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Just recently, I purchased on VCD an 11-part Japanese drama called "Suna no Utsuwa", for the sole reason that it co-stars Ken Watanabe, plus it looked intriguing from the stuff I could find out about it on the web. I purchased, and just finished watching, these VCDs, despite the fact that they are subtitled only in Chinese -- and needless to say, I speak/read neither language.

And the thing is -- watching Ken Watanabe's performance aside -- I really, really enjoyed the experience. Even though I have now laughingly recounted it to several friends who all think I'm wacked.

While unable to find a transcript or even a particularly good English episode guide for the series online, I did find a few things -- a fair overview/synopsis, and some comments regarding the 1961 book of the same name, by Seicho Matsumoto (available in an English translation under the title of "Inspector Imanishi Investigates") upon which this Masterpiece-Theatre-like adaptaion was based. So I had a hazy idea of what it was supposed to be about. And, despite knowing only a handful of Japanese words/phrases, really, when you get right down to it, a film in another language *is* followable. Stuff happens on screen, there are actions, you see them, your brain makes interpretations. Sometimes those interpretations might even be correct, though it can be hard to tell.

I was pretty lost on any number of occasions, when it was clear that Something Important had been discovered that was conveyed by means of people standing around talking intently. That would happen and then people would rush off and do stuff, and I'd be like, "Yeah, missed something there".

Also, for a story that is a murder mystery, it was a mixture of whodunit and whydunit -- although, I may discover that I am completely wrong, but structurally, I don't think so. The audience sees the protagonist commit the murder, so the main mystery is how the police go about finding him; and I *think* the mystery is also about *why* he commits the murder. I could be wrong (see above under "missing swaths of information conveyed in dialogue"), but I don't *think* the audience knows exactly *why*, until the very end... or else the information seeded throughout in visual flashbacks, which are then all put into context and order and fleshed out with more information, wouldn't have been conveyed that way. For the inspector (which is the Ken Watanabe role), the process of figuring out "why" is what leads to pinpointing "who".

As it is, I felt very *engaged* with the story -- even though I will admit right now that I kind of fast-forwarded over parts that were clearly pure atmosphere (so long as I could see what was happening, I didn't really need to see the protagonist's many, MANY episodes of agonizing and angst in real-time, most of which took the form of playing the piano in a tortured way). I might not understand all of it, but I think I do know the story, and it felt kind of neat to watch it while *reaching* for that story.

So, here is the story of "Suna no Utsuwa" (Vessels of Sand), As Gleaned By Me:

There's this Concert Pianist/Composer guy (Eiryo Waga), (played by some Japanese heart-throb for whom this was an unusually dramatic and borderline bad-guy role, to judge by the comments of some folks on some forums I found through Google), in his late 30s or so, who is clearly very much a celebrity in 2004 Tokyo. Think, high-brow rock-star. After one gala performance, an Old Guy approaches him, and he is clearly shocked by the sight of Old Guy. Old Guy is also clearly surprised to see Eiryo. This is a reunion. They talk in an intense way. Old Guy waits, and Eiryo comes back out to meet him, now "dressing down" (in a bulky German Army winter coat and hat pulled way down; this is set in winter, anyway). They go out to dinner and much intense talking follows. Then they're walking, and they start to argue. There's pushing and shoving, and Eiryo looks all panicked and stuff. Old Guy falls down and hits his head and is knocked out, and Eiryo looks even more panicked.

So... he drags Old Guy into a train-yard that's nearby, and proceeds to bludgeon Old Guy to death while he's unconscious. He had the presence of mind to take off his overcoat to do this, which is fortunate, as his white turtleneck gets COMPLETELY blood-soaked. He drags the body under a train-car. Later, when the body is found, not only is its face ruined, by the murderer has ruined the fingers as well, to hide fingerprints. Eiryo takes the Old Guy's satchel, puts his coat back on, and walks away. Unfortunately, he bumps into Artsy Girl, and they have a startled moment of looking at each other before he hurries away.

Eiryo proves to be the Stupidest Murderer Ever, and also has never seen "CSI", as he then goes home, and tries to wash the blood-soaked turtleneck in the sink. "Dude," I am saying to the TV, "BURN IT." But no. He washes it, and puts it through his washing machine. Needless to say, the result is kind of pinkish. So he stuffs it in the satchel, and puts both of those in a plain bag, and carries them down to his swanky apt. building's trash bins. But, whoops... the Japanese separate their trash, and there's some guy there meticulously going through the non-food trash, salvaging stuff. Eiryo takes one look at this, drops off his bag of food-trash, and hurries away, still clutching the incriminating satchel.

