Japanese Title: 贖罪
Running Time: 300 mins.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Script), Kanae Minato (Original Novel)
Starring: Kyoko Koizumi, Eiko Koike, Sakura Ando, Chizuru Ikewaki, Yu Aoi, Mirai Moriyama, Ryo Kase, Teruyuki Kagawa, Hirofumi Arai
For the last few years I have reviewed a J-horror film or something twisted for this blog for Halloween. Well, I was reviewing lots of J-horror anyway but I would only write about something really good, usually from my favourite directors like Nightmare Detective (Shinya Tsukamoto) and Strange Circus (Sion Sono). This year I will review Penance directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
It was originally broadcast on the Japanese TV station WOWOW in five parts. A shorter version running at 270 minutes toured western film festivals like Venice and the East End Film Festival so it could be watched in one go. It has picked up for distribution by Music Box Films for release in the UK/Canada and US some time next year. I have watched the original episodes made for Japanese TV.
Penance is a five-episode TV drama based on Kanae Minato’s 317 page novel of the same name (Minato also wrote the novel which the film Confessions is based on) and is Kurosawa’s follow-up to the magnificent Tokyo Sonata.
Emiri Aachi is an elementary school student whose family have moved from urban Tokyo to sleepy Ueda due to her father’s work. She makes friends with four girls named Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuka. Emiri is the fashionable one who has all of the latest things and she brings some excitement into the lives of the girls but strange things are going on including the theft of French dolls. One day when the five girls are playing volleyball at school they are approached by a man dressed in work-clothes. He has been watching them intently and asks for their help in repairing the ventilation system in the school gym.
He claims to need someone who is small and immediately points at Emiri. The two head towards the gym and a long time passes. When there is no sign of Emiri returning her friends venture forth to find her and discover her dead body on the gym floor. When questioned by extensively by the police they cannot describe the man which leads to the investigation grinding to a halt.
Several months later, Emiri’s mother Asako (Koizumi) invites the four girls to her house for Emiri’s birthday. She serves them tea and a chilling message about how she will not forgive the girls for failing to describe the killer and she will never forgive them until the case is over and they have atoned for their silence by helping catch him.
Fifteen years later, Sae (Aoi), Maki (Koike), Akiko (Ando) and Yuka (Ikewaki) are still affected by what happened. Although each seems to be leading a functional life as a nurse or a teacher, they are still affected by the crime and living under the weight of the penance Asako expects.
Penance takes place over five episodes and each episode follows one of the major characters. The tone is much like a fairy-tale. Story-wise Asako is a witch who places a curse on the four children and each story like an allegory that plays out. Furthering this impression is the fact that each episode has Kurosawa’s well-crafted cold atmospherics which hint at the supernatural Those wide cavernous empty spaces with impenetrably dark corners, drab decaying but very mundane urban environments where people live in stasis, slaves to some past horror. Indeed this mise-en-scene suggests that horror is found in the ghosts of memories and the psychological trauma inflicted on them by the death of Emiri.
For all of the fairy-tale feel it definitely belongs in Kurosawa’s strand of filmmaking which is interested in human psychology, how society, expectations, trauma and guilt have such an impact. The death of Emiri and the guilt the girls have had placed on them by Asako mixes with neuroses instilled in them by bad parents and shaped people into becoming perpetual victims of self-deceptions and broken psyches which reflect of the worst aspect of their childhood selves. Titles like Séance, Retribution, Serpent’s Path and Eyes of the Spider deal with similar issues.
Episode one shows the inciting incident and then focusses on Sae Kikuchi played by the delicate Yu Aoi. Running under the title “French Doll”, Sae has grown up into a beautiful young woman, a nurse who lives alone by herself. She has the most profound fear of men, relationships and has seemingly stopped growing up. She has never had a period and cannot have children. On screen she hurries away from men and even physically shrinks from them.
Then she meets Otsuki. He is a well-to-do salary-man who has been sent to her from an omiai (a match-maker who arranges meetings between prospective couple, the sort of thing seen in Zero Focus). When Otsuki saves Sae from a drunken salary-man, Sae gradually warms up to him because he offers her protection and maybe because as he seems to be another adult who is stuck in childhood thanks to his domineering father running most aspects of his life. She then accepts his proposal of marriage but what starts off as a protective marriage soon turns into a prison as Sae is trapped at home by her controlling husband who demands increasingly strange things and reveals a twisted connection to her past.
Sae finds herself changing and as she changes Asako makes appearances like a spectre, having tracked her down to check up on the state of her penance. I will not go further but the first episode is very effective opening.
My personal favourite is episode four which focusses on Yuka, a girl who developed an obsession with police men after the crime and who was always ignored by her mother who chose to look after her sickly sister Mayu and shower her with gifts. Yuka, as played by Chizuru Ikewaki, has grown up into a manipulative temptress who craves the attention that was once showered upon Mayu even if it means destroying those closest to her.
Just look at that smirk!!! Unlike the other girls (apart from the more masculine in temperament though very broken Maki played by Eiko Koike) she has dealt with her fear of men by taking a more aggressive stance in life and uses her beauty to twist men to her whims and get ahead in the world. The other episodes are more overtly horror inflected with characters facing surreal and nightmarish situations but Yuka, next to the killer and Asako, is possibly the scariest of them all.
This is the pattern of the series. The characters have become emotionally stunted due to the issues that affected them and their past continue to blight their lives, making them respond to society and life in different ways. It is not overtly scary in a boo/smash monster on top of the closest way but very twisted and unnerving in its depiction of trauma and the ways it manifests itself in everyday life. As the series unfolds we get a slice of psychological horror and a twisted mystery that reaches a genuinely shocking resolution that paints an intriguing and disturbing picture of human psychology.
Overall this is a series with great acting and insidious directing which places us in the psychological hell. Kurosawa has surrounded himself with five great actresses who work with him to create a cast of compelling and scarred characters. The group truly brings the book to life with his usual incisive and cutting writing and his carefully composed shots. I’ll be watching this on Halloween night with a bunch of snacks and the lights turned off!