12 November 2010

Murder (殺人, 1964)

Sherlock Holmes needs only to consider the clues to solve the crime.
Makoto Wada’s short animation Murder (殺人/Satsujin, 1964) was screened at the 1st Animation Festival at Sōgetsu Hall in September 1964 alongside films by the Animation Sannin no Kai, Osamu Tezuka, and Tadanari Yokoo. The film proved to be such a hit with his peers that he was awarded the prestigious Noburō Ōfuji Award at the 19th Mainichi Film Concours in 1965.

Makoto Wada (和田誠, b. 1936) is a graphic designer, illustrator, essayist and film director. In addition to this he belongs to the first generation of artists who made experimental animation following in the footsteps of the Sannin no Kai (Yoji Kuri, Hiroshi Manabe and Ryohei Yanagihara).

In Murder, Wada uses cutouts drawn with marker on paper to create a simple but effective comedic send-up of genre films. Wada passion for the cinema is well known and a recurring theme in his art – some of my favourite paintings by Wada are his tributes to cinema’s greats like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (See examples of his tributes to European cinema here).

Murder is divided into seven vignettes that each begin the same way: a cleaning woman walks to the door of a room and knocks on it. Cut to a close-up of her face, her mouth and eyes wide with horror, and violins screeching in imitation of a woman’s scream. Cut to an interior shot of an empty room and the camera zooming in on a man lying on his back on the floor with a dagger in his chest and blood spilling from the wound onto the floor. This is followed by a title card that reads “Murder!”, cue music. Each of the seven vignettes uses a different style of graphic design on the title card, and each has its own ndividual theme music scored by Masao Yagi (八木正生, 1932-1991 – he did the music for Ashita no Joe) to indicate which genre is being spoofed.
The first scenario is a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery (image at top of post). Recognizable by his pipe and deerstalker hat, the detective arrives on the scene and manages to deduce who the murderer is by putting together on a handful of clues.
Poirot only needs a newspaper and a cigar to solve murder mysteries.
The second scenario features a detective with a curly moustache à la Hercule Poirot. He reads about the murder in the newspaper and manages to solve the mystery just by sitting in his armchair and puffing away on his cigar. Each puff of smoke turns into a thought bubble with a clue in it, until he compiles enough clues to solve the crime.
Sam Spade doesn't even need to remove his hands from his trenchcoat pockets.
The third scenario features a Sam Spade private eye who not only examines the scenes but begins to question people beginning with the maid. Wearing a fedora and with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his trenchcoat and sporting a Humphrey Bogart demeanor, the gag in this scenario is the great lengths he goes to in order to question the most unlikeliest of people – the most vital piece of information is of course imparted by a bartender as the Spade character enjoys a tipple.
Garlic and crucifix will wrap this case up.
From here on out, the scenarios get more and more unlikely and thereby more and more hilarious. In the fourth scenario, a man in a nineteenth century style top hat appears at the murder scene to investigate. The murdered man suddenly opens his eyes and reveals that he is a vampire and the investigator destroys him with garlic and a crucifix.
Since when does 007 solve petty murder mysteries? LOL
Each scenario gets more and more outlandish - such as the sci-fi spoof.
This is followed by a James Bond spoof, where the joke is the random women who appear that do nothing to progress the plot, and then a sci-fi take on the murder mystery. The pièce de résistance for the arty film buffs  is the final scenario: “Murder for the art theatre” which is shot entirely in black and white – a kind of murder mystery à la Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961).
Murder for the art theatre involves a random, but artistically intriguing romance.
The of changing hats to indicate character types reminded of that hilarious scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1928) when Buster Keaton’s father takes him to buy a new hat – each hat that Keaton tries on is associated with silent stars of the day and he rejects them all – including the trademark porkpie hat.  Like Steamboat Bill, Jr., Murder does not tell us who each of the main protagnists are in the vignettes - we as an audience are meant to work this out ourselves by reading the genre clues given to us in the costumes and props.  Although the genres that are spoofed are not all necessarily from the silent era, the animation is presented like a silent movie, with title cards and music used to impart additional story information.  I am not sure how widely screened this film was at international festivals in the 1970s, but while watching it myself I was struck by the idea that Wada’s brilliant short film has just the sort of  toying-with-the-audience humour that would have amused Alfred Hitchcock.

The next Noburō Ōfuji Award will be awarded at the Mainichi Film Concours in February.  I am working on a retrospective look back at past winners along with some guessing as to who might win it for this year.  I am  on a personal mission to watch all the previous winners during the coming year and to report on them here. on the blog. I already have a head start having seen all the films by Tezuka, Taku Furukawa, Yoji Kuri, Tadanari Okamoto, and Kihachiro Kawamoto (but I have yet to write about them all on the blog).  I have written about some before: The Magic Ballad, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, and The Chair.  A few may be difficult to track down - like an affordable copy of Takashi Yanase's Yasashi Lion - but I've always liked a challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

Check out these feature films directed by Makoto Wada:
Mahjong Hourouki / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie
Mayonaka Made / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

Works featuring Wada's illustrations:
All My Loving 1966 Nen no Beatles / Naruko Iwase
Naruko Iwase
Shinya Kokontei Rakugo Zenshu / Shinya Kokontei
Shinya Kokontei

This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.