Meanwhile, of course, the body is found. Inspector Watanabe and his younger, rock-star-looking and (I don't know how they managed this, as Ken Watanabe is not a short man) taller partner are the first on the scene. So, it's their case, I guess. And now they've got a faceless, fingerprint-less corpse in a train-yard. And yet, in a remarkably short time, they discover the restaurant where Eiryo and Old Guy had dinner. Nobody there apparently recognized Eiryo the Concert Pianist Celebrity (that would be too useful); but the waitresses did overhear some of the conversation. They remember that the word/name/something "Kameda" was repeated a lot. Dandy. Is that a person, or what? I mean, I'm not the only one asking -- the police don't know either, but seem to recognize it's a name of some kind. It's all they've got so far.

Eiryo is following the progress of the story on the news and in the papers. He goes to a riverfront a lot, to stare out at the water and angst. Coincidentally, so does Artsy Girl, and he recognizes that she is the one who saw him leave the scene of the crime; but she doesn't recognize him. They eventually strike up an acquaintence. Then, both of them will wind up together at the same seaside town, where she finds out... about the death of someone she knew there, possibly her mother, and she will sit and cry on the windswept hill above the sea, and he will come upon her and comfort her. This will lead to their sleeping together. Later that will end, though they possibly still pine for each other.

The Inspector and his partner are all depressed that they've got squat, when the Inspector, walking through a restaurant, happens to notice a big map of Japan on the wall. His eye happens to fall on... something, written in Japanese naturally, that makes him make a connection with "Kameda". He realizes it might be a place-name. From what I could gather, it will turn out to be *part* of a place-name. Whatever. This will lead to many trips out to the sticks, in and around the Noto-Hanto peninsula and the seacoast north of Kyoto, hoping to find that Old Guy came from somewhere out there and that someone will remember an oldish guy who went to Tokyo recently -- and it works! They find out his identity. Yay them! They talk to tons of people, trying to build up an idea of who the guy was and who might have known him well enough to want to kill him.

The whole seacoast thing makes sense to the audience, as the many angstful flashbacks we have been seeing from Eiryo, and indeed the title sequence of this series, consists of images of an older man and a very small boy, walking along stormy stretches of seacoast. One imagines the boy is Young Eiryo. But the older man he's walking with is not Old Guy the corpse. Hmm. "Vessels of Sand", by the way, appears to relate to the little boy on the beach, making sand-castles and also bowls of sand and stuff. Also appears to be metaphorical for the ephemerality of life, etc.

So, the Stupidest Murderer Ever does two more stupid things. First: in a fit of agonized guilt/fear or something, he takes a pair of scissors and cuts the still-stained white turtleneck into a billion-skillion little scraps of stained cloth. And then... he neither burns these, nor flushes them down the toilet a bit at a time; instead, he takes them, wraps them in some paper he has lying around, puts them in a bag, and gives them... to Stupid Girl. Who is not the same as Artsy Girl, but who is also kind of odd and artsy. And this is one of those points where not understanding the dialogue sinks me, as I have no idea who Stupid Girl is, what her connection to Eiryo is, and why Eiryo thinks it's a good idea to give her this incriminating evidence.

Second: he will then take the German Army coat that he was wearing the night of the murder, in which he KNOWS Artsy Girl saw him, and instead of burning THAT, he will... donate it to the local repetory theatre troupe for this costumes department. Which is a SWELL idea, except that Artsy Girl BELONGS to this troupe.

Stupid Girl, meanwhile, will dispose of the bag of stained cloth scraps by... throwing them out the window of a moving train while it is travelling from... somewhere... to... somewhere. Out in the countryside, not in Tokyo. Actually, this isn't as stupid as it sounds like, because that means that skillions of tiny bits of cloth are now strewn all over railroad cuttings, where few people walk. Then Stupid Girl dies... and it's kind of unclear, it is *seems* like maybe she dies because of an argument with her Stupid Boyfriend, who has nothing to do with any of the rest of this. Considering that her relationship with Eiryo led to his giving her evidence of murder to dispose of, she clearly had lousy taste in men. Yet it's also quite possible that Eiryo had something to do with killing her. (Hey, Eiryo: it's a lot simpler to BURN THE EVIDENCE than to give it to someone to dispose of, then have to kill that person to silence her. Just sayin'.) Anyway, her body is found, and the police now have these two bodies to deal with.

