A corporate boss lies dead in his own home, bludgeoned to death with a bronze urn. Court-appointed prosecutor Akira Kido (Ken Utsui) thinks he has the killer, the method, and the motive all worked out – all he has to do is prove it in court. This 1963 Japanese crime film, directed by Yasuzo Masumura, boasts all the hallmarks of a traditional murder mystery. As it progresses, however, its focus shifts refreshingly from a simple ‘whodunnit’ format to a court-based legal drama where no witness can be trusted.
Masumura once again brings a remarkable cynicism to The Black Report. Early films including Black Test Car and Giants & Toys showcased the enormous corruption and deceit that company employees would rely upon to overcome their industry rivals. Here that same bleak cynicism is applied to Japan’s legal system. Kido would seem to have an open-and-shut case: the film does not really bother with keeping the killer’s identity a secret. One by one, however, the defence counsel manages to bring every element of evidence into question. Each witness is somehow transformed, or convinced to change their testimony. What seemed a simple story at the beginning breaks down into a moral swamp; it becomes more and more likely that a man is going to literally get away with murder.
Utsui’s lead performance is direct and powerful. He plays a seemingly incorruptible man so convinced of the court’s integrity that he cannot fathom the betrayals that face him. There is a personal stake in the case as well, as a conviction will result in a much-desired promotion to the Tokyo office, while failure will likely mean the opposite. Seeing the cracks break in Kido’s resolve – and integrity – is a dramatic experience, and Utsui plays it wonderfully.
Eiraro Ozawa plays the opposing counsel with an absolute lack of shame or humanity. He treats the trial as a game to be won, and shows no hesitation in exploiting every doubt and weakness to succeed. Ozawa’s turn in the role is delicious – a proper hissable villain – and brings much entertainment value to the part.
There is a claustrophobic vibe throughout, with most scenes set indoors and with Masumura continuing his trick of shooting characters in a small fraction of the extra-widescreen picture; the foreground is dominated by objects, piles of paperwork, and so on. The film is also shot in a particularly stark black and white by director of photography Yoshihisa Nakagawa.
Yasuzo Masumura is one of the finest, and oddly disregarded filmmakers of post-war Japan. He has such a distinct and valuable style and focus, and a powerful handle on the miserable and untrustworthy edges of human behaviour. The Black Report has come to English language audiences bundled with Arrow Video’s bluray edition of Black Test Car; it is a pleasure to discover its own bleak charms.