Shokuzai (Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Japan) Part 1: 119 minutes Part 2: 148 minutes
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s last film Tokyo Sonata (2008) featured a salaryman who doesn’t tell his family he has been made redundant and continues to go to work as normal, hanging around a public park, dressed in his suit, with other jobless corporate workers. The film met with reasonable international success but was a flop in Japan and Kurosawa has since struggled to get funding for subsequent films. Like the hero of Tokyo Sonata, he continued going into work anyway and eventually got a television series off the ground. Based on Kanae Minato’s best-selling novel, Shokuzai (‘Penance’) was a five-part mini-series, released outside of Japan as a two-part film, running to four and a half hours in total. Its made-for-TV origins are rarely evident and it's a fine addition to Kurosawa’s oeuvre, which has long straddled horror and social realism.
The film focuses upon the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl, Emili, the daughter of an industrialist recently arrived in a small Japanese town. Four of her friends are with her as she is taken away by her killer, who poses as a technician doing repairs in their school; the four girls discover her body but, traumatised, they are unable to help the police and the hunt for the murderer goes cold. None of this convinces Emili’s mother Asako (Japanese pop star Kyôko Koizumi, previously seen as the wife in Tokyo Sonata) who takes the four aside and tells them she demands information from them or else she will exact unspecified compensation.
After the initial prologue we fast-forward fifteen years, where the girls are now young women leading separate lives. A different episode focuses on each, with the only common thread the presence of Asako, who flits in and out, looking increasingly deathly, as if she is an avenging angel. Each of the four women has internalised her trauma in a way that ‘de-feminises’ them – Sae (Yû Aoi) has never menstruated once in her life, convinced it is punishment for her failure to remember the killer’s face. She meets and marries a former school friend, now a wealthy businessman, who is seemingly unfazed by her barrenness but who incorporates her into a weird fetish whereby she adopts the role of a passive rag doll. Maki (Eiko Koike) is a primary school teacher, in a school very similar to the one the killing took place in; she practices the martial art Hiro Koda and has an overbearing possessiveness regarding the children in her care, which is one day put to the test when a knife-wielding maniac attacks them.
Akiko (Sakura Ando) has turned into a tomboyish hikikomori, living with her parents, playing video games in her room and whose only social relationship is with the neglected seven-year-old daughter of her brother’s girlfriend. Finally, Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki) follows her sister to Tokyo and promptly seduces her husband behind her back.
Shokuzai is an unusual horror movie in that the fateful killing is kept largely offscreen and happens at the beginning, letting the story, and the characters, unwind from thereon out. Like Kurosawa’s previous films, the tone is one of heightened realism, where just the slightest modification of the everyday is sufficient to induce uneasiness in the viewer. Though the plot lurches from time to time into the incredible, the film’s portrayal of disturbed characters is masterly and complex.
The only flaw lies in the final episode, which offers a framing narrative, focused on Asako herself, and which delivers the answer as to who killed Emili. All this is a bit unnecessary as Shokuzai has not been a whodunnit up until that point and it delivers a very weak punch indeed. One presumes that Kurosawa inherited it from the source novel and television executives would have been none-too-keen to change the ending. It does seem at odds though with the rest of the film and Kurosawa’s previous work. Still, the damage is not fatal and Shokuzai is a remarkably rich work that has made Kurosawa bankable once again. He has another film, Real, on the way but more troubles have arrived, with his biggest production to date, the historical drama 1905, largely in Chinese, starring Tony Leung, falling foul to budgetary problems and the Shenkaku Islands dispute between Japan and China. The poor man must feel as cursed as the characters in his films.