Death at an Old Mansion (1975) by Yoichi Takabayashi

Famed detective Kousuke Kindaichi faces an intellectually challenging mystery in this locked-room crime thriller based on the book “The Honjin Murders” by Seishi Yokomizo. On the wedding night of Kenzo Ichiyanagi (Takahiro Tamura) with his beautiful bride Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara) they are found dead in a locked outside room, a bloodied katana stuck in the ground outside and a bloody trail of finger marks down one wall. Inspector Isogawa (Eishin Tono) arrives and soon concludes that the killer may be a three-fingered vagrant who appears to bear a grudge against Kenzo. When a friend of the family, Kosuke Kindaichi (Akira Nakao), arrives he turns his attention to the case and soon finds a series of peculiar clues that lead him to a shocking conclusion.

Director Yoichi Takabayashi creates a respectful cinematic version of Seishi Yokomizo’s classic mystery tale. The film follows the traditional whodunnit pattern, and the plot of the novel, with a large cast of characters, including Kenzo’s sister Suzuko (Junko Takazawa) and brother Saburo (Akira Nitta); and Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo (Kunio Kaga). The early scenes of the wedding feast are packed with intrigue, with suspicious glances and tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Takabayashi does a great job with misdirecting the viewer with red herrings before revealing the ingenious, if somewhat improbable, solution to the case. The film leans into the gruesomeness of the crime, with a gory murder scene and brutal slaying. It also relies on flashbacks to the slaying and recreations of what the characters imagined happens. These sepia-toned segments, shorn of dialogue, are a fun way to show the various theories surrounding the deaths of Kenzo and Katsuko.

“Death at an Old Mansion” will appeal to fans of old-school detective tales, with a fun combination of Isogawa’s well-meaning inspector and Kindaichi’s unconventional approach to solving the mystery. The performance by Akira Nakao as the improbable genious detective shows us an ever-active mind, focus trained on minor details that always turn out to be the key to some new revelation. There is also a dark, morbid undertone to the story, which largely keeps the spotlight on the particulars of solving the case. This is achieved through the creative elements such as the occasional shots of the two koto strings ringing in the rain; and also Junko Takazawa’s characterisation of Suzuko, whose fey and childlike character seems to be somehow tenuously balanced between the worlds of the living and the dead. The film does a great job of sticking to the original story, while also embossing it with creative direction, use of colour and artistic elements that evoke a deeper emotional connection to the victims.

Poem (1972) by Akio Jissoji

Jun (Saburo Shinoda) is a young man working for the wealthy Moriyama family, serving them with a devotion that goes beyond duty, and rigidly dedicated to his daily routine (working from exactly 9 to 5 and patrolling the property at midnight). He lives with the younger Moriyama brother, Yasushi (Shin Kishida), who works as a lawyer, and his wife Natsuko (Eiko Yanami). Also resident are Moriyama’s assistant Wada (Ryo Tamura), and the maid Fujino (Hiroko Sakurai). When Moriyama’s brother Toru (Eishin Tono) arrives their lives are thrown into tumult as the brothers scheme to sell off the family’s forests, a plan that Jun is opposed to.

Written by Toshiro Ishida, and directed by Akio Jissoji, “Poem” returns to the black and white of “This Transient Life”. With the director’s creativity again on full display, this family drama adds thematic and emotional depth to its narrative of greed and selflessness. The story is relatively straightforward, leaving the esoteric, religious and philosophical of the previous “Buddhist Trilogy” films, for a story that focusses on human psychology, and critiques modern capitalist society and class structure. However, the apparent simplicity is nevertheless powerful if you take a closer look. Jun’s obsession with time-keeping, his fixation on repeating the same roles, his ascetic diet, offer a portrayal of a modern hermit, his lifestyle more akin to a monk than a houseboy. His peculiarities are further highlighted with his love of calligraphy, and his fascination with graveyards. It is not entirely clear why he feels this way, but the constrast with the materialistic Moriyama brothers is clear.

“Poem” is the final part of Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, and continues several of the themes of those previous films. The central thrust of the narrative is the corrupting influence of modern society, the greed engendered by capitalism, and the exploitation of natural resources. Jun’s emotional plea for them not to destory the forest of their inheritance for a quick profit, that they conserve rather than obliterate the past, is both poignant and timeless. Where the previous films focussed on characters who were cynical about religion, Jun represents someone who lives his life in a monastic way, perhaps intending to achieve some form of perfection or immortality. His focus on calligraphy reflects Masao’s sculpture in “This Transient Life”, and the symbolism of the grave and death, considerations of an afterlife reflect the previous film’s discussions of this theme of our relationship with our own mortality. Similarly, we see eroticism and sex as a release, either in conflict with ideas of self-actualisation, or part of that process. The pessimism of those previous films is also evident here, as it suggests a modern generation set on a destructive course, obliterating the past, with a clear stance against the greed and short-sightedness of the brothers, the way they treat women, and their focus on their own reputations above any other concern. The final film in Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, “Poem” simplifies much of the nuance and complexity of previous films, instead providing a powerful polemic against commercialism and materialism, that is nevertheless in keeping with the previous films in questioning what is truly important in life.