[Edit 2014.6.15: Added the trailer for this film at the end of this article.]
Gray fluorescence fills a phone booth as bleakly as gray dusk outside. A pale-faced middle-aged man talks into a receiver in a rather frustrated tone: No, I can’t come home tonight. I will be away for a while. How about kids? Are they good? Bye bye. He hangs up the phone. He steps out of the booth into incessant high-pitch noise outside. Above him, the brooding gray sky silently pushes him into the noises of Tokyo. It is the last day of his life.
Me No Kabe (Eye’s Wall) begins with the suicide of a meek middle-aged businessman, Sekino. His company was short of cash to pay the bills and salaries, so the executives assigned him to raise money in any way possible. Because it is about tens of millions of yens, the banks were reluctant and other loan houses couldn’t raise it in a day. He stumbled upon the offer of back-door loan scheme from one of the prestigious bank director. Sekino’s executives approved of it in the face of emergency, and entrusted him a note of thirty million yen loan. It was a fraud. A con man impersonated the bank director, who took the note and disappeared. The corporate lawyer says, “If you go to the police, the company will lose all the credit and possibly business. I advise you guys swallow this poison and forget about it.” Sekino felt responsible. He felt his inconsiderate action damaged the company greatly. He took his own life.
This is the story of a young man, Hagino, who ventured into the dark side of Japanese society, to solve the mystery of this fraud. Who are they? Why? Sekino left a letter to his associate, Hagino, explaining the incident in detail. Hagino, though a hopeful businessman, decided to investigate this crime amateurishly, with a help of his news reporter friend. Every time he discovers a new truth, he sinks deeper into the darkness. And every corner he turns, there is another dead body.
You may call this a Japanese film noir. Its world is filled with shady characters, dark passions and psychopaths. Violent males and femme fatals. Twisted motivations and romanticism. It is awkwardly brooding, claustrophobic, devilishly dark, sometimes suffocating. Hagino is too much of an amateur, too uninteresting, too serious, and too obsessed with the mystery woman of the dark side.
The narrative mostly follows Hagino’s point of view. This provides us viewers with a lot of clues, evidences, suggestions, and other leads to the mystery along the way. In some cases, the camera stresses these visual cues, like the method of murder, or criminal’s whereabouts, to the point that they are too obvious. However, Hagino remains unaware of these clues or simply forgets about them. This delay in narrative structure, – the protagonist doesn’t know what the viewers know – becomes frustrating to some viewers. This delay did make Hagino look like a fool in the last half an hour or so. In one sense, it might have been to underscore that Hagino is an amateur sleuth, but narratively, it was a bit of overkill.
The director of the film, Hideo Ooba, is known for his melodramas and programmers during forties and fifties. Apart from the flaw described above, it is a solid, economical direction, with no frills. Some may find it rather lacking in originality, but his style does fit into this dry, witless world. But the real winner of this film is cinematography. It is one of the best I have ever seen in Japanese B&W films. Captured by Yuuharu Atuta, the tormented landscape of the postwar Japan is so violently vivid and cruel. In many scenes, visuals tell more stories. For that alone, this film should be placed among the pantheon of Japanese film noirs.
Me no Kabe (眼の壁, 1958)
Directed by Hideo Ooba
Written by Hajime Takaiwa, Based on the novel by Seicho Matsumoto of the same title
Cinematography by Yuuharu Atsuta
Starring Keiji Sata, Yachiyo Ootori, Shinji Takano, Yukiji Asaoka
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