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Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2002

A musical mystery tour, coming to take you away

Mokuyo Kumikyoku

Rating: * * * 1/2
Japanese title:
Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Films about women -- and for women -- are enjoying something of a boom now, in spite of the derisive "chick flick" label. They are also diversifying beyond the cliched righteous sisterly bonding stories of the past. One is Francois Ozon's "Eight Women," which is essentially an Agatha Christie murder mystery set to music. Another, recently reviewed in this space, is Hideyuki Hirayama's "Out," a black comedy about three women who help a friend dispose of the abusive husband she accidentally killed. Bonding does occur, but with a reluctance that is both realistic and hilarious.

News photo
Naomi Nishida, Tokiko Kato, Kyoka Suzuki, Mieko Harada and Yasuko Tomita in "Mokuyo Kumikyoku"

Still another is "Mokuyo Kumikyoku (Suite de Jeudi)," Tetsuo Shinohara's new film about five women who gather to remember a deceased writer who was a mentor and friend. But what begins as a reprise of "The Big Chill" turns in another direction entirely when the women realize that the cause of death may not have been suicide -- as they had thought -- but murder. They decide to stay in the writer's house until they find an answer, or at least a suspect.

At this stage, I expected the bodies to start falling as accusations flew and the mental gears spun. In other words, for the film to become another Agatha Christie-ish locked-in-a-room mystery. I was wrong, but not disappointed. Working from a novel by Riku Onda and a script by Sumio Omori, Shinohara has made a complex drama of admiration and envy, trust and betrayal, pride and ultimate defeat.

"Mokuyo Kumikyoku" is almost all talk, but it is smart, passionate and, at times, intriguingly devious talk, by some of the best actresses now in Japanese films. (If the names Mieko Harada, Kyoka Suzuki, Yasuko Tomita, Naomi Nishida and Ruriko Asaoka don't ring a bell, they should.) There are moments of laughter and terror, but few moments that are simply dead air.

The film's story is what the Japanese call doro doro, which literally means "muddy" but describes the sediment of feelings that accumulate in any long-term relationship. Melodrama usually stirs up this sediment in Japanese films, as the principals rage and tear at each other for offenses imagined and real. By contrast, the characters in "Mokuyo Kumikyoku" barely raise their voices -- but their barbs are all the sharper for it.

The problem of "Mokuyo" is that of all films about writers. When the women tell us how wonderfully talented the departed sensei was, we have little choice but to take them at their word. Asaoka is suitably imperious and difficult as the sensei Tokiko Shigemura, but for the audience her novels remain closed books. Thus the initial suspicion that her five survivors may be making a mountain out of a literary molehill. However, they dispel that suspicion when they reveal themselves as, not members of a cult, but literary professionals with mixed feelings about both Tokiko and her work. In yet another realistic touch, they are also competitors of their dear departed sensei.

Eriko (Suzuki) is a nonfiction writer; Tsukasa (Nishida), a literary novelist; Naomi (Tomita), a mystery novelist; Shizuko (Harada), an essayist; and Eiko (Tokiko Kato), Tokiko's long-time editor and literary executor, living in Tokiko's house as a caretaker. They were at dinner together the Thursday night Tokiko killed herself with poison, and in the four years since, have gathered annually on that day to reminisce and try to resolve their feelings about her untimely end.

This year, however, something happens to jar them out of their mood of reverie and regret: A delivery boy arrives with a bouquet from a certain Mr. Fujishiro, with a message implying that Tokiko's death was not as it seemed and that all of them are implicated in the crime.

Is this a sick joke, or does the mysterious Mr. Fujishiro know something they don't? The women start spinning conjectures, while hesitating to fling accusations. Three of them, Eiko and Eriko excepted, are related to Tokiko by blood, while Eriko is Shizuko's cousin, adding family ties to the mix. All save Eiko were disciples of the dead writer to varying degrees, though as writers in different fields, they don't vie with each other directly. They also don't want to destroy their bonds of friendship -- without good reason, that is. For much of the first half of the film, they tiptoe carefully around the elephant in the room: that one or more of them might be murderers.

Perhaps I shouldn't say more, save that the story takes a sharp twist midway, one that, in retrospect, makes perfect sense. There is an element of the bizarre in this development that Dame Christie herself would have admired, I think. It adds the right frisson of fear, while launching the film toward its surprise conclusion.

A Hollywood rewrite would have added more such developments, while throwing in a tearful breakdown or two. Omori's script may be too low-key to inspire a Hollywood remake, but is true to the dynamics of this group of women, all of whom have strong personalities and are good with words -- weasel and otherwise.

Nishida is particularly strong as the baby-faced Tsukasa, who speaks her mind with disconcerting frankness -- and keeps the proceedings from becoming too sedate. Suzuki also stands out as the cigarette-smoking skeptic Eriko, who is tougher-minded than the rest about Tokiko's failings. Playing Tokiko's half-sister, who agonizes over her responsibility for Tokiko's demise, Harada burns with nervous energy, but never descends to hysterics. As the sweetly smiling, soft-spoken Naomi, Tomita at first fades into the background, but emerges with a show of spunk. The oldest and the only non-actor of the group, singer Kato is appropriately reserved as Eiko, the woman who guards Tokiko's memory, including her secrets.

As a cinematic suite, "Mokuyo Kumikyoku" makes intelligent, absorbing music -- on any day of the week.

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