But come on, this is Tokyo -- why should they know there's any connection between these two? Well, it helps if you're searching her apartment, and you find some pieces of paper... that are the kind of paper pre-printed with musical staves... you know, the kind that CONCERT PIANISTS might use if they are also COMPOSERS, on which to write their music. It also helps if the composer's name is printed on the paper, kind of like, I don't know, custom letterhead. (Actually I'm not sure if this paper had Eiryo's name on it, but later we are shown him writing on the same kind of paper that *is* pre-printed with his name, and in English. Hmm.)

Then... something happens... that results in the Inspector's younger partner wandering around the same train tracks, in the RAIN, obviously searching for the cloth scraps. I missed something vital, again. It's possible, I guess, that somebody saw her throwing this stuff out the train window, and reported it. It's also possible that her Stupid Boyfriend told them something about it. I dunno, it still seems like a weirdly unconnected longshot, to me. I kept thinking that they were accusing the Stupid Boyfriend of killing her, but later he still seems to be free, so... I dunno.

Anyway, Younger Partner comes back with a few precious scraps of the stained cloth, that he's found. I honestly don't know how that does them ANY good whatsoever. Maybe they knew that they had been wrapped in the musical-composing paper. But even so... at this point, I'm not sure how they can tell what the scraps of cloth even *were*. And even if CSI could do a blood/DNA test and prove it came from Old Guy's corpse, I don't see how it could be connected to Eiryo.

Eiryo, meanwhile, has become engaged in a very public ceremony to the somewhat useless and Vapid Daughter of some Important Politician (or something, but that's what I assume he is; he's a public figure of some kind). He seems to be a big patron of Eiryo's, having hired the pianist to compose a symphony for some big event. Vapid Daughter is overjoyed at the prospect of marrying Eiryo, and keeps coming over to his swanky apartment, interrupting his angsting at the piano to try to show him, like, bridesmaids' dress designs or something. Glumly, Eiryo breaks off his affair with Artsy Girl, who seems rather resigned about it; I guess she never figured that Eiryo would marry her or anything.

Younger Partner interviews Vapid Daughter, while the Inspector sits and listens. Important Father comes by for a chat, and something he says strikes the Inspector, who literally dashes out the door, fails to get a taxi, and runs for the train station (note: Ken Watanabe is a very graceful man, but dude, in this sadly extended sequence, he runs like a dork), hops a train to one of the provincial settings we visited on the fact-finding tour earlier, and runs out of *that* train station to the local cinema, where... yes! There, on the wall! There is a photo of Important Politician Father! The audience noticed this earlier when they visited there, but the Inspector has just remembered. And he's also just remembered that right next to it is a big group picture of Important Politician surrounded by... family? Or something? But that picture... includes Eiryo! There is a *LOT* of dramatic music played here, and the Inspector looks *extremely* intent. This is big. This is important. Why? No idea.

Okay... so Eiryo the Famous Concert Pianist is connected with Important Politician in the present, but also in the past, in a photo that is located in a public place in this little village out in the countryside. Great. The Inspector and his Younger Partner go and have a long talk with Eiryo. It's very pleasant and they don't seem that suspicious of him. But after they leave, he's practically shaking. And then he goes to his closet, where he still has the satchel that Old Guy was carrying, and he takes rocks from the ornamental pool in the foyer of his apartment (that's how swanky it is) and puts them in the satchel, and then he takes the whole thing down to the riverside, and sinks it. Which, honestly, if he'd just thought of that earlier and put the turtleneck in that, things would have been much better for him.

Then Artsy Girl finally, FINALLY remembers that Eiryo's was the face of the man she saw That Night. She is nonplussed by this, to say the least. She remembers that he was wearing a German Army coat. She also remembers that her troupe got one of those in, recently. Could it be? She goes looking, and it turns out that the one that was donated recently is there... and has a bloodstain on the sleeve. Also, the troupe records who makes clothes donations. Whoops! She takes the coat home with her, hides it under her bed, and angsts.

Younger Partner is assigned to keep a tail on Eiryo. Other policemen start keeping a tail on Artsy Girl. The Inspector goes back out into the countryside to talk to people. Most folks are quite helpful. He finds out about a flood that hit a particular town years and years ago, in which (I think) 250 people will killed. But in some places, people aren't so helpful. In one small village, nobody will speak to him, they all run away or shut doors in his face. Hmm.

The Inspector and Younger Partner come to talk to Artsy Girl. Actually, Artsy Girl is kind of a neighbor of the Inspector's, so they've met before, but this time it's business. They speak for a long time, in a very earnest way. She stonewalls him, apparently. He hangs around outside to stake out her place himself, and tails her the next day. I'm not sure, it's possible that after Stupid Girl's death they're worried about the same thing happening to her. He's following her, when he gets a call on his cellphone. Looking grim, he rushes away.

