Gukoroku – Traces of Sin 愚行録 Dir: Kei Ishikawa (2017)

Gukoroku – Traces of Sin   Gukoroku Film Poster

愚行録  Gukoroku」    

Running Time: 120 mins.

Director: Kei Ishikawa

Writer: Kosuke Mukai (Screenplay), Tokuro Nukui (Original Novel),

Starring: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Hikari Mitsushima, Keisuke Koide, Asami Usuda, Yui Ichikawa,

Website IMDB

A brutal crime is committed in Tokyo where a picture-perfect family is knifed to death by an unknown assailant. With the killer having disappeared, questions are left unanswered but the central protagonist of this film aims to answer them. Kei Ishikawa’s tightly controlled directorial debut ostensibly looks like a murder mystery similar to Rage (2016) where an ensemble cast lead the audience into the conclusion of a terrible atrocity but this is a mystery where it is less about the how and more about the why the perpetrator committed the crime. Based on a novel by Tokuro Nukui and adapted by veteran scriptwriter Kosuke Mukai, this is a disturbing film gives us a chilling portrait of people driven to murder by issues of class and background in a society where hierarchy is everything. In this tale, lies and deceit are inherent in everyone who bears traces of sin.

Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is an investigative reporter for Weekly Terrace, a scandal mag that thrives on digging into the private lives of idols and a spate of recent murders around the country. On the surface he is fine but he grew up in a troubled family and is going through a tough time trying to support his younger sister Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima) who was recently arrested for the maltreatment and starvation of her daughter Chihiro. She is being held in prison but her lawyer has a plan to get the charges looked at: make Mitsuko talk to a psychiatrist. Perhaps something in that troubled background was a cause for the maltreatment…

Back at Weekly Terrace, Tanaka is facing pressure to investigate an insurance murder in Nagoya but his heart is set on a potential cold case that will be a year old in a month. He wants to discover the facts behind the shocking murder of a seemingly ‘perfect’ family. The Takou family murder involved a successful businessman, a beautiful wife and their adorable daughter getting mercilessly knifed in their own home. Tanaka begins by interviewing old friends and acquaintances to look for a perp. The more he finds out, the more the clean-cut image of the husband Hiroki (Keisuke Koide) and wife Yukie (Wakana Matsumoto) crumbles. Stories of their true nature emerge as people knock down chunks of their reputation. Sordid affairs, callous treatment of co-workers and lovers and mere randoms who got caught in the way on their path up the social ladder. This behaviour stretches back to their time in Bunou university, a place where breeding is everything. It is here elite children are sent and those not from the upper-classes hope to be invited into the upper echelons of society through making connections. If you are from a poor or plain background, forget about it… unless you have a defining feature like beauty to attract some horny guys.

As Tanaka digs into the university connection for information he hears of intense struggles between outsider and insiders, people desperate to access the life of the wealthy, people who would fall prey to abuse and sexual exploitation and some of it is enough to push people less fortunate off the map of sanity…

This film paints a bleak picture of human behaviour, how we are supposedly all grubby grasping people using sex and power to satisfy our own libidos and willing to step on others to get ahead in life. We see a social elite exploit those beneath them, making others sell their souls and dignity for a taste of acceptance.

It is a perfectly balanced “why did they do it,” which gets into the details of character’s psychologies and backgrounds and how a hierarchical society separates everyone thanks to Kosuke Mukai’s sinuous script which creates a cast of rotten characters and their killer. He has a lot of experience considering he is Nobuhiro Yamashita’s go-to writer for a lot of projects and here he executes a thorough deconstruction of social mores of the rich kids and their naive prey through the series of interviews Tanaka conducts. The clean-cut image of the murdered couple gets doused in successive waves of scandal that will leave audiences increasingly unnerved and shocked but there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys here because the interviewees dishing the dirt on Hiroki and Yukie unveil their own hidden natures, their hatreds and jealousies. This creates a disturbing portrait of social elitism made up of a collage of bitter people all nursing some envy and pain. Society allows them, even forces them to act out their worst traits.

As Tanaka goes about recording the follies and foolishness of a bunch of self-centered and deceitful people, we see their actions played out in flashbacks, some of them intercut along with the interviews so we get contradictory views that add frisson to the proceedings and see sparks fly between characters. The more flashbacks we see, the more context the case is given and unnerving parallels between Tanaka’s background and his subject’s are brought to the fore as the reality of class in Japan is explored. The performances of the actors here are perfect with the cast transforming from fresh-faced kids into worn-out adults and back. They capture the characters perfectly as the rich kids display their carefree grins and their louche slouches and their predatory eyes looking over their hangers-on, mostly young women with hopeful smiles and naive stances that are ready to be shattered with a social slight or being ignored. Or maybe those naive kids reveal they know how to use sex to get ahead, too.

It features strong great performance from Satoshi Tsumabuki who almost seems like he is sleepwalking through his role, a man withdrawn, his eyes downcast and his voice quiet, but he’s not. His performance is that of a man carefully managing his image and maintaining his composure to make sure the filth he carries from his background doesn’t mix with what he hears and stains his image for reasons only he knows. Hikari Mitsushima is an empty-shell of a person, a hopeful dog lapping at the heels of those who show kindness to her after a lifetime of abuse. Her darkness has hollowed her out while Tsumabuki essays a man trying to hold it all in. The rest of the cast are uniformly perfect as the seemingly normal and clean cut people whose faces give way to sneers and looks of disgust when they talk about a rival and plot their downfall. Everyone sells the existential madness rooted in people torn between authenticity and the demands of a competitive society as everyone does their level best to get ahead, even if that means sacrificing others and their own morals. The acts of physical and emotional violence are sudden and horrendous, the final revelations are knock-down shocking and it is captured with precision by first-time feature film helmer Kei Ishikawa.

This is a stately film that uses camera movement exquisitely to deliver the drama. As much as this is all a conversation piece, there is so much camera movement that it makes the dialogue feel intense at times – a zoom in on a character giving a recollection and we see a faint smile at the thought of someone’s downfall, handheld cameras and close-ups for intimate conversations where people reveal their naked ambitions, overhead shots for some disturbing moments when a character is isolated and haunted by their memories. The observant camera film’s every character exquisitely as it captures their eyes and bodylanguage all of which speaks volumes, helping Tanaka and us judge people and seem them trapped them in their own neuroses.

This is a well-acted drama that will be shocking for some in terms of the depths of jealousy and sin that are uncovered on screen and the awful cost of social elitism.

6 thoughts on “Gukoroku – Traces of Sin 愚行録 Dir: Kei Ishikawa (2017)

  1. Top stuff as always! 🙂

    Sounds like my kind of film, Will have to keep an eye it for it. If only someone like Third Window would pick it up for a UK release…

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I think you’d get a lot out of this one since it gives the audience plenty to chew over and features Hikari Mitsushima. Her performance is heartbreaking at points.

      Will it get a UK release… Well, I’m not sure but it’s at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

      1. Glad to her it.

        Without sounding creepy (or old) I recall seeing her in the Ju-On: The Grudge 2 as one of the first idols that I knew of transitioning to acting, yet very little of her work has surface over here.

      2. I get where you’re coming from. It’s great to track an artist’s career and fascinating to see the evolution of an actor who starts off like an idol. She does a really good job in her role.

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