Japanese Title: 凶悪
Release Date: September 21st, 2013
Running Time: 128 mins.
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Writer: Kazuya Shiraishi, Izumi Takahashi (Screenplay),
Starring: Takayuki Yamada, Pierre Taki, Lily Franky, Chizuru Ikewaki, Kazuko Shirakawa, Yu Saito, Nozomi Muraoka
The events depicted in The Devil’s Path detail a series of shocking crimes that occurred in a mundane town in Japan. Thugs targeted isolated elderly people or each other to extort for money, often using violence. The police missed the seriousness of the situation due to the surrounding circumstances of the victims. It was not until a journalist at the Shincho45 editorial department made these crimes public in the nonfiction novel “Kyoaku-Aru Shikeishuu no Kokuhatsu” that the police arrested the culprits.
When the film opens we see a yakuza named Junji Sudo (Pierre Taki) on a violent rampage, murdering a series of people before getting caught by the police.
He ends up a death-row inmate and sends a letter to magazine reporter Fujii (Takayuki Yamada), claiming that a man named Kimura (Lily Franky) gathered together a group of people to commit numerous murders in order to scoop up life insurance money. Their targets were elderly people. Sudo wants revenge because Kimura tricked him into killing his loyal henchman and getting arrested by the police, all of which we have seen.
Fujii is drawn to the case and soon starts looking at maps, driving to locations and interviewing people but the more he becomes obsessed with the case the more he ignores his mother who has dementia and the more he ignores his wife who is at breaking point due to the stress she suffers with Fujii’s mother. His wife feels even more frustrated because of Fujii’s lack of emotion at home and his passion for the case. A strange relationship develops between Sudo and Fujii as they spend more and more time together to try and collar Kimura for the crime…
When dealing with real-life crimes, there are many ways to bring them to film. Someone like Sono makes a gore fest with plenty of black humour such as Cold Fish but with that film he had the benefit of an outlandish crime committed by rotten people against some other rotten people so we wouldn’t feel so bad about the violence and he could get away with it. The serious nature of the crimes in The Devil’s Path demand that the filmmakers take a respectful approach, highlighting many issues facing contemporary Japan but it seems that in attempting to detail the background of the case and create a narrative around events there is too much for the writers to adapt in an appropriate manner so they show everything and with little flair. The result is a lumbering film made duller by uninspired direction.
There are many themes involved in The Devil’s Path and each theme is treated solemnly. Most prominent is the treatment of the elderly, the decay of the family unit (even Yakuza families are falling apart), and the blight of economic depression that has fostered hopelessness and cruelty in the people involved in the case.
With so much to explore, the script settles for following Fujii’s journalistic investigation which proceeds extremely slowly as he looks through public records, makes maps, visits various locations and briefly talks to people connected to the case and reports back to Sudo who feeds him more information. These locations spark flashbacks to some slices of true crime cruelty as we witness the murders and tortures that took place there.
Despite the actual investigative element being light-weight stuff, it is a slow process that becomes tedious and dull to watch not least because the pacing is lethargic.
The film takes place over a number of years but that’s never made clear (although the pacing did feel loooong). As if sensing the lack of drama the scriptwriters’ change tack after a third of the film and the story opts for an extended flashback which indulges in some more displays of murder and cruelty of the murderers which throws in some gore and torture. At no point are the characters ever explored and so while their crimes are extreme, the chilling stuff of grisly newspaper reports, we never discover why these characters are doing such things and so the idea of this being a serious examination of modern moral maladies is undermined. We don’t need to engage that much, just know that the criminals are evil, desperate for money or easily lead. There is no effort to give them backgrounds as the investigation takes precedence. This light-weight characterisation and the script’s clumsy narrative that tries to make allusions between Fujii’s failing family life and the actions of the criminals mean that the emotional impact that Fujii’s work has is limited to the horrendous crimes.
This takes its toll on the actors who are saddled with dull roles not least lead actor Takayuki Yamada who gives an uncharacteristically uncharismatic performance which is almost wooden. With coal-rimmed eyes, he wanders about speaking in a monotone voice as he tries to convey how Fujii is despondent and obsessed with the case but he seems unchallenged, unmotivated, and uninterested in the role, a feeling that is infectious because that was how I came to regard the film. There are, however, two stand-outs.
Chizuru Ikewaki is largely wasted by valiantly generates some sympathy from her put upon housewife character. Stuck in a nightmarish situation, she simmers with resentment directed at Fujii’s job and this makes some tension. Unfortunately, she’s acting alongside a leading man who could be confused for a piece of wooden furniture.
Lily Franky is the stand-out and that is because he throws himself into his role as a highly charismatic psychopath Kimura with gusto. His act is all bonhomie and avuncular charm but behind the merriment and sympathy is a man with a wicked cruel streak who dances with delight over getting to take part in killing people. His glee belongs in a Sono film rather than this stodgy title and is symptomatic of a poor control of atmosphere thanks to lacklustre direction which is hammered home by lifeless visuals.
The film is visually charmless and the atmosphere is leaden. It looks like it has the production values of a television movie and the director does not take advantage of the power of cinema. Scenes are stolid and when they change locations or time periods they simply bleed into each other. Shot composition is conventional, camera movement is minimal, and despite a few tilts, most shots are at eye-level with a few scenes where the camera pans around. It’s a shame that there’s so little to look at since Fujii is traipsing around abandoned junkyards and houses.
Overall, I found the film a dull experience despite the subject matter. What should have been harrowing and tough to watch was dull and wearisome. In the hands of a better director armed with a sharper script, it might have lived up to its promise but it never comes to life.