A Fugitive from the Past
Considered the magnum opus of the five decades-long career of Tomu Uchida (Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, The Mad Fox), the epic crime drama A Fugitive from the Past was voted third in the prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine’s 1999 poll of the Top Japanese Films of the 20th Century.
In 1947, a freak typhoon sends a passenger ferry running between Hokkaido and mainland Japan plunging to the ocean depths, with hundreds of lives lost. During the chaos, three men are witnessed fleeing a burning pawnshop in the Hokkaido port town of Iwanai. The police suspect theft and arson, and when Detective Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban) discovers the burned remains of a boat and the corpses of two men, he sets about tracking the shadowy third figure. Meanwhile, the mysterious Takichi Inukai (Rentaro Mikuni) takes shelter with a prostitute, Yae (Sachiko Hidari), a brief encounter that will come to define both of their lives. A decade later, long after the trail has gone cold, Yumisaka is called back by his successor Detective Ajimura (Ken Takakura) as two new dead bodies are found.
Making its home video debut outside of Japan, this adaptation of Tsutomu Minakami’s 1700-page novel is a landmark in master director Uchida’s oeuvre. Its gritty monochrome photography has the immediacy of newsreel as Uchida uses the landscapes of postwar Japan to explore the massive social upheaval and unspoken legacies of the war, and create an unsettling karmic allegory of a man’s struggle to escape his past sins.
Marking its debut in North America, Tomu Uchida’s A Fugitive from the Past comes to Blu-ray through Arrow Video, presented on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 2.40:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. Arrow has been supplied the master by Toei.
I’ll be honest up front and say I'm a little unsure on what to make of this presentation, going back and forth on it the last couple of weeks. The early portions of the film have the look of a very dated master but once the story shifts to Tokyo after a key character moves there, the image ends up looking significantly cleaner with a nicer, if imperfect, film texture to it (with a handful of shots looking really sharp!) only to then suddenly shift back to that rougher look from before and then back again. Going through the film a second time after watching the features, some of which touch on the film’s stylistic choices, I still feel as though the base scan could be better, but I now realize that the presentation is likely hindered by those stylistic choices along with the film elements that were available.
The film does have a dupier look throughout most of it with a lack of finer detail present, most everything just looking a little fuzzy around the edges outside of a few shots. There’s really no consistency here either, with half of the film looking especially fuzzy, almost video-like, and then other portions coming out more film-like yet still a bit blurry. Contrast is the same: contrast levels always look off to a certain extent, leading to heavier blacks and whites a lot of the time, but the stronger portions of the presentation unexpectedly deliver a wider range in the grayscale, leading to a photographic look. It feels like we're constantly jumping between different source materials, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that is essentially what is happening.
As it turns out Uchida intentionally shot large portions of the film in 16mm only to blow these sequences up to 35mm to give them film a messier, grittier look. Other sections of the film were shot in 35mm straight-up, and then in a few instances (usually around scenes that could be considered flashbacks or imaginings) Uchida cuts in negative footage to give the sequence in question a reversed look. And if that wasn’t enough, other portions of the original negatives were intentionally exposed to light to insert surrealistic effects, and then all of these different materials were spliced together. It was clearly a complicated process that involved many steps in the development process, with each step leading to another degradation in quality to the materials. So short of going back to the original-original elements and reconstructing the film digitally in the same manner Uchida had intended, Toei is pretty much stuck to using a later generation print for their scan, complete with all of the short-comings introduced along the way.
This all ends up essentially being what it is for better or worse but I still feel a better base scan would have helped. The presentation has some strong moments yet on the whole the scan has some real trouble when it comes to capturing the film's grain, especially during the sequences where the 16mm blow-up was incorporated. It looks chunky and a bit blocky a lot of the times leading to that video look I mentioned previously. Scenes shot in 35mm do look better, but the grain can still look a little muddled and noisy.
