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Fugitive from the Past, A
Adapted from the novel penned by Tsutomu Minakami, Tomu Uchida's 1965 film A Fugitive From The Past takes place in 1947 when a massive typhoon hits a ferry taxiing passengers from Hokkaido and the mainland of Japan. The ferry is destroyed and the island thrashed and hundreds of people die, but in the chaos that ensues, three men are seen running away from a pawn shop set ablaze in the island town of Iwanai. The local police understandably assume that this is a case of burglary and arson and Detective Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban) is tasked with investigating.
As Yumisaka starts working the case, he discovers some strange clues, first in the form of a burned out husk of a boat and then, more shockingly, the dead bodies of two men, leading him to wonder what exactly the third unknown suspect has been up to here as he know these men were not killed when the ferry sank. As all of this is going on, a man named Takichi Inukai (Rentaro Mikuni) takes a brief moment of comfort in the arms of a prostitute named Yae Sugito (Sachiko Hidari). After they've had their fun, he leaves the next morning, a pile of cash left for her in his wake.
Ten years later, Yumisaka has been succeeded by Detective Ajimura (Ken Takakura) but when the younger detective finds two new corpses, he calls the older detective back into service to help him figure out exactly what's going on here. Yae used the money that Takichi left for her to get out of debt and start over, this time in Tokyo, but the last decade hasn't been always been easy for her. When she sees a picture of a man she recognizes as Takichi Inukai labelled as a business mogul, she tracks him down to thank him for the money, but it doesn't go as she'd hoped.
Voted third in the Kinema Junpo magazine's 1999 poll of the Top Japanese Films of the 20th Century, A Fugitive From The Past, which makes its home video debut outside of Japan with this release, is a massive, sprawling three hour epic shot in appropriately gritty black and white making excellent use of its widescreen format. The cinematography here from Hanjirô Nakazawa is rock solid, and the score, from Isao Tomita, is also very strong. Production values are very good across the board, and Tomu Uchida's direction is very strong, exploring aspects of the narrative often from more than one perspective. At just over three hours in length, the plot unfolds at a very deliberate pace but as it does, the script from Naoyuki Suzuki does a really good job of building character development and suspense, adding layer upon layer of interest to the story as it does so, diving into the state of Japan after the events of the Second World War and exploring the complexities of the Japanese society of the time, particularly the less affluent sections.
Performances are uniformly excellent as well. Rentaro Mikuni, the central point off of which all of the different elements of the plot circle, is excellent as Inukai. While he's obviously a criminal, the story lets us get to know him and humanizes him to a good degree, not asking us to forgive him of his crimes but making him more than just a typical villain. Sachiko Hidari is excellent as the kindly prostitute who can't help but fall in love with her mysterious client, carrying a torch for him long after he's left her with that pile of money. Junzaburo Ban delivers very strong work as the senior detective and a young but instantly recognizable Ken Takakura is great as the upstart detective who asks for Ban's help.
Arrow Video brings A Fugitive From The Past to Blu-ray framed at 2.40.1 in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation and it looks really strong with the feature taking up just under 38GBs of space on the 50GB disc. There's barely any print damage here at all, just the odd small white speck now and again, and detail is pretty solid, even if things can sometimes lean towards the soft side (which would appear to stem from the original photography rather than any issue with the actual transfer itself). Contrast is very strong, though occasionally things look just a tad hot. Generally, however, we get fairly deep blacks and clean whites with a nice greyscale covering everything in between. Depth and texture are pretty solid and there are no problems with any noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression related issues worth noting.
The 24-bit LPCM 1.0 Mono mix, which is in the film's native Japanese and comes with optional English subtitles, is clean, clear and properly balanced throughout. Both the film's pensive score comes through nicely and with good clarity and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion to note. This isn't always the most complex mix you'll ever hear, but it suits the movie perfectly and the mix on this disc does a nice job of replicating it.
The extras start off with an introduction by writer and curator Jasper Sharp that is more of an appreciation than anything else. Here, he spends twenty-seven minutes going over the history and cultural significance of the movie, particularly in its homeland. He then goes on to talk about what makes the film different from so many other Japanese films, how the movie ties into different social and historical traits from Japan's past, the film's political leanings, details on some of the cast and crew members that worked on the picture and more.
From there, we get a scene-specific commentaries from Japanese film scholars such as author and Yale University Professor Aaron Gerow whose portion is titled The Fugitive Past Of Tomu Uchida And Modern Japan, University Of California Professor Emeritus Earl Jackson whose piece is titled Chaos And Order In A Fugitive From The Past, University Of California Professor Daisuke Miyao who goes over Cinematography Of Hunger: Tomu Uchida And The Toei W 106 System, University Of London's Dr. Irene Gonzalez-Lopez whose piece is titled Sachiko Hidari: Stardom And Characterisation In A Fugitive From The Past, University Of California's Erik Homenick who delivers a piece called The Haunting Voice Of Karma: Isao Tomita's Music In A Fugitive From The Past and, last but not least, Harvard Univeristy Professor Alexander Zahlten whose piece is titled In Betweenness In A Fugitive From The Past. Each of these provides a pretty deep dive into its respective topic and these tracks provide plenty of critical analysis of the picture and the different themes that the film explores throughout its running time, with occasional insight into not only the history of the film and those who made it.
Finishing up the extras on the disc are a trailer for the feature, a still gallery, a Tomu Uchida filmography, menus and chapter selection options. Arrow Video also include an insert booklet in the first pressing only containing some technical information on the movie as well writing on the film by David Baldwin and Inuhiko Yomota. Last but not least, the disc also comes packaged with a reversible cover sleeve featuring original art one on side and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella on the reverse.
The three hour running time of Tomu Uchida's A Fugitive From The Past might put some viewers off but if you're a fan of expertly made drama with rich character development, plenty of intrigue, noirish elements and plenty of social commentary you'd be doing yourself a disservice by missing out on this one. It's an extremely well-made film and the Arrow Video Blu-ray release, the movie's first home video release outside of its native Japan, presents the film in a very nice presentation and with some strong extra features that explore its history and its importance. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.