Thursday, April 10, 2014

Forever my Destiny

途中で放り投げないように 私らしく行こう
『氷の上に立つように』 (小松未歩)

I will go on as myself so I won't toss them aside halfway through
Because I am living in the place I had been hoping for 
"Like Standing on Ice" (Komatsu Miho) 

You know what, all of my other posts on works written by Matsumoto Seichou started with me talking about the shakai-ha (social school) of detective fiction already, so let's skip that for a change.

The award-winning 1974 movie Suna no Utsuwa ("Vessel of Sand", also known as The Castle of Sand) is based on the same-titled novel by Matsumoto Seichou (available in English as Inspector Imanishi Investigates), directed by Nomura Yoshitarou. The police procedural starts with the discovery of a murdered man on some railtracks in Tokyo: some matches in the coat of the victim quickly brings Inspector Imanishi to a little bar, where the people remember having seen the victim with another, unknown man. They don't know who the two men were, nor where they came from, but they remember one little phrase that was said between the duo: kameda. With kameda as his only clue, Imanishi starts his investigation into the identity of the victim, which will bring him all across Japan.

The English translation of the original nove, Inspector Imanishi Investigates, was the first Matsumoto Seichou novel I ever read and I had quite some expectations for it, considering its reputation and its place in the canon of Japanese detective fiction. I was however quite disappointed by the second half of the book (with a ridiculous murder method that came out of nowhere), and I never felt really positive about the book in general. So what about this movie adaptation?

To start with the conclusion, I quite liked it. It was a lot better than the original novel (they changed that ridiculous second half murder!) and I can definitely understand why Suna no Utsuwa is considered one of the best mystery films of Japan.

The first two-thirds of the movie offer a great police procedural, where we follow Imanishi on his long journey to the truth. The story builds on post-war social changes like urban migration, but also (socio-)linguistic migration and dialects, fields that probably didn't interested me when I originally read the book, but I have done research on Japanese dialects and sociolinguistics in the meantime, so I actually loved it this time. The investigation is admittedly a bit slow and at times, and while not as bad as in the original novel, the story is only able to move forwards by sheer coincidence and luck, but it is definitely fun watching Imanishi slowly, but surely zeroing on the truth.

The movie is also fun to watch (in the meaning of a visual activity), because there are some great shots of the main island of Japan: Imanishi travels a lot all across Japan with the train, following every little hint he has, and we as the viewer are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that. Like Matsumoto Seichou's phenomenal Ten to Sen (Points and Lines), traveling by train plays a large part in this story, and it's great to actually be able to see it happen on the screen. In the same sense, the movie is also great to listen to: especially when the plot brings up Japanese dialects and accents; it's one thing to read it (and even more confusing, read it in an English translation), but to actually hear it...

The last hour of the movie is quite different from the original novel however. At this point, Imanishi has already solved the case, and he needs to explain the case once again in full, including the motive, to his fellow officers. What follows is a heartbreaking montage of the poor, cruel history of the murderer and what drove him to the murder, accompanied by the fantastic track Shukumei (destiny), effectively making the murderer one of the saddest persons in Japan's fictional crime history.... But only in the movie. In the novel, he only gets like six pages or so. Nomura Yoshitarou's emphasis on the murderer's backstory would later prove to be so influential, that a later TV adaptation of Suna no Utsuwa actually dropped the mystery-aspect of the story, and making it be all about the history of the murderer!

As a shakai-ha (social school) detective story, a theme strongly advocated by Matsumoto Seichou, the movie Suna no Utsuwa is a lot more powerful than the original novel, and in fact better than anything I've actually read by him. But I have to admit that it does feel a bit too heavy, and maybe a bit forced: about eighty minutes of the movie are spent doing a police procedural, and the remaining hour a very thorough explanation of the murderer's motives. Sad as they may be, it does make Suna no Utsuwa is a long movie though, clocking in at 143 minutes and the sudden change in tone halfway through does feel a bit strange.

Overall, I think Suna no Utsuwa is a great movie though. It might have gone slightly overboard with the tears and sadness and all in the second half, but I would say that Suna no Utsuwa surpasses the original novel at all points and definitely recommend watching this movie over reading the book. And that's not something I say often.

Original Japanese title(s):  松本清張(原) 『砂の器』


  1. It is my understanding that the English version of Inspector Imanishi Investigates was in fact severely abridged from the original Japanese. This might be the reason why you had a poor reading experience. If you have access to the original Japanese version you could check that out.

    1. I don't know whether the English version is abridged or not (don't seem like that going by the movie; but that's as far as I could remember the book), but the general concensus in Japan is also that this movie surpasses the original novel. The second half of the novel is just not as good as the movie, in terms of structure and plot.

      The part on linguistics might be more fun in the original text, but that's something that can't be helped, considering it's Japanese linguistics...

  2. I haven't seen the film, but I've read the book in Japanese. I don't know what the English translation leaves out, but the plotting of the original is a horrible mess, much like what you describe. It's hard to imagine what changes could make it worse. The odd second murder method gets introduced with an absurd clue, which is only a clue because the whole novel works on the principle that anything a policeman encounters in public or private life is relevant to the case they are working on (and that they know that they are living in that kind of novel). In a realistic novel like this it's also really incongruous, though I can imagine that it could work very nicely in a different sort of book.

    1. This is also why I think it's actually the /film/ which has embedded itself in the minds of the Japanese reader and not the original novel. A lot of people probably don't even know about the second murder method...