The Inspector winds up at a prison out in the countryside. He goes in, and comes to the room/cell of a very old man who appears to be dying. But we don't even really get to see them talk.

Something snaps in Artsy Girl, but prompted by what, I have no idea. She goes to see the Inspector at the police station, and comes clean about what she knows/suspects.

I am not, mind you, doing justice to all the times this forward progress of the plot is interrupted for angstful interludes at the piano with Eiryo, which are interspersed with a variety of flashbacks to the small child walking around with the older man, and other glimpses of the life of extreme hardship they were enduring. (I mean, some of it is them playing on a beach in the sunshine, but most is it them bundled up inadequately, struggling through storms and snow and stuff.)

The last two episodes of the series, I kid you not, consist of two things. One: Eiryo's triumphant performance of the symphony he has been working on and angsting over all through the series; attended by Important Politician and his Vapid Daughter, as well as by Artsy Girl, and everyone else who's anyone in Tokyo, I guess. Interspersed with, two: the Inspector presenting a long, long report to his police colleagues (the series generally consists of a lot of precinct meetings, too, where the police all share info;it's quite clear that the Inspector and his Younger Partner are part of a larger group all working to solve the crimes) about everything he and Younger Partner have discovered, which amounts to the way everything connects to present a picture of what happened. Thankfully for me, with his voice-over, we are shown most of this, not merely told it.

It turns out that the flashbacks we have been seeing are unconnected, and not always in order. So here's what the Inspector found out, that we are now told in sequence:

In a small village, lived a man who seems to have been a drunkard, with his long-suffering wife, and their son little Eiryo. The family may have been outcasts for other reasons, am not sure; Eiryo seems to have suffered some maltreatment in other ways, or maybe abuse by dad, but that doesn't quite fit in with the later stuff. Anyway. The men of the village are very mean to and contemptuous of the Father. One day they drag him home (he's drunk) and throw him at the feet of his wife and Eiryo, and kick him, and spit on him, and go away. Then, later, the wife has a heart-attack. Desperate, the Father goes running back into the village, to a main hall where most of the men are having some big party or drinking session or something. He pleads for someone to come help his wife, but again they laugh at him and kick him out. Naturally, without help, she dies.

So Father puts his wife's body into a cart, and helped by little Eiryo, takes the cart into the village. Then the father walks into where a few of the men are still drinking, and he takes an axe, and he kills every one of them. Then he pours gasoline all over the place, and lights it on fire. He takes little Eiryo's hand, and they walk out of the village. When they pause on the hill to look back, you can see that the fire has spread and the entire freakin' village is in flames.

Then we get all the bits about wandering the seaside and camping out in the elements and stuff, and it's clear now that it's because Father was a fugitive. During this sequence, the Father is quite solicitous of little Eiryo, which is why the idea that he subjected Eiryo to abuse earlier doesn't quite fit, but then, if he wasn't the one doing it, I'm not sure who was.

Eventually, though, after several seasons pass, Father becomes sick. The two of them wind up at a Shinto shrine, where the Father collapses. The shrine's priest calls the local Constable to come deal with this sick homeless man and his little half-feral kid. The kindly Constable and his wife help them, take them home and help the Father get well. But, the Constable recognizes the Father from the all-points-bulletin that was probably circulated about him (and one gets the sense that they are not, now, *that* far from the ruined village). The Constable convinces the Father to turn himself in. One day while little Eiryo is in school, the Constables takes his Father to the train, and escorts his father to Tokyo, and presumably, jail. Eiryo is just in time to see his Father get on the train and leave.

Eiryo is not having any of this "we'll take care of you and be your parents now" thing from the kindly Constable and his wife. The kid tries to run away. I get the sense that he didn't get far. But, as bad luck would have it, the night after he runs away, there's a terrible storm, and... the Constable's village is the one that got hit by that flood mentioned earlier. Eiryo apparently thinks better of running away, and he tries to go back to the Constable's house, only to find that a mudslide has buried it. I think he finds the Constable's wife's body in the mud, and he is clinging to her when the rescue workers finally arrive. Obviously, the little kid figures the Constable himself is buried in the house.

But the Old Guy from the start of the show? Obviously, that was the Constable. That's why Eiryo was so shocked to see him -- thought he was dead, I'm assuming. Likewise I'm assuming the Constable thought that little Eiryo was dead. Am unsure how the Constable figured out that the Famous Concert Pianist was the same as Little Eiryo.

And... that's it. The Inspector and his Younger Partner go to the concert hall, where they are waiting backstage to take Eiryo in, as soon as he is done with his triumphant performance. He accedes to the inevitable, and goes quietly. And the Inspector takes him to a car, and the car is driven to... that prison I mentioned above. Remember that? The Inspector takes Eiryo inside, to visit the Old Dying Man. Who is, naturally, Eiryo's father. The end.

