Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Trouble in Triplicate

"The thief," said G., is the Minister D--, who dares all things, those unbecoming as well as those becoming a man. The method of the theft was not less ingenious than bold. The document in question --a letter, to be frank --had been received by the personage robbed while alone in the royal boudoir.
"The Purloined Letter"

In case you haven't seen it yet: the Ellery Queen television series is really good!

The Karazawa family is an upper-class family in the provincial town of Hagi in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, consisting of father Mitsumasa (a local banker), his wife Sumie and their three beautiful daughters Reiko, Noriko and Keiko. One day, they are visited by a distant relative: Robert "Bob" Fujikura is the grandson of Mitsumasa's older sister living in the United States. Bob is travelling across Japan to further his studies in Asian History. Bob is welcomed into the family, and is offered to stay in the furnished home originally built for Noriko and her to-be husband Toshiyuki. Noriko had been engaged with this bank employee of Mitsumasa, but he suddenly went away three years ago, leaving Noriko an emotional wreck. Soon after Bob's arrival, Toshiyuki re-appears again in town, and while the rest of the family is naturally quite angry with Toshiyuki, Noriko is thrilled to have him back in her life again. The two swiftly decide they still love each other and that they should marry at once. After a honeymoon in Europe, the two move into the house originally built for them (Bob is offered a room in the main house). One day however, Noriko comes across three undelivered letters written by Toshiyuki, hidden away inside a book, and the contents greatly startle her. When Keiko and Bob take a look too, they realize the letters seem to hint at some plot by Toshiyuki to murder his wife. The two can hardly believe it, but they decide to keep an eye all the same, but despite their precautions, the cousins are unable to prevent a deadly poisoning during a party in the 1979 film Haitatsu Sarenai Santsuu no Tegami ("The Three Undelivered Letters").

And if this summary sounds familiar despite the names, you have probably read Ellery Queen's novel Calamity Town, as this movie is indeed an official film adaptation of the Queen novel, directed by Nomura Yoshitarou, who did many mystery novel-to-film adaptations back then (I myself have only seen his Suna no Utsuwa and the 1977 film adaptation of Yatsu Haka Mura). Like I mentioned in my review of the novel, Calamity Town is considered to rank among the best Queen has written in some circles, though personally, I disagree greatly. As a mystery story, I think it's far too limited, simple and unimaginative compared to the other (earlier) output of Queen and while it does a good job at presenting the fictional locale of Wrightsville as a true living town, that's hardly enough to make it an interesting tale of detection. But I did note in the same review that "there is a Japanese film based on this book (...) which is supposedly quite good, though I haven't seen it yet. Considering that Nomura has done a ton of mystery films emphasizing human drama with a larger society backdrop (a lot of Matsumoto Seichou film adaptations for example), the choice for Calamity Town is an understandable one though."

Ultimately, I'd say Haitatsu Sarenai Santsuu no Tegami is a very competent, and faithful adaptation of the source material. Sure, there's the major change in background setting, with the whole story being set in the provincial town of Hagi and the writer Ellery being replaced by Bob who speaks ridiculously accented Japanese, but the core mystery plot is left completely intact. I'd say the truly major difference between the original novel and this film is that the film shows very little of the town and its people: while not surprising, the movie decides to focus completely on the core Karazawa family and its members to emphasize the human drama there, rather than spending the film's limited runtime to showing how the people around them react. This is also the difference between the characters of Ellery, who came as an outsider to the Wright family, and Bob, who may be an outsider, but is (mostly) treated as a family member. Noriko is at the center of the drama, who starts out as emotionally dead, becomes thrilled and alive again when Toshiyuki returns, but turns terrified once she's found the letters, and her ever-changing state of mind also has its effect on Keiko and Bob, who work together in secret to help Noriko.

I said most of what I wanted to say about the core plot in my review of the book, so I'd recommend you to take a look there, but I do have to say the film can be very slow due to the source material. I mean, the movie is just over two hours long, but I believe it takes around ninety minutes before the deadly incident occurs. So a lot of time is spent on characterization and fleshing out the human drama and setting up the incident. Sure, a detective story does need set-up and foreshadowing and things like that, but if you want a mystery film that focuses on a detective plot, this is not the place for you. In that respect, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsuu no Tegami is really a lot like the original novel. Many praise the novel for its characterization, especially in comparison to Queen's earlier output, but personally, I find the scale of the core mystery plot too small, and that's something you also notice in this movie. In the novel, it took Ellery months to realize something about the death which seemed very out of character. Fortunately, we don't have series detectives in this movie, and the timeline of the movie is also compressed a lot (it doesn't span months), so things do feel a bit more natural? or less contrived as it seemed so unlikely in the original novel nobody would ever think of that one slip-up they made in such a long time.

Haitatsu Sarenai Santsuu no Tegami is thus a faithful and well-made adaptation of the source material. However personally I was not a fan of the original novel, and obviously, this film didn't change much about my opinion of it. If you're a fan of Calamity Town however, I can definitely recommend this movie, as it's pretty good. I do know there's also a Japanese television drama adaptation of The Tragedy of Y, which may be a lot more interesting than this film

Original Japanese title(s): 『配達されない三通の手紙』


  1. By "the Ellery Queen television series" do you mean the 1975-76 one, or is there a Japanese Ellery Queen series that's broadcasting now?

    If the former, there's a full episode on YouTube (complete with 1970s ads) called "Adventure of the Sinister Scenario" and I watched it just now. I've only read one Queen novel (Ten Days' Wonder) and man, is the TV Ellery far more charming than the one in that book! Must be the good looks. A good twist, with a charming "Challenge to the Reader". I'm honestly besotted by Ellery's actor. 5/5

    1. Yeah, I meant the Hutton series. While Ellery goes through several phases throughout the novels too, the TV Ellery is a unique interpretation and probably the most likeable of all Ellery's. While only one episode (and one pilot) were based on the original stories, the scripts written for the show are all really great, so the episode you saw was definitely not just a lucky shot.