Suna no Utsuwa


Sometimes when I like what I see on screen, I make a beeline for the source material on which it was based. This was the case for Suna no Utsuwa, the 2011 tanpatsu starring Tamaki Hiroshi and Kobayashi Kaoru. The novel of the same name by Matsumoto Seicho has had a few adaptations, including a 2004 J-drama with Watanabe Ken and Nakai Masahiro, and a 1974 film by Nomura Yoshitaro, a testament to the enduring popularity of this story and the crime genre in general.

Given the difference in formats, I suppose it is mission impossible for screen adaptations not to add stuff that was not in the print source material. Still, I can generally accept it better if the adaptation more or less stays faithful to the essence of the source, even if certain changes have been made to improve story flow or tighten plot and characterisation. However, where the adaptation makes up a character or changes the perspective from which the story was originally told, it kind of annoys me. Yes, I’m Chiaki-like that way.


Matsumoto Seicho was a literary giant of the Japanese crime fiction scene. His works often incorporated elements of human psychology and ordinary life, reflecting a wider societal context in which the crime was committed. A prolific writer, his works have often been adapted into dramas, specials and films. His 1961 novel Suna no Utsuwa (Vessel of Sand, published English title being Inspector Imanishi Investigates) tells the story of two detectives Imanishi Eitaro and Yoshimura Hiroshi tasked with hunting down the murderer of an old man who was found bludgeoned to death at a rail yard in Kamata Station. As the identity of the victim cannot be determined because his face was smashed in, the investigation focuses on a scrap of conversation overheard at a bar between an old man and a younger one. This sets Imanishi and Yoshimura on a search involving not only the various areas and dialects of Japan but changing social mores and the passage of time.


The novel takes a somewhat different approach to the crime thriller genre. Rather than going into the psyche of the murderer, it details the minutiae of police work, tracking Imanishi’s every step of the investigation and his thought process as he strives to crack the case. As Imanishi grows frustrated and weary from red herrings and dead ends, so too the reader feels his exhaustion and the tedium of having to ensure all bases have been covered. There is plenty of back and forth, conversations that seemingly lead to nowhere, a throwaway line or two… there were times when I backtracked just to make sure I hadn’t missed out anything when the story took turns I least expected (this despite having already had an idea of the plot after having first watched the tanpatsu). Interestingly, the novel does not end with some form of interrogation of the murderer, where normally he would get his 15 minutes of fame and spill the beans on why he did what he did. Instead, Imanishi gives a summary of the case and his own findings, and the novel closes with the arrest of the murderer. I think it takes some balls to leave the reader hanging like this, even if Imanishi has more or less presented the overall picture. Despite this, I enjoyed the novel and appreciated a more in-depth look into police investigations, shorn of the glamour and trash-talking that most dramas and films seem to think is prevalent in the profession. What also hooked my interest was how the novel went into detail about Japanese dialects and the role they played in the investigation, fascinating stuff given that I like languages.


The 2011 tanpatsu takes a more conventional route in that it gives the viewer the desired confrontation between detective and criminal. The search for the murderer spans only two two-hour episodes, so even though it was a much drawn-out investigation in the novel, in the tanpatsu things are somewhat helped along by the narration and it progressed at a good pace. Kobayashi Kaoru is well cast as Imanishi, who has a penchant for haiku and is somewhat jaded after so many years in the force but still retains the determination to get the job done. In the novel, it is Imanishi who does most of the legwork and brainwork, with Yoshimura chipping in whenever he could and being someone Imanishi could bounce ideas off and share a few drinks with. The tanpatsu split up the sleuthing duties by giving Yoshimura more screentime and bigger breakthroughs, and this was one change I was happy with since it meant Tamaki Hiroshi had a larger role. The mentoring relationship also got a boost and I liked seeing the two detectives work hand in hand to solve the case. I thought Tamaki did well here and am really glad he got to collaborate with a solid actor like Kobayashi. I liked the chemistry between Kobayashi and Tamaki, and enjoyed their detective pairing. It was fun following the detectives across 1960 Japan, checking out new places and sights. It was also a pleasure watching Koyabashi outside of his Master role from Shinya Shokudo, although there were times I’d expected Imanishi to whip up something for Yoshimura whenever they go out for drinks to discuss the case.


