Thursday, January 15, 2015

End of the Line

今はもうレールだけが残されてるこの広場で
私はまだ列車を待ってる
この場所から離れゆく日 思い描き今日も待ってる
「Rusty Rail」(Garnet Crow)

At this square with only rails left
I'm still waiting for the train
I wait, thinking of the day I'll leave this place
"Rusty Rail" (Garnet Crow)

The upcoming And Then There Were None and Tommy and Tuppence series of the BBC might be the Agatha Christie TV adaptations that get the most attention in the Western world, but the last few months my attention was all focused on a certain Japanese production.

1933, Shimonoseki. Having successfully solved a murder case in a militairy camp, the great detective Suguro Takeru returns to Tokyo by the luxary sleeper express Touyou, which provides a straight connection between Shimonoseki and Tokyo. Because of full bookings, Suguro is unable to find a sleeping compartment on the train, but a chance encounter with his old friend Boku, who works at the Ministry of Railways, he managed to get safely aboard the Touyou Express. The train goes off in the night and Suguro and Boku enjoy a good meal in the luxary train, while meeting the colorful cast of fellow passengers. Among them is Toudou, an unpleasant businessman, who tries to hire Suguru to protect hem from a hidden enemy. Suguro declines, saying he only takes cases that interest him personally, as well as confessing to simply not liking Toudou, but the following day, the discovery of the corpse of Toudou in his sleeping compartment proves that he was indeed in grave danger. The express got snowed in, meaning the murderer must be one of the guests in the train, but who? It is up to great detective Suguro Takeru to solve this murder on the Touyou Express in the TV special Murder on the Orient Express (or Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken).

Oh, what, Murder on the Orient Express? Yes, Murder on the Orient Express is a two-part 2015 TV special based on Agatha Christie's famous novel featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. That fact alone might be interesting to a lot of viewers outside Japan, but in Japan, I think this special was especially anticipated because Mitani Kouki wrote the script. Mitani Kouki is a playwright/director, originally connected to the Tokyo Sunshine Boys theater troupe. Known for his comedic style, he has directed some fantastic slapstick-inspired comedy movies like Radio no Jikan (AKA Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald), The Uchouten Hotel, The Magic Hour and Suteki na Kanashibari. One of his better known plays was Juuninin no Yasashii Nihonjin ("12 Gentle Japanese"), a fantastic parody on the courtroom drama classic 12 Angry Men. But he is also an important person in the context of this blog: he wrote Furuhata Ninzaburou, the fantastic Japanese Columbo and Ellery Queen-inspired TV show (he also wrote the novelization of the first season, a translation of the first chapter available here) and he runs an interesting TV show called Sherlock Holmes at the moment which features not actors, but puppets! Anyway, I've been a big fan of Mitani for quite some years now, so I was very curious to this marriage between Christie and him.


Mitani's Murder on the Orient Express is a two-part TV special, each part more than two hours long. The first "night" (episode) aired on Sunday, January 11th and introduced the viewer to great detective Suguro Takeru. As you can guess from the summary I gave above, the whole plot of the original novel was relocated to Japan and instead of a funny Belgian with a mustache, we know have Suguro Takeru, a Japanese detective with a funny mustache. While all names have been changed to Japanese names, the new names are actually quite close to the original names (Boku instead of Bouc, Hirude instead of Hildegarde etc.). And while some might think that these kind of changes are always for the worse, but I think that last year's The Long Goodbye proved that it can work out perfect.

