Cinema-Manaic: Voice Without a Shadow (1958)

Regardless of the medium, mystery/pot boilers centered stories I don’t check out frequently. When I think of a mystery story I think about someone trying to solve a crime, or find answer to an unexplained incident. For me, they all feel like they play out the same in the general way; main characters attempt to look for answers, eventually hit a dead end until finding the one clue that brings everything together, and finally explaining to the viewer how it worked out. Usually having me forget about its characters the next day.  Movies like these I get the appeal, but if I’m not going to get engaging characters than everything else surrounding them has to make up for it. Voice Without A Shadow does exactly that, even if it’s nothing outstanding by the end of it.

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Reporter Notes: There was a murder at the crime scene, and someone is responsible.

Voice Without A Shadow starts out unconventional before becoming formulaic with its storytelling. You’re introduce to Asako Takahashi (Yoko Minamida), a telephone operator who who dials the wrong number one night, and hears the voice of a murderer. You would be wrong to assume that Asako would be the focus, and the rest of the movie would be her trying to help the police find the killer with her unmatched hearing. Stated in the movie to be able to differentiate, and recognize hundreds of different voices like no other person. The initial setup is fascinating using sound in a technical aspect to enhance put us in the same position as Asako. Making certain everyday activity sound louder to Asako, and in turn the audience watching. Unfortunately there is a time skip to three years later where we’re told the case has gone cold. This occurs in the first few minutes where it eventually takes another turn to where Asako does little in the effort to prove her husband’s innocence in a murder that transpired.

 

Within the first act of the movie, twice it does away with the initial setup before falling in the familiar territory of a pot boiler mystery. Towards the end of the first act newspaper journalist Hiroshi Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) who might as well be a detective since that his purpose in the movie. Putting the actual police force to shame when he’s able to put clues together that the police force overlooked. Something as simple like a bag being dry on the day it was found when the day before it was raining is one of many simple details the police force don’t think about. There is one detail in particular that is outrageous that the police force didn’t even considered. Without spoiling the actual movie, it would basically be the equivalent of someone filming a murder scene, and the police having to be told by someone outside the force the camera can record things, and therefore must have recorded the murder. This movie does the Japanese police force no favors in making them out to look incompetent at their jobs.

Shifting the focus to Ishikawa means you get the familiar routine of him interviewing people on the night of the crime, being at his wits end trying to solve the murder, having a near death encounter the closer he gets to solving the crime, and getting the one clue he needs to piece everything together. When in this state the movie plays out mechanically safe to fall into your expectations. Doing so by sharing a understanding why a familiar formula is so effective even after hundreds of usage. It’s biggest bright spot in this routine are the dead ends Ishikawa comes across during the case. They’re presented in a logical way with some detail that makes the case itself more complicated than it appears. Every time Ishikawa believes he got a lead there’s something that pushes him back further from finding any answers. Leading to many good head scratcher moments when attempting to solve the case alongside Ishikawa.

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Even in a still image, Jo Shishido character is still hateable

My biggest issue with the movie is the lack of depth to the characters. They’re treated more like plot devices which means generally delivering expository dialogue after expository dialogue. Showing very little personality in its writing. At it best, the character writing is great when characters are talking about their past, and the rare comments about love. Ishikawa is the most interesting of the cast of characters with a colleague of his wondering why he’s solving a mystery for woman he knows won’t love him back. These moments when the characters don’t talk about the murder case are a highlight since they don’t happen often. Ishikawa gets delved into a fair amount showing his dedication to journalism, and seeking the truth. Being the only one in the cast to come out unscathed from the writing other issues.

 

There’s a good attempt to present some complexity to some of the suspects, but it sadly goes into the “we’re bad” category of writing eventually. A shame too since the movie does a good job not making the suspects obvious to Ishikawa even though the audience knows a bit more than he does. Asako side of the story attempts to create some paranoia through the usage of sound whenever she’s relevant. It doesn’t quite work like the writing intended because at random points it’ll switch characters perspective. Leaving little time for any paranoia to creep in. Once it finally comes together at the end the viewing experience is made worthwhile. What few character arcs it actually have reach satisfying conclusions. The answers to the mystery itself are mostly logical, and seeing the case itself being solved it a high point itself. Executing the familiar elements of a mystery just right to leave a positive impression.

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(Not) Very subtle with the devil mask

Taking the charge for most of the movie is Hideaki Nitani. His biggest hurdle is the dialogue he’s given. Being unable to make it sound natural, but he does a decent delivery job delivering it. Nitani best moments of acting are surprisingly the sparse instances where the camera closes up on his face, and is able to express an array of emotions within his character. These more quieter moments displays greater potential in his acting abilities. Yoko Minamida is the standout in the cast. Despite the film minimizing her role the longer it goes she elevates whatever scene she’s in. Perfectly getting across the fear, and turmoil her character struggles through. Jo Shishido makes an appearance in a small role as a sleazy businessman. Give whatever character you want to Jo Shishido, and he’ll find a way to play the character naturally. Suitably obnoxious, and hateable he eases his way in a simple role. He ain’t in the film for much of it, but he will leave an impression. Toshio Takahara is mostly made out to be pathetic, but sympathetic at the same time. Sadly, he’s not given much to do beside look worried. The actors who play the suspects are good in their small roles with some able to make an impression.

 

Director Seijun Suzuki doesn’t spice things up in terms of writing, but on the technical side shows restraint in his style, and eagerness to make the most out of a scene visuals. One of these includes having an entire flashback sequence being entirely filmed in dutch angles. Creating a distorted look to the film in this sequence. Another stylistic choice are involves moments when it’s in first person, and appearing as if the characters are talking directly into the camera. It also briefly uses some tracking shots as well to set the mood accordingly. In one scene, Suzuki faintly has a shot of Yoko Minamida trying to sleep, and faintly faded visuals of her co-stars playing mahjong in the scene, and playing around with the audio to make the noticeable noise of mahjong moving around be become loud. Stylistic choices like these prevent the movie from being visually mundane.  Music is fine, but nothing memorable. It sounds like a dozen other pot boiler mystery movie score.

Voice Without A Shadow represents the general appeal of a pot boiler mystery, and also the lack of investment towards the characters involved. It might play things safe for a majority of its run time, but there is effort to make something good out of it. It succeeds more than it fails playing into your expectations. 

Rating: 7/10

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