But why did Eiryo kill the Constable? Well... that I don't know. Either something was said that would make that much clearer, in the dialogue they had, or... well, at a guess, maybe Eiryo's long-suppressed rage at the Constable having taken away his father came boiling to the surface. Equally possible, the Constable wanted to take Eiryo to see his dying father, and Eiryo didn't want to go? Was afraid of people finding out that his father was a notorious mass-murderer? Or something. We aren't ever really told anything about Eiryo's life between being rescued after the mudslide, and his becoming a concert pianist... except for the hints of his connection to Important Politician -- but although that was presented as a major clue that the Inspector found, I was never quite sure of its significance. (Except perhaps that it placed a younger Eiryo in that district?)

What I'm going to do now, is, go get the English translation of the book, and read it. And hopefully, find out the answers to these things that still elude me. I will also be interested to see whether this painstaking adaptation changed anything significantly, in the course of updating it from 1961 to 2004, or just, in the course of putting it on TV. I mean, you'd think 11 hours would be more than enough to adapt a book without having to cut or ellide anything, especially when I would estimate that you could have streamlined the whole thing down to at least 8 hours, maybe less, without so much of the angsting-at-the-piano and the repetitions of the same flashback shots, which were atmospheric, but still.

I'm glad that I did it in this order, though, because as an exercise of really engaging my brain to try to understand what was going on and to glean a story from it, it was really kind of... fun.

Plus, Ken Watanabe is all hot, and junk (and is a very expressive actor, which is good in a situation like this), and he has a gorgeous voice, even when I can't understand 99.5% of what he's saying. (The .5% covers the portion of dialogue that consisted of certain Japanese phrases that, thanks to raqs, I actually know. And in a sea of incomprehensible language, there is a certain excitement to be had in the occasional flash of understanding.)

Note to the Tokyo Broadcasting Service (which has now put out this series on DVD, which costs about US$200, as opposed to $20 for the VCDs, and which is likewise subtitled only in Chinese): I don't know how much it would cost to subtitle a series like this in English. But if you *DID* that... people in English-speaking countries might just buy it. I'm just sayin'. Isn't it always smarter to give more people a chance to throw their money at you?

If it were a bit more streamlined (trimmed, perhaps, of some of the excesses of piano-angsting and flashback repetitions), I could totally see a series like this broadcast on PBS in the US. Even subtitled. Even without knowing 100% of what was going on, I thought it was very interesting as a glimpse of how these things are gone about in Japan, and comments about the original novel tend to note that it's supposed to be interesting as much for its glimpse of the interconnectedness of Japanese culture, plus the tension it creates between the modern and the traditional, as it is for the mystery per se.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 27th, 2005 06:18 pm (UTC)
after you read the book, please update to fill us in on the details okay? i've become quite intrigued.
i did have some experience with non subtitled foreign media when i did the peace corps thing - mainly the chinese gangster movies dubbed into thai that they played on the overnight buses in southern thailand and your occasional american TV show dubbed into thai or malay. who knew yogi bear spoke fluent thai?
Feb. 27th, 2005 08:00 pm (UTC)
Re: whydunit
I will be sure to post an update, for the two people who may be interested. :) Nice to see you on LJ!
Feb. 27th, 2005 07:14 pm (UTC)
Feb. 27th, 2005 08:04 pm (UTC)
I didn't see the "father as axe-wielding multiple-murderer" coming, I can tell you that.

There seems to have been some indication that after little Eiryo's father was taken away to go to jail, this may have been widely known and Eiryo may have been tormented by some of the kids in school over it. (Hard to tell if it was because of that specifically, or just because, kids can be mean.) So I have to allow for the idea that there's a social/cultural aspect to adult-Eiryo's panic at the idea of doing *anything* that would reveal to the world anything about his origins/parentage (such as, running into someone from his past who knows The Truth, and/or going to see his dying father in jail). Can't wait to find out!
Feb. 28th, 2005 09:16 am (UTC)
This was entertaining! Seriously. I was completely caught up in it, and kept laughing at the parts where suddenly, it doesn't make a lot of sense, because I know that feeling. :-) Watching along, piecing together the images and few snippets, and all is well until there's a lump of dialogue and signicant music, and clearly Something Important was just discovered. But what that something was...?

My mother recommended the English translation of the novel to me years ago, because we both read murder mysteries. And I meant to borrow it from her, but left it behind. Now I wish I'd read it! Yeah, please update us when you read the book, because I'm really curious.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )