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Home Vision Entertainment presents
"The north country. The dark, dreary sea of Noto. What I innocently yearned to see in my school days. Now I stand here on that very spot, a poor wife in search of her missing husband."
DVD ReviewZero Focus is a film about a missing man that becomes the story of two women both constrained in different ways by the expectations of Japanese society, one searching for her husband's past and the other running from her own. The heroine is Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga), newly married to Kenichi (Koji Nabara), a man she barely knows. He's well-respected at the ad agency where he works and has just been promoted from the small branch in outlying Kanazawa to the home office in Tokyo, so it's a surprise when, while on a trip to close out his affairs before moving into the city with Teiko, he doesn't return on-schedule.
Concerned, his employers send someone to look for him and invite Teiko to come along. Her journey takes her from Tokyo to isolated, snow-covered Kanazawa to the high cliffs of Noto on the coast of Japan, where she learns shocking secrets about her husband's past. Why, after all, asks her mother early on, did Kenichi, a successful businessman, wait until his late 30s to take a wife?
Director Yoshitaro Nomura wastes no time in telling his story, from a screenplay based on a novel by a well-known author of Japanese crime thrillers. It takes a little while to get used to the pacing, which somehow feels precise and methodical, yet brisk, and without an extraneous moment—much of the plot is revealed through flashback, and though they zip by, it's always entirely clear when something is happening, even toward the climax, when there are flashbacks within flashbacks. He handles his actresses well, considering their motivations aren't entirely clear until the end of the film. Performances that seem off at first click into place (or is that come into focus?) once the sordid story has played to its bitter conclusion. Kuga, who also acted for Kurosawa and Ozu, is effective in the lead, but the character that lingers in the memory is Hizuru Takachiho's Sachiko, a woman with ties to the missing Kinichi that threaten to drag her back to a past she has tried to forget.
The way it all works out, following a tense conversation atop a windswept bluff and a series of Rashomon-style flashbacks, pushes the story into the realm of women's melodrama, as we learn that, in Japan, sometimes there is a dark undercurrent to even the perfect life of a Japanese housewife. Class and status are as important to some of the women in Zero Focus as they are to Stella Dallas. Moreover, as critic Ed Halter notes in his liner notes, the film also deals subtly with the aftereffects of WWII and the lingering resentment over the subsequent American occupation. After the bomb, the Japanese cultural landscape was shaken, and the women in Zero Focus are caught up in a tragic aftershock.
Zero Focus feels older than its 43 years, like it could have been filmed in the 1940s or '50s, thanks to Takashi Kawamata's moody, black-and-white photography. But whereas American noir focused on the grit and grime of the big city, this story is concerned with the barren wastelands of the rural coast, as the idyllic country paradise Tokyo-bred Teak dreamed of in her youth is revealed to be a lonely and mournful place—note the stark image of the heroine standing alone at the edge of a cliff, contemplating her husband's secret sorrows as she watches the waves crash far below her. The script, while fairly lean, isn't as artful—the majority of the characters are thinly drawn, and the climax feels rushed, perhaps due to the film’s small budget, but it all holds together fairly well.
The twisting narrative, with its emphasis on subjective flashbacks and sudden reversals, invites comparison to Alfred Hitchcock (the cover art even includes a plug saying as much), and indeed, for some reason I'm strongly reminded of Vertigo, which came out just three years prior. Maybe it's the fact that characters with secret pasts living double lives figures heavily into the narrative. Or, I don't know, maybe it's just because so many people wind up falling from very high places.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: For a low-budget foreign film of this vintage, Zero Focus comes across well on DVD. The stark black-and-white photography shows off detail well, with fairly deep blacks and a nice range in the grayscale. The source print shows some nicks and scratches, but nothing severe, and occasional instances of aliasing or image jitter aren't overly distracting.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in the original Japanese monaural track, and though it sounds a bit constrained and dated, it's not bad. Vocals sound clean and clear, and the suspenseful score features decent dynamic range, though it's a bit brassy on the high end. There is no background hiss on the track, which is a blessing, considering some long periods of silence during the film's latter half.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Zatoichi Collection
Home Vision rarely gets the same attention as sister company Criterion, but they do equally important work in bringing lesser known near-classics and unhearalded foreign titles (like Zero Focus) to DVD and presenting them with informative essays that put them in historical context.
The disc also includes a trailer for the feature and a bonus clip for the company's 17-volume Zatoichi series. Chaptering is adequate, with 18 breaks throughout the 95-minute film, but the optional English subtitles, while cleanly written, are in a rather small font size.
Extras Grade: D+
Final CommentsZero Focus is an interesting little noir-influenced, B-movie potboiler that could have come from, say, Warner Bros. in the 1950s, were it not a Japanese film tinged with the bitterness of postwar struggle and built upon the rigid structure of the nation's socital norms. It's not a great film, but it is compelling, with evocative widescreen black-and-white photography and a tight, layered script. Thank Home Vision for the DVD's technical merits and the chance to see a movie not famous enough for Criterion, but worthwhile all the same.
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