Japanese Title: Seventh Code
Romaji: Sebunsu Kodo
Release Date: January 11th, 2014
Running Time: 60 mins.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Ryohei Suzuki, Hiroshi Yamamoto, Aissy
2013 was the year for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s return to mainstream big-budget filmmaking. He released two films, both star-packed with idols. The first was the big-budget sci-fi film Real, a title that was subject to critically and commercially middling responses. I found it a dull trudge through a slight story with one-note characters played by Takeru Sato and Haruka Ayase. The better received of the two movies, and definitely the most interesting viewing experience, was his latest film Seventh Code which won two awards at the Rome Film Festival for Best director and technical contribution for Koichi Takahashi, the editor. Kurosawa was reportedly very surprised to get them. After watching Seventh Code I can see why.
The true nature of this little thriller is that it is essentially a 60 minute promo (including a music video at the end!) for Atsuko Maeda, a former leader of the J-pop supergroup AKB48, to display her acting. Maeda has picked all sorts of roles that go against the cute idol image she had built with AKB48 by working with a myriad of auteurs on titles that break the idol image. She has been directed by the likes of Hideo Nakata in the J-horror film The Complex, and two dramedies The Drudgery Train and Tamako in Moratorium, both directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita. With Kiyoshi Kurosawa Maeda has met the director whose style can annihilate her cute idol past. I say this because Kurosawa is famed for being a horror auteur with some pretty bone-chilling titles in his filmography and also credited with directing the least sexiest pink film ever (according to Wikipedia it is called College Girl: Shameful Seminar and that film was reworked into the 1985 non-pink film The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl). For the first twenty-minutes of Seventh Code this intriguing film looks set to change our perceptions of the girl as Maeda gets swallowed up in Kurosawa’s style and love of a mystery!
Maeda plays a girl named Akiko who has travelled to the Russian port city of Vladivostok to track down a man named Matsunaga (Suzuki), the man she seems convinced is the love of her life based on a brief meeting in Tokyo a month earlier. With no clear idea of where he might be coincidence strikes when he exits a particular green car on his way to a meeting. When Akiko stops Matsunaga he is confused at first then takes her to a restaurant where he claims not to remember her, tells her not to trust anyone in a foreign country and suddenly leaves.
When Akiko tries to find Matsunaga again she is attacked by Russian mafia thugs, kidnapped, and thrown into a wasteland with no money except a few coins. She refuses to give up tracing Matsunaga and coincidence strikes again as she stumbles upon a restaurant run by a Japanese man named Saito (Yamamoto) and his Chinese girlfriend (Aissy). From there she begins tracing Matsunaga but will she be able to contest with the dangerous men around him…
Akiko is at first an odd character. With her incessant need to meet mysterious man Matsunaga the film takes on a psychological thriller element as we wonder just why Akiko is blindly following him regardless of the danger, handsome and suave though he is. Is she a tremendous bubblehead and is he worth the risks? Is this the case of love really making people mad? What sort of emotional baggage is she carrying? She’s practically reciting his name like a mantra to get her through her days spent in a horrid Russian city where everyone is a stranger and offers some sort of threat. The film takes all sorts of twists and turns and as it progresses and viewers are teased that there is more to Akiko than just blind love like in the way she gets herself back to the city from the wasteland, her language skills, and the way she is relentless in her task. For the first thirty to forty-minutes there are random and crazy events which may confuse viewers as Akiko discovers secrets in her search but soon things begin to make sense and the story contracts into something more familiar and conventional. To say anything more will be to ruin twists as Maeda steps away from her cute schoolgirl idol image and matures a bit by running through the Kurosawan aesthetics as a character with more than just a pretty smile.
Kurosawa, famed for his horror movies which make everywhere in Japan look scary (even the countryside), manages to turn Russia into a decaying corpse. The post Soviet city of Vladivostock is a miserable place filled with a warren of streets which are all a dingy, the walls covered in agit-prop posters, twisted graffiti, and chipped paint and the wan sunlight serves only to illuminate the trash strewn along the cobblestones and cast stark shadows across corridors which characters have to brave to get what they want. Even in foreign countries Kurosawa insists on taking his leads to derelict buildings rusting away and overgrown with weeds and populated by people harbouring secret malignant intentions. Outside the city is not much better as mist covers much of the land. The only places of safety are the little café Akiko works in, a pokey and dingy affair with much despair in the air, and the one place of actual comfort is the ramshackle apartment she shares with Aissy, paint peeling from the walls, dust covering every surface except the bed. Meanwhile the mysterious Matsunaga’s apartment, while sumptuously put together with ornate and stylish furniture in a few rooms, is mostly a cavernous building missing much in the way of comfortable friendly colours but having plenty of billowing curtains which take on menacing phantasmic forms.
All of the characters, as is typical for a Kurosawa film, seem to hold some sort of self-doubt or angst. Two particularly good scenes that mix characters and locations are Maeda’s chase of Matsunaga’s car up a foggy hill and the following sequence when she gets back to the restaurant at night and Aissy is sat at a table obsessively putting sugar into containers and running through her thoughts about her future while a cat stalks around in the shadows in the background.
Amidst all of this madness Maeda, our main character and the star of this promo, strikes a positive note as our little leading lady. Her role could have made a lesser actor stumble by playing things in too artificial a way because the narrative is a rather oblique one (if ultimately slight) but she commits to the role with gusto, speaking Russian with what appears to be ease, running, leaping, and searching for her goal with a strange determination mixed with indecision that hooks audience interest. I don’t think she is a brilliant actress yet. Her performance in The Complex was pretty awful but I feel that was partly down to Hideo Nakata’s direction. With this role and others previously mentioned, she proves there is substance to her. Here’s Atsuko Meada as an adorable AKB48 girl
She seems more mature, harder, and less innocent in films I have watched her in. Rather fittingly, we get a reminder of her past as an idol as she performs in a music video at the end of the film and how much she has progressed as an actress:
If she plays to her strengths like in Tamako in Moratorium and continues to work with interesting auteurs she will continue to grow.
I’m eager to see her in Kabukicho Love Hotel.
I can imagine that people with no interest in J-pop idols or Japanese films will think this a slight film and ultimately pointless but I think this is a fun little thriller and at only sixty minutes it isn’t too big a commitment
My top five Kiyoshi Kurosawa films are:
Check out my biography and filmography of my favourite director!