I didn’t like the addition of a completely new reporter character, however. In the novel, Yamashita appeared for a very brief scene and the character’s gender was not even clear. In the tanpatsu, this character morphed into an ambitious female reporter named Yamashita Yoko, who was ahead of the times and was always out for the scoop. She was also in a relationship with Yoshimura, although she’s the type to prioritise work over marriage, not that he was pushing for it anyway. I think Nakatani Miki was fine for the role of Yamashita, but as I’ve never quite warmed up to the actress, I didn’t particularly like Yamashita. I was okay with her because Yoshimura liked her, but that was it (also, Tamaki in a waistcoat tends to compensate for a lot of things, and this was one of them). Yamashita sometimes offered the detectives tips, or made things difficult for them by publishing leads that were not really confirmed, as a way to speed up the plot, but otherwise I thought she was an unnecessary character (the novel clearly thought so too). Time spent on Yamashita and annoying police superiors could have been better used for more Imanishi-Yoshimura sleuthing scenes or to depict Imanishi’s family – he has a wife, son and sister – and how they indirectly help in the investigation. The family also knows Yoshimura fairly well and once in a while he comes over for meals, unlike how the tanpatsu portrayed Imanishi and Yoshimura to be first-time detective partners.


I’m glad however that the tanpatsu kept the setting in 1960 since I felt it was easier to explain the murderer’s motivations without resorting to making him some sort of tragic hero. Japan in 1960 is a fascinating place, rich with historical baggage contrasting with the need for society to progress, where people are still getting on with life after the war, and with issues such as rural poverty, social class and prejudice still pretty entrenched in society. I’m also glad it was more faithful in retaining the structure of the original – that this is about the search for the murderer, the unfolding of the investigation, which was pretty intriguing, and not about the murderer himself. In fact, Matsumoto’s approach re the murderer somewhat surprised me, but I found that I was perfectly fine with it, because Waga Eiryo was not a character that particularly aroused my sympathy. The up-and-coming composer, played by Sasaki Kuranosuke (the wonderful Shige-san from Shikaotoko Aoniyoshi), was part of a group of young intellectuals from the Nouveau Group who supposedly represented Japan’s progressive ideals, but had other agendas and motivations for getting ahead and staying in the limelight. Waga and the critic Sekigawa Shigeo (Hasegawa Hiroki) were two key figures of this group, and both the novel and tanpatsu spent some time building them up. The tanpatsu kept the bulk of Waga’s background but simplified the method of murder, which I thought was a pity as the novel had a much more innovative and “progressive” method (somewhat ironic given how Waga was trying to get ahead in life). Sasaki played Waga with a touch of brittleness but kept the character’s arrogance and didn’t make him too sympathetic, which was fine as I do not feel Waga is a character meant to engage the reader or viewer on an emotional level. The exaggeration during the music performances, I could do without, however, since it felt out of character. The final confrontation between Yoshimura and Waga was nicely done, and the tragedy comes not from Waga’s backstory but how his motive for murder didn’t even need to exist. It was self-destruction at its finest, and also why I couldn’t agree with the 2004 drama’s decision to change it to a contemporary setting and make Waga more of a tragic character, because he is not (the synopsis also gave the whole story away).


Oddly enough, I felt the novel played up Sekigawa more, since it went into detail about his relationship with the club hostess Emiko. Perhaps this was Matsumoto’s way of tossing a giant red herring in Imanishi’s way – certainly, the clue to the real murderer was blink-and-miss, buried in a paragraph about other things, and the thread was not picked up again until much later as to make the leap somewhat abrupt. The tanpatsu was more forthright, giving Waga more play and fashioning a somewhat awkward connection between him and Yoshimura via Waga’s music. I have to admit I wasn’t able to buy the excuse that Yoshimura tagged Waga as the murderer because he could feel it in Waga’s music that they’re the same heartless type – Yoshimura had sort of left his little sister in the lurch during the war, and it’s been plaguing him ever since. Even Imanishi couldn’t buy it initially until further investigation uncovered more dirt on Waga. His backstory, however, was beautifully done and achingly sad (even with a few changes here and there) and I thought Yamamoto Gaku, the veteran actor who played his father, was fantastic.

Overall, the 2011 adaptation is a decent take on the novel, and I’m glad it retained aspects of the novel that I found essential. I read a comment somewhere that except for Imanishi, Yoshimura and Sekigawa, most of the actors were miscast, and I have to somewhat agree with this despite the solid performances all round. As a standalone, the tanpatsu was fine and definitely worth a watch if you like the genre. As an adaptation, there’s a little something missing. But that may just be the purist in me speaking.



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