I think Arrow is presenting the picture as best they can here, simply limited by the master they have been provided. The film just really needs a newer restoration, one that I would have to imagine is more than likely not in the cards due to how it was assembled. Considering the film’s reputation in its home country as being the third best Japanese film of all time (after Floating Clouds and Seven Samurai but before Tokyo Story) it's a bit of a shame.
The film comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. Range is very limited, voices sounding flat, but the film’s ominous score manages to show off a little bit. The overall quality of the track is also fine, no glaring issues to be found.
Arrow manages to throw on some solid academic material here, looking at the film from various points of view. Jasper Sharp starts things off with a 27-minute introduction where he offers up a bit of background for the director that includes his political leanings and why he’s not as well known in the west as other Japanese directors (a big reason is that Toei didn’t really see the value in exploring foreign markets). He also talks about his post-war move to Manchuria and how he came to make this film years later, and makes mention of the shorter version of the film, which had about a half hour cut from it.
To accompany this Arrow then includes a series of what have been labeled “select-scene commentaries” completed by a number of participants, though they’re all essentially video essays that play over scenes from the film.
Of the six “commentaries” my favourite would probably be the one performed by Irene González-López, who some may remember for her amazing commentary found on Arrow’s edition for Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants and Toys. At only 15-minutes this one clearly isn’t going to be as wide-ranging as her track for that film, but as with that other, longer track this one is so well organized and dense that she manages to pack in an amazing amount of information as she talks about actor Sachiko Hidari and her role as Yae. She draws parallels between a couple of key sequences featuring the character and also does a wonderful job deconstructing the scene where her character first meets the central one played by Rentaro Mikuni, showing how the editing builds up a connection between the characters. It’s brief but incredibly well done.
The others are all fine, too. Alexander Zahlten spends 14-minutes talking over the film’s ending while Erik Homenick provides the longest one, at 32-minutes, talking about the film’s score. There isn’t a lot of music in the film, but he explains how when it does appear it's in order to point at the corresponding sequence’s “narrative significance.” I also rather liked how he explains the significance of the instruments used and how he even points out the significance of certain notes. It’s quite fascinating and engaging.
There is then more technical information from Daisuke Miyao (providing the shortest one at 8-minutes), who covers film’s use of images and its editing, explaining the various film stocks and how Uchida achieved some of the visuals present. The other two, by Earl Jackson (22-minutes) and Aaron Gerow (18-minutes) aren’t as “scene-specific” as the others, the two choosing to focus on themes found within the film, Jackson on the film’s portrayal of “chaos and order” and “irrationality and reason” (though with a focus on how they're present during the opening sequences with comparisons to Godzilla), Gerow on the film’s portrayal of memory and the past. In Gerow’s case he gets into how the film uses key events in Japan's history (including the tragedy of the Toya Maru ferry) to tell it's story represent post-war Japan before talking over three of the flashback/fantasy scenes in the film at the essay's 11-minute mark, summarizing everything he mentioned before.
I was a bit disappointed initially to see Arrow didn’t have a whole new commentary recorded, but I ended up liking these little “samplings,” I guess you could call them, and I wouldn’t mind Arrow doing something similar in the future.
The disc closes with the film’s original 4-minute trailer, and first pressings also include a 47-page booklet. It starts with an essay on the film by David Baldwin yet the real gem to this is the essay on the film and original 1700-page source novel on which the film is based. Written by Inuhiko Yomota it’s a lengthy but fascinating read, pointing out changes and why they were probably done, Uchida even expanding certain sequences (Yomota points out that a line in the book that is barely a sentence becomes a more significant moment in the film). Yomota even writes about the shorter version of the film, which he feels foretold the coming decline of Toei. A really wonderful inclusion and it’s almost a shame another video essay couldn’t have been produced for it.
There’s technically not a lot of material here, but it’s all very focused and nicely put together by its participants, all of it coming together to provide a rich and detailed examination of this incredible and deeply layered film that is finally receiving its due in North America. Really well done.
The presentation is hampered by the materials available and a weaker scan, but Arrow’s special edition pulls off an impressive debut for the film in North America.