EIGHT HOURS OF FEAR Offbeat Japanese thriller set on passenger bus
EIGHT HOURS OF FEAR (aka HACHIJIKAN NO KYOFU, 1957) offers a classic suspense plot focused on a group of people confined to a small space under threat from criminals who have taken control of them. In this case, it's a small rural bus containing about 15 passengers on their way to make a train to Tokyo after the train line they meant to ride has stopped service due to a landslide. The bus is then stopped and boarded by a pair of criminals fleeing with the proceeds of a bank robbery. The passengers constitute a microcosm of Japanese postwar society and their numbers include a businessman and his arrogant wife; a lecherous lingerie salesman with crude personal habits; a radical student couple given to singing Russian work songs; a despairing single mother with her baby; an aspiring actress on her way to an audition; a seasoned sex worker lamenting the closing of American bases in Japan; an old couple going to visit their daughter; and a detective escorting his prisoner, a convicted murderer. The driver is an old man who works rural mountain routes and the rickety bus is a relic of an earlier age. The movie itself, although filled with references to World War II and postwar problems, plays like it could have been filmed and staged twenty years earlier. It has the feel of a much older movie and deliberately recalls such Hollywood movies of the 1930s as Frank Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, much of which also takes place on a long bus trip through back roads, and John Ford's STAGECOACH, but with a much darker edge than either of those films.
The characters are informed early about bank robbers on the loose and their bus ride is marked by fear of a potential encounter. It quickly becomes clear that the more "respectable" passengers are the most cowardly and the least reliable in a crisis. The first major setback occurs when the single mother and her baby go missing and are discovered unconscious in the river over which they've just crossed by bridge after taking a break on the road. The prisoner turns out to have been an army doctor and is recruited to try to save the baby's life as the ride continues. Eventually, of course, the robbers appear on the road and stop the bus and board it. After they've learned of the detective's presence and booted him from the bus, they force the driver and passengers to follow their instructions. When they are stopped by rural police, one of the robbers holds a gun on the baby as the others assure the police they've seen nothing out of the ordinary. Quite a bit of suspense develops as the passengers slowly develop a plan to turn the tables on the robbers, culminating in an eventful confrontation on a mountain pass blocked by a landslide.
The scenes in the bus are mostly shot in a studio set with moving backgrounds supplied by rear screen projection. After the robbers enter the story, several major scenes are shot on location in a mountainous region on narrow, treacherous roads. Significant portions of the action move off the road for what must have been a difficult shoot, enhancing the plausibility of the proceedings. The actors are all excellent and make their characters quite believable. (The actor who plays the lingerie salesman is quite funny and reminded me of British comedian Benny Hill.) I'm only familiar with two of the cast members, Nobuo Kaneko, who plays Mori, the army doctor-turned-prisoner, and Hideaki Nitani, who plays the student radical. I wish I knew which actress played the attractive prostitute, who has a secret that's revealed late in the film and adds a whole new layer to her character, while commenting on the plight of women and racial attitudes in postwar Japan. It's hard to identify the cast members since only one of the characters, Mori, is identified by name in the film. (The fact that no one introduces themselves to each other in the film should tell you something about the social mores of this motley group.)
The director is Seijun Suzuki, who would go on to become renowned for the increasingly experimental style he would bring to genre exercises at the Nikkatsu studio, an approach that would irritate the studio bosses and have negative repercussions for his career. While there are occasional bold camera angles and unique editing touches, EIGHT HOURS OF FEAR was still early in his career and is comparatively conventional compared to such later works as BRANDED TO KILL and TOKYO DRIFTER. To be honest, I tend to prefer the earlier films to his later ones. I saw this film in a 35mm print at a Seijun Suzuki retrospective held in November 2015 at the Walter Reade Theater (Film Society of Lincoln Center) in New York. The series was programmed by Tom Vick, author of "Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki."
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