In Japan, it's famous. There's one iconic image in particular, of two legs sticking out of the water, that everyone knows and regularly gets parodied by pranksters.
However it's the story that's famous, not this particular film. It was originally a novel by Seishi Yokomizo and it's since been adapted into three movies, five TV movies, a manga and even a video game. Believe it or not, this isn't even the only one of those that was directed by Kon Ichikawa and had Koji Ishizaka playing the lead role of the detective, Kosuke Kindaichi. Ichikawa remade it thirty years later and cast the same lead actor, which as it turned out would be the last film of his 73-year career as a director. (That's not his age. That's how long he was directing movies.)
It's approximately a murder mystery. Grandad Inugami is on his deathbed, attended by a horde of unpleasant relatives. He has three daughters, all by different mothers. (If any had been married, it hadn't been to him.) Each of those daughters has a bitchy temperament and a grown-up son.
Anyway, gramps has a surprise for everyone. He's left his entire fortune to a pretty girl (Yoko Shimada), on condition that she marry one of his grandsons. That's it. That's the only way any of his family will see a penny. However he also put clauses in his will saying what will happen if anyone died before they can collect, which was thoughtful of him because not everyone's going to reach the end credits in one piece.
Surprisingly, as a detective mystery, it's bollocks. I'd been expecting something better from such a famous story, but no. The private detective Ishizaka is okay, although he's not a particularly big player in the story, but the police are laughable. I couldn't believe in the reality of what I was watching. Someone dies near the beginning and the film makes so little out of this that I forgot about it. Ishizaka picks up a brooch at a murder scene with his fingers and talks about it for a couple of minutes with the police, who only then take it in a handkerchief to avoid fingerprints. The local police chief makes Lestrade look like Sherlock Holmes, since at least Lestrade was capable of taking charge of an investigation and making things happen. You'd think Japan didn't have a police force for all the effect they (don't) have.
There are also stylistic quirks. There's not much incidental music, but every so often at dramatic junctures it'll burst out in distracting or unintentionally amusing ways. This is music that draws attention to itself. Then there's the acting, which is outstanding from the bitchy aunties but from the others very occasionally will have a touch of ham.
Finally there are the disturbing sexual politics. You can't pretend that women aren't the powerful ones in this story, but there's something troubling about how the story deals with Shimada's character. I want to believe that it's saying more about the Inugami family than about Japanese gender politics in general, but you'd never believe how the boys react to learning that they'll inherit the family fortune if they marry Shimada. Do they woo her? Do they even seem to think her opinion enters into the matter? No, one of them starts slapping her around and forcing himself on her, while another goes for chloroform and attempted rape.
Oh, and don't think about the plot too hard afterwards, or you might break your head on the incestuous implications.
Given all that nonsense, how did this story become famous? The answer, I think, lies in the flamboyance of its grand guignol. There's grotesque flair in the killings, in the backstory and then in what happens next after we've unmasked the killer. At that point there's still an entire half-hour to go! At first I was perplexed, but it's just that Yokomizo isn't interested in emulating Agatha Christie and instead is about to plunge us ever-deeper into richly screwed up motivations and flashbacks. That was cool, actually. It's great fun watching certain people self-destruct.
The murders are theatrical. The blood is distractingly bright, like poster paint. The aunts are more important than the victims. There are bizarre camera effects for the flashback scenes, which include beatings and nudity. (Nice breasts, by the way.) There's also a silent and possibly retarded man in a white gimp mask who came back from World War Two with a face that looks as if half of it got machine-gunned off. He looks like either a Mexican wrestler or Michael Myers from the Halloween films, depending on taste.
As for the plot, even Tomoko had to look up a few details on the internet afterwards... and this wasn't even the first time she'd watched a version of this story. Obviously she hadn't been having language problems, unlike me, but there are lots of similar-sounding names.
The direction is loud, if you know what I mean. Kon Ichikawa is grabbing your collar and shouting at you, which works with this florid subject matter. As for the film itself, it's enjoyable. It sustained its length and I liked Koji Ishizaka, who's likeable and has an easy charm. If it weren't for the running time, I'd be hunting down the 2006 remake to compare the two Ichikawa-Ishizaka versions. Oh, and the novel's author, Seishi Yokomizo, has a cameo role here as an innkeeper, while apparently there are quite a few films starring his detective, Kosuke Kindaichi. This would be the first of Ishizaka's six attempts at the role, incidentally. This particular one wasn't what I'd been expecting, but in some ways it was better.