A Fugitive from the Past Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: September 27, 2022
Video: 2.40:1/1080p/Black & White
Audio: English LPCM 1.0
Run Time: 182:39
Director: Tomu Uchida
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. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
After beginning a decades-long career as an actor in Kisaburô Kurihara’s Amachua kurabu (English: Amateur Club) in 1920, Tomu Uchida co-directed Officer Konishi (Japanese: Ah, Konishi-junsa) in 1922 with Teinosuke Kinugasa. He went on to direct (at least) 41 feature-length movies up until the onset of the second World War. Following the War, Uchida failed to set up his own film company and traveled to the formerly Japanese-occupied Manchuria in China to join the Manchukuo Film Association. With the support of former colleagues, he returned to his home country in 1953 and signed a contract with Toei to make a chambara drama known as Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (Japanese: Chiyari Fuji, 1955). Reinvigorated, Uchida continued experimenting and making critically acclaimed films in varying genres until his death in 1970 at the age of 72.
Released towards the end of his filmography, amongst a series of six pictures about legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1961, ‘62, ‘63, ‘64, ‘65, and ‘71), A Fugitive from the Past (Japanese: Kiga kaikyō; aka: Straits of Hunger, 1965) is considered a culmination of his career, at least according to a 1999 Kinema Junpo magazine poll that ranked it as the third greatest Japanese film of the 20th Century. Given its heavy subject matter, literary source, and being more than three hours long, it is certainly among the most challenging movies he ever made. A Fugitive from the Past was adapted by Miyamoto Musashi series screenwriter Naoyuki Suzuki from Tsutomu Minakami’s 1700-page novel and its grainy, black & white photography, vérité camera work/production design, stills, and even use of narration were designed to match war-era newsreels (including some actual stock footage).
On its surface, A Fugitive from the Past is a heady meditation on personal responsibility, growth, and guilt, adorned with enough police procedural trappings, criminal subplots, and raw performances to keep the audience engaged with the melodrama. It's rarely a slog and the pacing is surprisingly brisk, considering the tone and interminable runtime, jumping quickly from expositional sequences to moody character beats and back again. It only begins to drag during its third act, where the procedural elements take control and threaten to stretch the story beyond an emotionally satisfying endpoint. Beneath the surface, the left-leaning Uchida designed this intimate, complex, multi-character portrait as a greater metaphor for Japan accepting responsibility for its wartime atrocities, similar to the political subtext of modern crime epics, like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). It’s simple enough to overlook the parable aspect of the plot, though the first half is told against the backdrop of anti-conservative political protests and post-war economic strife, so I’m not sure if it’s possible to entirely ignore Uchida’s message.
Midnight Eye: Tomu Uchida at Tokyo FILMeX 2004, by Jason Gray, Jasper Sharp & Tom Mes
From what I can gather, A Fugitive from the Past never was never released on North American video. It appears that there was a French DVD from Wild Side, but it didn’t have English subtitles, so that makes this 1080p Blu-ray (which Arrow is releasing in the UK and US) the film’s English-friendly home video debut. According to specs, the transfer was supplied directly to Arrow by Toei, so there’s no description of the HD scanning process, but what we do know is that cinematographer Hanjirô Nakazawa used 16mm film, so the graininess of the black & white image is in keeping with the format. That said, this sort of looks like a 35mm blow-up, especially in the way that the frequency of the grain causes posterization and noise issues (note: this is just a guess on my part). Either way, A Fugitive from the Past is designed to appear rough, so there’s not a lot to complain about. The nature of the film also means that dynamic range and the sharpness of details fluctuate from scene to scene and shot to shot, so I’ve tried to include a variety of screen-caps to illustrate this. Additionally, some scenes use a kind of overexposure/reversal technique (I don’t know what the technical term is) that blows out all the midtones and creates thick haloes, so keep an eye out for that. This is the complete, uncut version of the film as well, running 183 minutes. The producer-mandated cut runs about 147 minutes and the booklet included with this Blu-ray indicates that the premiere cut may have run 192 minutes. According to IMDb specs (which aren’t always correct), the film was originally released in a mega-wide 2.66:1, so the 2.40:1 aspect ratio is possibly slightly cropped.
A Fugitive from the Past is presented in its original Japanese mono sound and uncompressed LPCM 1.0 audio. The audio design matches the cinematographic approach in that it’s always austere, but largely appears to have been dubbed in post, at least wherever environmental business is concerned. The mix is thin and usually built on a crisp combination of dialogue and specific ambience to enhance the mood. The one element that might give your system a slight workout is composer Isao Tomita’s sparse, but evocative score. Otherwise, this is a clean, simple track that does its job without exhibiting any major distortion or source damage.
Introduction by writer and curator Jasper Sharp (26:52, HD) – The author of Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema (2011, Scarecrow Press) and Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (2008, FAB Press) offers up an extensive look at the film itself, its historical context, the Japanese New Wave, Uchida’s lack of recognition in the West, the Tokyo FILMeX retrospective that reintroduced his work to cineastes, Buddhist and political allegories, and some of the cast’s other films.
Scene-specific commentaries from leading Japanese film scholars:
The Fugitive Past of Tomu Uchida and Modern Japan (17:47, HD) – Aaron Gerow, the author of Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925 (2010, University of California Press) explores three scenes and explores the narrative and situational meaning of ‘the past’ in the film and the director’s real life.
Chaos and Order in A Fugitive from the Past (22:31, HD) – Earl Jackson, the author of Strategies of Deviance: Studies in Gay Male Representation (1995, Indiana University Press) who provided commentary for Arrow’s release of Masumura’s Blind Beast (1969), analyzes the thematic duality of chaos and order as seen in the film’s imagery and story, as well as further historical context.
Cinematography of Hunger: Tomu Unchida and the Toei W 106 System (8:15, HD) – The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema (2013, Duke University) author Daisuke Miyao breaks down the photographic processes used for the film, both from a thematic and technical standpoint.
Sachiko Hidari: Stardom and Characterization in A Fugitive from the Past (15:44, HD) – Kingston University film studies scholar Irene González-López, who provided commentary for Arrow’s release of Yasuzô Masumura’s Giants and Toys (1958), discusses lead actress Sachiko Hidari’s technique and career.
The Haunting Voice of Karma: Isao Tomita’s Music in A Fugitive from the Past (32:11, HD) – UC San Diego’s Erik Homenick supplies an extensive look at the film’s avant-garde score, its allusions to Buddhism (the best such description of the movie’s religious themes on this disc), and the career of composer Isao Tomita.
In-Betweenness in A Fugitive from the Past (13:45, HD) – Alexander Zahlten, who is a Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, completes the commentaries by examining the drama of the climax.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.