The Murders of Oiso
ある殺人、落葉のころに 「Aru satsujin, rakuyo no koro ni」
Release Date: N/A
Duration: 79 mins.
Director: Takuya Misawa
Writer: Takuya Misawa (Screenplay)
Starring: Koji Moriya, Haya Nakazaki, Yusaku Mori, Shugo Nagashima, Natsuko Hori, Ena Koshino, Chun Yip Lo, Toko Narushima,
Debuting at last year’s Busan International Film Festival, The Murders of Oiso took the Japan Cuts Award at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020. It is the sophomore feature from director Takuya Misawa who made waves with his 2015 debut Chigasaki Story. He returns with a slice-of-life film shot with a Hong Kong crew in a cut-up narrative that has a noirish atmosphere as he looks at the shadowy side of the titular town and its citizens.
Oiso is a quiet and pristine seaside town in Kanagawa which is nestled between a beautiful coastline and scenic countryside. The location is marked by the colours of fall as the season unfolds under cold and clean sunlight with a chill in the air. This is where prime ministers of Japan retire to, a pleasant place chosen by Misawa because it could be emblematic of Japan. Beautiful on the outside, hidden inside are various instances of small-scale corruption as conducted by seemingly average people that make life harder for everyone.
Our window into this world comes through the strained friendship between Tomoki (Haya Nakazaki), Shun (Koji Moriya), Kazuya (Yusaku Mori), and Eita (Shugo Nagashima). They have hung out together since their childhood and this connection has continued into adulthood as Kazuya’s uncle, their former teacher, helped the four get jobs in the family construction firm but when he is found dead their relationship dynamics are disrupted, especially for Kazuya who has to take on the mantle of running the construction company and discovers criminals use it for their own gain.
This disruption is rich with moments of drama as secrets emerge such as Ito’s secret wife Chisato (Natsuko Hori) being revealed. These breaks from the norm of behaviour create the catalyst for the characters to either fully accept conforming to or rebelling against their positions in society as their battle with their complicated history and characters is revealed.
The central relationship between the four boys is a really odd one where they act out roles that allow them to avoid directly confronting the problems in their lives. From the start of the story it is clear that a shared suffering of being under the thumb of others and suffering abuse links them so that even in instances of cowardice, cruelty and violence, they retain sympathy. Even Kazuya who acts like a bully to those around him, we feel sorry for because he does so to keep the protective circle of his friendship around him. It creates an interesting and realistic dichotomy of contradictory behaviour that powers a constant tension in the film which spikes with acts of criminality.
The list of sins will be familiar to the audience as they are culled from newspaper headlines. Illegal fly-tipping, bullying, elder abuse, sexual harassment and worse are touched upon but never shown as Misawa favours shooting scenes without showing everything. He withholds audio, cuts away to the reaction to the crime and uses a visual or audio cue to clue the audience in to what has happened. Observant viewers will be able to tell how people regard each other from seeing actor’s blocking and movement or just recognising someone peering in on an argument when they pop up later to spread news to someone with an interest.
Artful in audio and visual terms, the film’s descents into criminality and death are presaged by interesting uses of camera angles and editing to create a noir tone or add a horror inflection to a scene to colour in this slice of life. Sometimes a flashback between characters after someone picks up a specific prop is enough to set off an idea of a whole menacing backstory so we understand why someone like Shun wants to break away from the toxic situation.
This could be heavy handed in tackling social issues but it isn’t. Nothing is ever directly shown because Takuya Misawa’s script is loaded with techniques to create a space for viewer engagement, for audiences to think about why the characters behave the way they do. There are three different narrators (including Misawa) who think back on memories or offer secondhand information, the narrative is told in a nonlinear fashion from different perspectives and timelines to create a patchwork picture full of crimes and misdemeanours and there is an ambiguity to everything we see but everything is eventually connected up in a complicated web of relationships that creates a stifling sense of conformity and control as everyone is implicated whether as bystanders, victims, accomplices or predators.
If there is any criticism it is that the indirectness sometimes leads to no clean resolution – what happens to Ito’s wife, Chisato??? – and the demands on the viewer’s attention and the ambiguous rewards in story make the 76 minutes feel longer and unfocused than it actually is but, sometimes, life is like that and having a film that demands attention and addresses social issues is a good thing in a sea of simple entertainment.
Despite these minor caveats the atmospherics are marvellous and the sense of being in this community is palpable, so much so, one feels a sense of relief when the story is closed and the memories put on hold. It’s a mature and enjoyably complex film that uses cinematic techniques to provide an all-encompassing sense of life in this community while tacking social issues in a subtle and intelligent way.