Mystery is probably the most difficult genre to to get right, whether it be on the printed page or on the movie screen. The ability to capture an audience's attention and keep them guessing while doling out bits of information (and sometimes disinformation) that will ultimately lead to a satisifying resolution to the mystery is a rare thing indeed. For a screenwriter and director the task of crafting a well-made film while also building up a keep-them-guessing storyline is a tough double duty and one that can so easily go wrong. If a lesser director tries to get ambitious with the mystery genre things can go disastrously wrong, but if done right it can be magic. A good example of a director taking on the mystery genre and succeeding (at least for the most part) is Yoshihiro Nakamura's screen adaptation of Kotaro Isaka's 2003 novel "The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker".
Now, writing a review of a mystery film is a difficult task in itself, so I'll proceed with caution here and try and not reveal any spoilers. "The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker" opens with Shiina (Gaku Hamada), a young man leaving his parental home for the first time to attend university in Sendai. Shiina's journey of self-discovery is fueled by the music of folk legend Bob Dylan, especially his song "Blowin' in the Wind". The song keeps playing in his head and he sings it to himself constantly. It's this that brings him to the attention of his new neighbor, Kawasaki (Eita) a fellow Dylan fanatic. Shiina gets invited into Kawasaki's spartan aprtment for a welcoming drunk and it's here that Shiina tells him about his other neighbor, an anti-social young man who shrugged off an introductory gift Shiina gave to him. Kawasaki tells him not to take it personally, that this young man (Kei Tamura) is named Dorje and he's from Bhutan. Dorje ended up dating Kawasaki's old girlfriend, Kotomi (Megumi Seki), and he's trying his best to learn Japanese. This is the point where Kawasaki's story gets very odd. He says that Dorje wants to know the difference between the Japanese words ahiru, "foreign duck" and kamo, "native duck". The only way he can do that is with a copy of the Kojien Dictionary, the Japanese equivalent of the Oxford Comprehensive Dictionary. Kawasaki asks Shiina if he wants to help him rob a bookstore with a pair of toy guns and steal a copy of the Kojien Dictionary for Dorje. Shiina is is rightly rattled by this first meeting, but is somehow convinced to join Kawasaki in his robbery.
Right away we empathize with Shiina, played with a wonderful innocence by Hamada. We know just as well as he does that something isn't right with Kawasaki, and the robbery of the bookstore is a very tense bit of filmmaking. It's what happens after that really has us twigging to the mystery at the heart of "The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker". Shiina runs into a woman named Reiko (Nene Otsuka), a woman Kawasaki has warned him is totally untrustworthy. She begins to tell him a different version of the story of Dorje and Kitomi, one that involves Kitomi discovering a trio of twisted teens who get off on torturing cats and dogs. Reiko's story also paints a picture of a Kawasaki who is a serial womanizer and HIV positive to boot. She tells Shiina to watch out for him, that he shouldn't be trusted and, what's even more mysterious, that Shiina has been brought into a series of events that he shouldn't be a part of. It's here that the true mystery and the eventual startling reveal of exactly what is going on and who Kawasaki really is begins.
Like I said, creating an effective mystery is a truly tough job, but Nakamura has an advantage in this task - he's adapting the work of one of Japan's most popular mystery authors. Kotaro Isaka has been showered with awards for his many quirky mystery novels including a Yoshikawa Eiji Bungaku Shinjin Prize for "The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker". In fact Nakamura and Isaka have formed quite the creative partnership in the past few years with Nakamura adapting three of Isaka's novels to the screen - 2009's "Fish Story" and 2010's "Golden Slumber". Not since Yoshitaro Nomura, who adapted eight of the novels of mystery author Seicho Matsumoto, has their been a director in Japan who has dedicated so much time to working from one single writer's work. The problem creeps up when the source novels play with the mystery genre to the degree that Isaka's do. When someone hear's "mystery movie" they expect that it begins with a body being found, a detective being called in, suspects being rounded up and subjected to a serious grilling. The detective then dazzles with some brilliant deductive reasoning and the mystery is tied up neatly. That simply isn't how Isaka's work goes though, and it certainly isn't the kind of mystery that we have with "The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker". All I can say is that many of the genre devices are intact in the book and in Nakamura's film, but they are assembled in a way that most of us arten't used to seeing. Of course this can only be a good thing, right? Well, yes... in theory.
I am not going to say that the "The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker" is a bad film or an unsuccessful mystery. Actually I'd say the exact opposite. It's a film that delivers a complex, heartbreaking and original story and the pay off is indeed satisfying, but I think those that like their mysteries sitting neatly in their genre slots may have problems with the film. I went into "Foreign Duck/ Native Duck" entirely free of spoilers and with very little knowledge of the film, and for half its running length I wasn't entirely sure what I was watching. While I knew something wasn't quite right I didn't know where the story was going and if it wasn't for the performances of Eita, Nene Otuska and especially Gaku Hamada I may have lost interest. Once we got a different view of Kawasaki and the true mystery began to gel though I was hooked. Sadly in this day and age when peoples' attention spans are so short you can only hope that such a creative and complex mystery can find an audience, especially in North American. I sincerely hope so.