Posted by David Kalat on March 31, 2012
Agatha Christie aficionados and detective fiction fans take note: Behind the deceptively bland title The Inugami Family lies a superb pulp mystery of the highest order–a cinematic classic that won awards, influenced a generation, and remains as thrilling today as when it was made. Those of you who are inspired by this blog to rush out and track down an import DVD of this gem for yourself will discover that in fact, two movies with the exact same title, the same cast and makers, and pretty much the same running time and content exist. Which makes telling the two apart a rather challenging task, to the newbie. As with Detour recently, we are here to discuss a slavishly literal remake, only this time it’s a remake, thirty years to the day later, from the same director. And therein lies our tale…
First, a few words on the subject of remakes.
I loves ‘em.
When I read “a remake of…”, those words alone are a mantra compelling me to watch. Scarcely any other words function as a thoroughly effective come-on (although “… of the Apes” or “starring Ginger Rogers” are on the short list. When I get my time machine, one of the first things I’m going to do is travel back to 1935 and produce “Dance of the Apes,” in which Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire find love in a dystopian future).
But I know I’m in something of a minority when it comes to this. The prevailing opinion on remakes these days falls somewhere into two camps: the “it’s good business to make movies with built-in name recognition” camp, which is fairly cynical attitude but one which has taken deep root in the studio mentality. The other side is the “remakes are creatively bankrupt raiding of other people’s creativity” camp, which is also rather unfairly dogmatic. I’d like to stake out my own third space, predicated on the idea that, ahem, what makes a movie tick is not limited to its story.
In fact, I don’t much care what a movie is about—Citizen Kane is a great movie for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with whether I want to watch a fictionalized biography of a media mogul (not much), and by the same token Penn and Teller Get Killed is a frustrating misfire for reasons that have nothing to do with how much I want to watch a movie about smart aleck magicians pulling elaborate pranks on each other (a lot).
When I ran All Day Entertainment, one of my policies was to avoid giving plot synopses in the back cover blurbs—I used that space to talk about historical relevance, artistic style, aesthetic issues, etc. A good movie can be about any subject, and some excellent movies don’t have much in the way of story at all.
Remakes allow one to focus on those other issues—you can take your eyes off the plot, because its familiar, and savor the nuances of technique and approach. And the great thing about approaching remakes in this way is that it makes the viewing experience rewarding regardless of whether you actually like both movies. A crappy remake can enhance your appreciation of the original, and a great one can too. It’s win-win.
We saw this last time, with Detour. The 1992 Detour was so desperate to pay fealty to the original that it failed to establish its own identity, but in that failing it helped distinguish what an achievement Ulmer’s original really was, to spin such gold from such threadbare resources.
And this brings us to the Inugamis—a brace of well-appointed Japanese thrillers that are almost indistinguishable from each other in the details, but the more alike they are the more different they are in effect.
Let’s begin with the original:
The plot of this gloriously macabre detective thriller is far too complicated to summarize here without spoiling it, but suffice it to say it begins with a death and goes downhill from there. Pharmaceutical tycoon and tyrannical womanizer Sahei Inugami dies after a life lived hard, leaving behind a brood of fractious, in-fighting daughters and grandsons all with a greedy eye on his sizable estate. The reading of the will is an exercise in emotional manipulation from beyond the grave: the late Mr. Inugami has instructed his lawyer not to proceed until the entire family has been gathered, and only then will he reveal that the estate is in fact being left not to any of his bloodline but to an unrelated young woman named Tamayo. Snap!
The bizarre convolutions and passive insults of the will provide ample motivation for just about anyone to go on a murder spree, so when indeed the bodies start piling up, (no surprise here) everyone’s a suspect. Whoever the killer is, he’s been watching a lot of Dario Argento, and has decided that just plain killing isn’t nearly enough—why not stage the murders in the most outrageous and theatrical way possible?
The situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the Inugami clan is possibly not whom he claims—the eldest grandson Sukekiyo was evidently disfigured in WWII and has returned without his face, or much of his identity. He skulks around like a zombie, hidden behind a Fantomas-like mask, and even though all the forensic science in the world affirms his identity, the family cannot shake the feeling there’s something wrong with the boy.
(Recognize the clip? I ran it a couple of months ago in a different blog entry. Having mentioned The Inugami Family out loud, it was like a magical incantation that took hold of me, and I couldn’t shake it. I’m giving in to the urge this week in hopes of exorcising this film’s hold on my imagination)
There are too many puzzles here for the beseiged Inugamis to sort out on their own—luckily there’s a down-on-his-luck detective staying at the local inn, and he’s been paying very close attention to the details everyone else is missing.
Director Kon Ichikawa brings this material to life with a delicious blend of historical detail and 1970s-era trippy style, mixing giallo-like violence, gothic atmosphere, wacka-wacka music, New Age experimental editing techniques, and the quiet contemplation of a Japanese garden. It is a cinematic bento box of seemingly contradictory elements brought together in perfect harmony.
