Inju, the Beast in the Shadow: a standard crime thriller with unrealised potential

Barbet Schroeder, “Inju, la bête dans l’ombre” (2008)

Enjoyably silly movie about a literature academic and aspiring crime fiction writer whose career, night-time as well as day-time, seems to revolve mostly around a mysterious and reclusive Japanese pulp crime fiction author who may be mentally disturbed and perhaps even psychotic, “Inju …” poses food for thought about the way films can be constructed and how Westerners view foreign societies and their institutions. Alex Fayard (Benoît Magimel) has just had his first novel published and translated into several languages and it becomes a  best-seller around the world, especially in Japan. His Japanese publisher organises a promotional trip so after wrapping up his last lecture for the term with a screening of a film based on a gruesome novel by Shundei Oe, that famous hermit writer, Fayard jets off to Japan for TV and radio interviews and book-signing sessions. While in Japan, among his marketing duties and sight-seeing trips organised by the publisher and his guide Ken Honda, Fayard meets and falls in love with a geisha, Tamao (Lika Minamoto), who seeks his help as she is being pursued by a vengeful and violent ex-boyfriend Ichiro Hirata who coincidentally happens to be the strange and disturbed Shundei Oe.

The film starts impressively with a visually striking and melodramatic mise-en-scène of the closing scenes of the crime drama Fayard screens for his students and for a while you may wonder whether “Inju …” will delve into issues like authors’ responsibility to readers to show the triumph of good over evil in fictional worlds where society flounders in moral ambiguity, evil is often disguised as good, good people are cut down and evil ones profit, and the universe itself appears not to care either way. At least Fayard hopes to meet his idol and argue that point; the movie appears to travel that way, setting up Fayard as a crusader using Oe’s plot constructions and arguments against themselves in his novel, and Oe as a sinister force who may test Fayard’s stand and moral mettle with the same weapons, and perhaps leave the Frenchman a changed man of stronger steel. Tamao may be the innocent mystery woman compromised by a past romance and her current relationship with her rich but violent and abusive patron Ryuji Mogi (Ryo Ishibashi). Clues and warnings are left for Fayard to discover and he gets swept up in piecing together a puzzle of Tamao’s dangerous liaisons and the mystery of Shundei Oe’s identity, nature and what he intends for Tamao, Mogi and Fayard himself.

Well folks, the plot doesn’t go quite as expected in a conventional, suspenseful, noirish way and astute viewers will pick up enough clues to crack Oe’s identity before all is revealed in the twist ending. Some people might feel a bit cheated by the MacGuffin device that drives what turns out to be a soap opera plot. Admittedly the set-up is ingenious and clever if far-fetched and Fayard turns out to be no more than a puppet manipulated by Oe in a not very complex web. “Inju …” is more clever and intellectual mystery crime drama of the kind Agatha Christie and her ilk might have written if they were alive today and used elements of psychological horror / slasher and fiction / film noir genres, than a noirish psychological study. Everything that happens to Fayard from the moment he leaves his apartment is a test of his character and intelligence in some way in a tight construction by Oe, and whether the Frenchman wins or not depends on if he can recognise the sequence of events happening around him as Oe’s next novel with himself as protagonist.

The acting isn’t anything special and Magimel who looks mostly shell-shocked has done far better work in films like Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” in which he played the manipulator student. There are very lovely scenes of modern Japanese life that are reminiscent of the style of Seijun Suzuki’s 1960’s gangster flick “Kanto Wanderer” and “Inju …” could be viewed as a travelogue of the exotic and perverse in modern Japanese culture with sometimes voyeuristic emphasis on its underbelly (the rich yakuza lifestyle, the use of ropes and knots in sadomasochistic sex) and the mix of native traditions and institutions with Western-style cultural sophistication.

“Inju …” could have been a riveting cat-and-mouse game in which Oe and Fayard try to outwit each other, trying to understand one another’s motives and Fayard himself questioning his own morality and original motivation in championing and criticising Oe’s body of fiction where evil always trounces good. Instead it’s a standard crime thriller with considerable potential left unrealised that Hollywood could do better if the right hack director (say,  Ridley Scott) were thrown into Schroeder’s hot seat. The opening scenes make “Inju …” worth at least one viewing.

At the very least, the movie can be viewed on one level as an intellectual subversion of Western presumptions about Japanese society, its treatment of women and the institution and of geishas and the roles they play vis-à-vis their male clients, and how one woman  uses her supposed victim status and passivity to play two men and their weaknesses against each other.

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