I have to start off this review by saying that Yoshitaro Nomura's 1961 film "Zero Focus" looms very large for me. It is probably one of my favorite mystery movies of all time and after watching it I was left dumbfounded that Nomura as a director and this film in particular hadn't been elevated higher into the canon of Japanese cinema. So there, I've said it, and my love for "Zero Focus" is what made me pick up Nomura's 1974 film "Castle of Sand" without knowing anything about it, and while it may not have topped my experience with "Zero Focus" it's still an absolute top notch film that has a lot in common with its predecessor.
Like "Zero Focus" it's based on a novel by Akutagawa Prize winning mystery author Seichō Matsumoto and follows Detective Eitaro Imanishi, played by the inimitable Tetsuro Tamba, as he and junior detective Hiroshi Yoshimura investigate the murder of an unidentified man. Found in a Tokyo rail yard the unidentified victim is in his mid-60's, slim build, wearing a grey suit, cause of death a blow to the head by a brick or some other heavy object. Based on the eye witness account of a barmaid who saw the victim sharing a drink with a younger man a couple hours before he died Imanishi and Yoshimura begin a search that will have them criss-crossing the entire country with only two tenuous leads: the unidentified victim was speaking in the dialect of the Tohoku region of Japan and he repeatedly mentioned the word "kameda". Could "kameda" be a a name? Could it, as Imanishi believes, be a place? The two detectives weigh all their options, exhaust all possible scenarios, but even when the victim is identified as a Mr. Kenichi Miki by his adopted son things don't become any clearer. Why would a mild mannered grocer on a trip to Ise Shrine end up murdered in Tokyo ? And what does a bar hostess seen throwing fistfuls of squares of white fabric out a train window and a fanous composer named Eiryo Waga (Go Kato) have to do with the case? I often jot down character's names and plot points while I watch films to make the task of writing about them a bit easier, but while I sat writing down details of the murder of Kenichi Miki and all the twists and turns that occur in "Castle of Sand" I started to feel like a detective myself and that's what makes the film so great. Many jaded moviegoers can see where a murder mystery is going within the first 15 minutes, but I can assure you that I was just as surprised as Tamba's character, Detective Imanishi was everytime a new piece of evidence or a new lead came to light. And the conclusion of the film features a breathtaking return to silent filmmaking as Nomura ties everything together wonderfully and with nearly no dialogue, simply action and music. That's great filmmaking.
Many of the behind the scenes players of "Castle of Sand" also worked on "Zero Focus": both Shinobu Hashimoto and Yoji Yamada (yes, that Yoji Yamada) returned to write the screenplay, cinematographer Takashi Kawamata was behind the camera, and of course Nimura again adapted a Matsumoto work, in fact it was the fourth of their eight collaborations. With all that in common it's hard not to draw comparisons between the two films. Both have the audience jumping on and off trains following the search for a missing person or suspect, and both lead us into secrets from the past that could prove tragic if they become known. I'd love to explain more, but to go into a detailed point by point comparison would absolutely spoil the ride and that's the last thing I want to do here.
Suffice to say that " Castle of Sand " is a great film, and in some ways I'm sorry that Nomura's "Zero Focus" had such an impact on me. I'm sure that had I seen " Castle of Sand " first that it would have ended up being my favorite... or maybe I'll be able to make room for both in my list of favorite mysteries. Hopefully you will to.