Most Western remakes of Japanese properties shuck off all relation to the original locale, if only to avoid becoming a jumble. (See: Midnight Sun.) Inju is an odd case: it's a remake of a classic Edogawa Rampo mystery, but with only the protagonist relocalized and everything else left in place. The result's more reminiscent of the cringey '80/'90s-era cinematic view of Japan from films like Rising Sun than a smart remapping of an older property. It's twice as dismaying to see director Barbet Schroeder responsible for this, the fellow who gave us Barfly and Reversal of Fortune and Our Lady Of The Assassins. It could have been directed by anybody, and maybe anybody else would have relocated the movie completely and avoided the mistakes made here.
Unmasking the beast
Rampo's original novel, available in English along with his riotous classic The Black Lizard (made into not one but two stupendously hip film versions in Japan), is a grim little thriller; you can read it and Lizard all in an afternoon. A mystery novelist is drawn into an intrigue with a woman being threatened by a a former flame from her past. This shadowy figure appears to be the one and only Shundei Oe, a writer of mystery and horror fiction whose two main claims to fame are the grotesqueries of his work and his near-total reclusion. The novelist sets to work unmasking Oe, and gets a great deal more than he bargained for.
Schroeder's film takes this efficient little thriller, moves it into the present day, and modifies it for accessibility by Western audiences. The first of those changes I don't have a problem with, but the second one strikes me as superfluous: as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo proved, where something comes from isn't as important as what it tries to do. Here, the main character is now French mystery/thriller author Alex Fayard (Daniel Craig-esque actor Benoït Magimel), slightly smug and self-satisfied as he's recently scored a double win. He's not only gotten his most recent book published in Japan to great sales and critical acclaim, he's had it published by the same company that puts out reclusive author Shundei Oe — and with design and typography that deliberately brings to mind Oe's own books.
All this has been part of a long game on Alex's part to tease Oe out of the shadows and get him to unmask himself. Maybe he'll get Oe to show up on the Japanese talk show where he appears during a book tour. Oe doesn't appear in the flesh, but the man's box appears to have been duly poked: Oe calls in and makes not-so-veiled threats, backed up by weird things happening to Alex and those around him.
Then Tamao (Lika Minamoto) enters the picture, a geisha working at one of the houses where Alex gets entertained by his Japanese publishers. She's convinced only Alex can help her, as she believes an old boyfriend, obsessed by her, is Oe, and is now preparing to cinch a noose around her neck. Of course Alex can't say no to helping her, and before long that shades over into full-blown, uh, "involvement".
Less noir than merely drab
By modern standards, Rampo's story isn't very sophisticated. It follows one of the most durable rules of mystery plotting, namely that when all other options have been exhausted, the culprit is the one person you'd least expect it to be because the story never explicitly ruled them out. Schroeder's updating of it isn't much to write home about: he's just made explicit all the perverse stuff only hinted at in the original. But he also doesn't go very far with it; it's there mainly for the kind of momentary spice you'd see in the average episode of Law And Order: Special Victims Unit. It's a far cry from the cinema-of-the-extreme that Japan itself used to do in its sleep (and still does from time time to time).
The other modification to the story, Westernizing the hero, is even more misguided, because it involves another gratuitous modification to the original. In the original, the woman ("Shizuko" as she was called) was just an elegantly dressed woman of mystery. Here, Tamao, as she's now known, is a geisha, the embodiment of countless Western fetishes about Japanese women. The idea, I guess, is to make Tamao a seductive figure in a way that non-Japanese audiences can relate to, and to Schroeder's credit he goes to some length to make geisha-dom a major and well-annotated part of Tamao's life. But the end result still feels like Westernized Asia-sleaze, leading to embarrassing scenes where Tamao sucks on Alex's toes and instead of it being sexy all we can think is, hope she brought some mints for after.
Most of what works is in the margins. The entire opening sequence, for instance, is great — it's a dead-on stylistic riff on a retro-flavored film version of one of Rampo's own stories. But that turns out to be a fluke. For a movie that should be dripping with style, Schroeder's moviemaking is strangely unstylized. I'm always amazed by how directors like Gakuryu Ishii can take what would amount to the catering budget for a bigger movie and make wild visual explosions out of them (see: Electric Dragon 80.000 V), while people with far more money to throw around can end up with something shot with barely any more flair than a TV commercial.
I'm always fascinated when non-Japanese directors set a film in Japan, because of the number of ways things can go wrong. Sometimes they try to make the equivalent of a Japanese exploitation picture with a few Western castmembers for marketability (The Hunted). Sometimes they use the locale as set dressing to cover a fundamental lack of any story in the guise of "vision" (Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void), or as mere cultural tourism. And every now and then there's a project that uses the milieu to say something about it that only an outsider to could say (Mishima). Inju is mostly the second with a little of the first, and not a hint of the third.