Document type
6 March 2009
Format viewed

I Saw the Killer

picture: I Saw the Killer (1956)

Original title
Kyatsu o Nigasu na
  • Isao KIMURA
  • Keiko TSUSHIMA
  • Takashi SHIMURA
Running time
94 mins.
Roger Macy

In the weeks leading up to my journey to San Sebastian for their 2008 film retrospective, 'Japón en Negro', my in-box seemed always to be full of emails about Japanese train movies. Perhaps this was partly because I was reluctant to clear them, redolent as they were with some of the most memorable films of Japan's past. If I thought that forty-odd Japanese crime films would cure me of this outbreak of nostalgia, I was wrong. I had hardly stepped off the narrow-gauge railway from the French border when I was steeped in another great wave of Japanese train films from most of the decades of the twentieth century.

Runner-up in the best-train-film category at San Sebastian was, to my mind, Teruo Ishii's 1965 Abashiri Prison, but the outright winner has to be Hideo Suzuki's I Saw the Killer from 1956. Both films work encounters with trains into the fabric of the plot but I Saw the Killer goes one better. It's the expectation of a train we cannot see that builds into a tight, claustrophobic 'suspense' thriller.

Hideo Suzuki is a director who seems never to have been mentioned in the western literature until this retrospective. So clearly instrumental in getting this film to Europe were the recommendations of two Japanese critics who contributed to the festival catalogue, Shigehiko Hasumi and Makoto Shinozaki. Hasumi says "The influence of [the Hollywood documentary-style] is evident in Hideo Suzuki's superb crime films of the 1950s, such as Satsujin yogisha (1952) and I Saw the Killer."

Hideo Suzuki made 37 films between 1943 and 1967, all but the first few for Toho. Presumably, his lack of penetration beyond Japan, despite his critical and commercial successes at home, relates to his style not being seen as quintessentially Japanese, at a time when Japanese films first emerged in a box labelled 'art film' and ethnic.

If the film had been seen abroad in that post-war period, cinema-goers would have recognised a world they knew, only more so. The young married couple we are introduced to at the beginning clearly have to work very hard for very little money, just to make ends meet. The setting and the sounds instantly place us on the wrong side of the tracks. All they have is their independence, and each other, as they eke out a living, he as a radio-repair man and she as a jobbing seamstress, from the same small shop, above which is their only room.

The radio-repair job is both a superb vehicle for a series of plotting devices, as well as a wonderful pull-in to a retrospective/prospective period-movie. Of all the films in the season, this seems to have dated the best, showing life for the ordinary man and woman without embellishment or filter. It's a world completely fitting historical reports of the occupation era, of a huge shortage of radio sets, many of them out of commission for want of working parts, usually the vacuum tube valves that Japan was only then getting re-equipped to manufacture in the early stages of its post-war recovery. And the needy demand for those radio sets is well illustrated as well. No one had TV. There were still too few cinemas, or films to see, and little money to spend on them. In I Saw the Killer, a trip to the cinema is shown to be normally out of reach of the couple in this film. So the sweep by the radio-repair man of the sounds of 1950 Japanese radio broadcasting, really is the horizon of the world that most working people on either side of the tracks could experience.

The opening shots also draw us into complete sympathy for this couple, clearly both thinking and acting for each other and their forthcoming first baby. He starts by saying he needs to find a better job, to pay for the three of them. She will have none of it - she'll carry on working in the shop when she's had the baby. And she really means it. Without a single item of fashion, this has introduced the couple as a modern couple. They are two souls on their own, making their way in an immensely difficult world, without as much as a mention of any extended family. Perhaps in this film's western antecedents, that would just be standard Hollywood economy, with two more young, handsome leads who exist in two dimensions only, without family or past, but in this post-war realism, we get a feeling that this couple are genuinely on their own.

If this couple look a little familiar, they ought to. Keiko Tsushima, playing Kimiko Fujisaki, and Isao Kimura, playing her husband Takeo, were Toho's young leads and played the young lovers in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai two years before. If I say that the other main part is the police inspector, I think you will have already cast him. Takashi Shimura, of course, was one of Kurosawa's mainstays, with a similar role in the earlier Stray Dog, and the samurai leader in Seven Samurai.

The plot is quickly under way. Takeo has the misfortune to witness a clandestine murder, in a way that the murderer is fully aware of the identity of Takeo, and he is soon piling the pressure on this vulnerable couple to keep silent. Their fear of the killer seems wholly rational, so the impotence of the police, for once is also thoroughly convincing. The suspense is wound ever tighter, culminating in a magnificent final twenty minutes - the first time we hear the murderer speak. By now, the killer has struck more than once and we know that he will use the noise of the passing seven-o-clock train to eliminate his final witnesses. The silent expectation of this sound is handled superbly.

At this point, I must leave the suspense hanging for however many years it takes for this film to finally make it to a western screen. When it surely does, there will be other faces you will recognise, not least the killer in the last scene.