern city where a distraught Matsuko has suddenly abandoned them with the words, "I wish you all good luck." Oshima's film is mostly set, as its title implies, in broad daylight, but there is little brightness to be found in its message about a Japan that moves swiftly forwards but never really changes.

Violence At High Noon may be based loosely on the real-life case of a serial rapist and murderer who was protected by his own wife and a surviving victim, but it no more resembles a conventional psychothriller than Shohei Imamura's similarly reality-based Vengeance Is Mine (1979) would a decade later.

Any police procedural takes place entirely at the film's periphery, with the focus very much on the two women who must (and yet cannot) resolve their ambivalent feelings towards a violent criminal, and towards a past that binds them. It might almost be a melodrama, save for all the political allegory, as Oshima asks how a seemingly civilised society can create and knowingly harbour a monster within.

The high contrast black-and-white photography looks incredible, the performances (especially Sato's menacing swagger) are excellent - but where the film will fall down, at least for today's audiences, is in the inscrutability of its characters' motivations. At various points, both Shino and Matsuko declare that no one will understand the way they feel, and many viewers will be left in perplexed agreement. As an exercise in New Wave stylings, Violence At High Noon is impeccable, but as an engaging, cogent story, it falls short. Perhaps that is inevitable in a film whose principal themes are alienation, disorientation and endless diabolical repetition.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Seada Kawaguchi, Akiko Koyama, Narumi Kayashima, Hosei Komatsu, Hideo Kanze, Teruko Kishi, Kei Sato, Hideko Kawaguchi, Mitsuhiro Toura, Fumio Watanabe
  • Director: Nagisa Oshima
  • Screen Writer: Taijun Takeda
  • Writer (Book): Tsutomu Tamura
  • Producer: Masayuki Nakajima
  • Photographer: Akira Takada
  • Composer: Hikaru Hayashi

In a nutshell

This based-in-reality story is a difficult, not altogether rewarding experience - but no fan of Japan's 1960s New Wave can afford to miss it.

by Anton Bitel

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