The film is almost a mathematical puzzle—there are three sisters from three different mothers who raised three sons to protect three treasures, inspiring three murderous attacks on Inugami’s chosen heir. At the same time there are two masked men, two secret offspring, and a pattern of murders committed and then subsequently restaged. Every detail of this glorious film is carefully chosen and refined, a masterwork by one of cinema’s great artists.
That artist’s name is Kon Ichikawa.
Since The Inugami Family, one of his most popular and famous works, isn’t easy to see over here, I have to assume that you may not have heard of his other movies either. During the heyday of Akira Kurosawa and other arthouse Japanese directors, Ichikawa made a name for himself as a visionary artist of catholic tastes, who could bring grand cinematic style to adaptations of great literature and adapt himself to almost any assignment. He is on record as saying that he was perfectly content to make whatever movie his producers asked of him. He was already a venerable figure by the mid-1970s, when the next character in our story appears.
To describe Haruki Kadokawa, imagine a blend of Donald Trump, Richard Branson, and Lex Luthor—and then imagine he ran a major media empire. Kadokawa Publishing made the bestselling books, and Kodokawa Films turned ‘em into big budget crowd-pleasing blockbusters. At least that was the idea—Kadokawa’s reach would exceed his grasp for many years, but he continued to throw money at the problem until he got the balance right. Luckily he hit a home run on his first at-bat, and the enormous popular success of The Inugami Family kept his quixotic venture afloat through some tumultuous years as he dialed in his approach.
One of Kadokawa’s top-selling authors was detective novelist Seishi Yokozimo, especially Yokozimo’s series about private detective Kosuke Kindaichi—a Columbo-like guy whose rumpled, dandruff-addled appearance and social maladroitism lead others to underestimate his keen intellect and attention to detail. The most popular Kindaichi tale, The Inugami Family, has since become regular fodder for TV adaptations, as much a go-to mystery title for the Japanese as Hound of the Baskervilles is here.
In 1976, the pieces came together: Kadokawa’s maiden venture into film production would be an adaptation of Yokozimo’s The Inugami Family, directed by the old master Kon Ichikawa. Koji Ishizaka took the role of Kindaichi and made it his own—Ichikawa and Ishizaka collaborated on four additional Kindaichi mysteries over the years to come. It won awards around the world, thrilled audiences, and was esteemed by the Kinema Jumpo critics as one of Japan’s greatest films.
Haruki Kadokawa himself fell into scandal and went to prison for drug trafficking; his empire was carved up into constituent companies. A new generation of filmmakers revived the moribund Japanese industry, led in part by Taka Ichise, a producer with uncannily accurate commercial instincts. On the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of The Inugami Family, he asked Ichikawa how he felt about making a remake.
Ichikawa was at the time ninety years old. He had earned a quiet life. But after reviewing the 1976 classic on DVD, he decided to take Ichise’s offer. Exactly why he did so, I cannot say. Ichikawa himself said he was inspired by improvements in special effects techniques—and if you’ve got a movie about severed heads and faceless soldiers, the opportunity to upgrade to CGI realism could well seem tempting. The thing of it is, though, that although this is what Ichikawa said, that is not what he then did—if anything, the crude and sloppy effects of the remake are pretty embarrassing. Frankly, the effects were better in the 1976 original.
What then was the point of the remake? Ichikawa had every reason to believe that all of his creative choices had been spot-on the first time around, so he can be excused for choosing to keep pretty much all of them intact. The 2006 remake is a respectful update, photocopying even the smallest details and camera angles. None of the characterizations or plot developments have been dropped, and the remake shaves about ten minutes off the epic running time simply by speeding up transitions. If the story calls for, let’s say, a crazed Inugami kid to drug Tamayo and try to date-rape her, then the remake skips over all the tedious shots of him dragging her to an abandoned hospital.
When you think of directors remaking their own films, the gold standard must be Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. By contrast, Ichikawa’s 2006 Inugami is more along the lines of Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho—a remake that re-imagines nothing. In fact, he’s even gone to the bother of bringing back some of the original cast, most of whom play the same roles as before—and more or less mimic their original performances.
Ishizaka returns as Kindaichi, and he is joined by other returning cast members: Takeshi Kato as the bumbling police chief and Hideji Otaki as a Shinto priest, while Mitsuko Kusabue and Miki Sanjo take new roles in the remake. Behind the scenes, Chizuko Osada again serves as editor (but with a tamer style than he had in his youth), and some of Yuji Ono’s music from the original version has been reprised (although not enough—Ono’s soundtrack to the 1976 version is one of its strongest and most memorable attributes).
The new version is a fine film, but a bafflingly unnecessary one. The whole experience is like an aging rock band obliged to cover their hits on tour, just going through the motions for appreciative fans decades later.
(But as I’ve said before–the movie rocks, and if all you can find is the remake, don’t skip over it in some fit of principle. Prefer the 1976 original if you have a choice, but welcome this movie into your life one way or another).
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