Romaji: Enjeru Dasuto
Japanese Title：エンジェル ダスト
Release Date: 23rd September 1994 (Japan)
Running Time: 116 mins.
Director: Sogo Ishii
Writer: Sogo Ishii, Yorozu Ikuta
Starring: Kaho Minami, Takeshi Wakamatsu, Etushi Toyokawa, Ryoko Takizawa, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshinori Kondo, Yukio Yamato, Jin Akiyama, Tomorowo Taguchi
I avoid serial killer films but Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997) is the exception. I love it. It is partly due to the atmosphere that is unique to Kurosawa’s films, his intelligent deployment of cinematic techniques to create specific feelings and plot twists, the dose of the supernatural, intelligent writing, and deep characters. Angel Dust (1994) has many of the same elements.
Monday 26th September, a female commuter collapses on a busy train. She is the first victim of a killer serial killer who strikes using a syringe full of poison. Enter Dr. Setsuko Suwa (Minami), an analyst of abnormal personalities. She joins a special investigation team and she sets about trying to stop the killer. To aid her she contacts an ex-lover Dr. Rei Aku (Wakamatsu), a cult de-programmer at his clinic, Re-freezing Psychorium who reverses brainwashing. With Rei on board Setsuko’s investigation takes a twisted turn as he launches psychological warfare on her and she begins to suspect that he might be the killer.
Both Angel Dust and Cure take place in a highly stylised Tokyo which affects the characters in startling ways and creates an intriguing psychogeography to explore.
Ostensibly a serial-killer thriller, the film focuses on Setsuko’s investigation which moves at a measured pace gradually revealing who each character is and the ideas and experiential values they hold. As we follow the film, the ideas are discussed and tested and eventually the story begins to twist the character’s, particularly Setsuko’s, perceptions and beliefs until their metaphysical reality and their identities disintegrate which leaves them (and the audience) wondering who the killer is and what their motivation could be.
Technically Ishii shows a stylish mastery of the cinematic medium to convey Setsuko’s mental space. On top of the studied pacing of the film we witness intelligent use of editing techniques in expressionistic dream sequences with quick cutting between startling images, and rigorous shot composition. The moment when Setsuko leaves the deadened sprawl of Tokyo to meet Rei in verdant woodlands for an intense conversation is a lesson in the use of close-ups and match-cutting as we watch the two carefully for indications of what they are thinking. In other conversations there is wonderfully smooth camera work which remains a patient observer as it glides around characters. The film is visually striking as it mixes colours from sickly greens, nauseous yellows, stifling reds, cold blues, and deep blacks.
The actors in the middle of this capture the mysterious natures of their characters. Kaho Minami is brilliant. From her entry into the investigative team it is clear that Setsuko is a woman in a man’s world and she has to be very controlled. Minami is wonderfully ice-cool in her demeanour. When she begins to doubt reality and undergoes something of an existential crisis I was caught up in her inner-turmoil. She is a version of Clarice Starling only with a much more precarious grip on reality.
Takeshi Wakamatsu (Ring 0: Birthday) with his lopsided grins is a complete monster of a character. His careful and controlled motions (and raised eyebrow) convey the sense of intelligence and confidence of someone secure in his individuality and outsider status and able to manipulate others.
For my money Japanese filmmakers use the medium of cinema best to explore psychologies and psychogeography. Whether it is Sion Sono, Shinya Tsukamoto, or Kiyoshi Kurosawa, few directors display a knack for taking characters, ideas, or locations and exploring every nook and cranny and coming out with dark and disturbing alternate realities. Add Sogo Ishii to that list.
Angel Dust is a film with a controlled pace that allows a deep and thoughtful atmosphere to slowly envelope the viewer as the film probes the dark recesses of the human mind and the vagaries of perception. The story is interesting and thanks to Ishii’s visual techniques it grips as the plot becomes even more tricky and exciting.