In fact, the first episode is too loyal to the original work and especially the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express. While the first episode is a pretty decent TV dramatization of the original story, it's almost impossible to detect Mitani's touch. Sure, there are the lush sets, the bright colors and the faces we've come to expect in a Mitani film (Nishida Toshiyuki, Satou Kouichi, Kobayashi Takashi and Yagi Akiko among others are familiar faces in Mitani movies). But almost everything, from the lines down to many of the camera angles and shots, seem to be inspired very much by the 1974 film adaptation starring Albert Finney. Nomura Mansai's Suguro Takeru (the Poirot substitute) is also very much like Finney's Poirot, down to the strange voice and occasionally weird expressions (though Suguro is even sillier than Finney's Poirot). In the end, I did not feel like this production did anything substantionally better than the 1974 film production it obviously was imitating. There's some good acting going on (like the 1974 film production, this TV special also features an all-star cast), but I was not a fan of Suguro himself (who was arguably the worst of the cast).


As a detective story, I still think Murder on the Orient Express is a very enjoyable story. Sure, the impact it had originally might have weakened a lot because the story is fairly well-known, but I still love the dialogues between the varied members of the cast, the way the investigation develops and the shocking truth revealed in the conclusion. It's a timeless story, I think, and I enjoyed it this time too, even after having experienced the story countless of times in all kinds of media.

Interesting was the fact that Murder on the Orient Express consisted out of two parts though: the first part is a complete adaptation of the novel and covers exactly the same ground the novel and the 1974 film did. So what was the second episode?
 
The second episode, which aired the following day on Monday, January 12th, is actually an inverted detective story and tells the complete story of Murder on the Orient Express the other way around, from the viewpoint of the murderer(s), starting with the motive and then all up to how the murder was prepared, committed and consequent happenings on the Touyou Express. It's a daring move, as I don't think there are many adaptations of mystery stories that suddenly change a 'normal' detective story in an inverted one.  Also, storywise it necessary has little to add to the story told in the first episode. but I thought this second episode was pretty decent. I can't say too much about it, because it would obviously spoil who's guilty of the murder in the Touyou Express and the set-up, but freed from the shackles of the original story and film, Mitani finally manages to sneak in a little of his own touch. A lot of Mitani's movies are about 'backstage' worlds: Radio no Jikan was about the production of a radio drama, The Uchouten Hotel about a hotel staff. So 'backstage' of a murder actually fits Mitani's interests quite well. It is definitely not the witty, chaotic comedy you usually associate with Mitani, but there are some heartwarming and funny scenes in there that are definitely Mitani, and still fit within the world of Murder on the Orient Express. The moments were Mitani and Christie both have a chance to do their thing at the same time are sadly enough quite rare, but those rare moments are definitely highlights. Also, I think that Mitani came up with better explanations for some of the events in Murder in the Orient Express than Christie did in the book, which are explained in this part.


I suspect that Mitani actually wanted only to do the second episode. Like I said, he has experience with 'backstage' stories, as well as inverted detective stories with Furuhata Ninzaburou, so I can totally imagine him proposing the inverted take on Murder on the Orient Express, only to be told by the higher-ups they want a 'normal' take of the story. So he then made two episodes.

The special has some great music tunes though and I was kinda surprised to see Kusabue Mitsuko in the role of Countess Todoroki (Princess Dragomiroff in the original): she often starred in Ichikawa Kon's Kindaichi Kousuke films. The overall production value is fairly good.

In the end, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in Mitani Kouki's Murder on the Orient Express. As a mystery story, I still enjoy it a lot, but the first episode is basically a copy of the 1974 film, with little new to add. Mitani's writing is nowhere to be seen and Suguro can be a bit irritating. The second episode on the other hand is highly original, being an inverted take on the story. It's here where he managed to add a bit of himself, but still, I have questions about the necessity of this episode, because most of the information given here, we already figured out in the (orthodox) first episode. The first episode is probably fun if you have not read the original novel or haven't watched the 1974 film, others can just skip to the second episode, I think.

Original Japanese title(s): Agatha Christie (原)、三谷幸喜(脚本) 『オリエント急行殺人事件』

2 comments :

  1. The 2010 version is great in direction and atmosphere. I have to check this one out to see how it compares.

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    1. Personally, I found the Suchet version a bit too heavy. This Japanese version is much closer to the 1974 film (also because director Mitani specializes in warm-hearted comedy).

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