For all the talk of auteurs working on the small screen and helping to usher in a new golden age of television – Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann etc. – it’s hardly a phenomenon only made up of HBO’s current output. Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder both turned to television in the 1980s, for instance, and more recently British filmmakers Shane Meadows and Michael Winterbottom have both worked regularly on U.K. TV. The latest international filmmaker to follow in their footsteps is Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the Japanese filmmaker best known for his millennial horror masterpiece “Pulse.”
For his first work since 2008’s low-key, arthouse-minded non-genre picture “Tokyo Sonata,” Kurosawa has turned to the small screen, for a collaboration with the WOWOW network in Japan for “Shokuzai” (or “Penance,” in English), an adaptation of the novel by Kanae Minato (who also penned the source material for the Oscar-nominated “Confessions”). Presented in full 270-minute form out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, it lies somewhere between his genre fare and “Tokyo Sonata,” and it’s a fascinating, expansive piece of work, albeit one that struggles to escape its TV origins on the big screen, and that can’t quite stick the landing.
In the city of Ueta, tragedy strikes when a young girl, Emili, is abducted, raped and murdered when playing with her friends, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuka. All four saw the killer’s face, but claim they’re unable to remember anything about the incident. As a result, Emil’s mother Asako Adachi (Kyoko Koizumi) makes them swear that they’ll help find the murderer, or face an act of penance of her choosing.
15 years later, each have grown up haunted by the incident in different ways. Sae (Yu Aoi), a beautician, is unable to trust or get close to men, until she meets Takahiro (Mirai Moriyama), the heir to a big company, who offers protection -- that, it turns out, comes with a price. Maki (Eiko Koike) has grown up to be a strict, humorless school teacher at an establishment obsessed with online feedback from parents. She seems to find redemption in saving her class from a knife-wielding lunatic, but forgiveness doesn’t come so easy.
The withdrawn Akiko (Sakura Ando) starts to emerge from her shell when her brother (Ryo Kase) returns to town with a new wife and stepdaughter in tow, but starts to suspect that her older sibling might have some dark secrets. And Yuka, (Chizuru Ikewai) since the night of the murder, has obsessed over policemen, which comes to a head when her sister marries one. Each interact in different ways, over the course of 5 episodes of roughly 55 minutes each, with the older Asako, reminding them each of their promise of penance, at least until she starts to see the consequences.
There’s no way of avoiding the made-for-TV nature of the project. In part it’s the production values, which are a little shaky in places, including the drab locations out of any police procedural, some HDCAM digital photography which varies from passable to genuinely ugly, and a horrible score that insists on telegraphing every moment of suspense, drama or comedy about 30 seconds in advance. But for the most part, it’s the structure. Each episode essentially works as a stand-alone short story, with only the shared backstory and Asako’s presence linking the five. And one certainly suspects that “Penance” would work better when seen over five days, or five weeks, rather than in one marathon sitting.
However, it’s also a remarkably consistent and enjoyable piece of work. The four pieces focusing on the grown-up girls are each very different, from the portrait of a twisted romance to a darkly funny noir, and all four actresses are superb, with particular credit going to Ando, whose character borders on having mental health issues without ever quite crossing the line, and Ikewai, having enormous fun as a sweet-looking, moral-free femme fatale. The tone wavers, but Kurosawa’s touch ensures that they all feel of a piece, and his compositions remain immaculate throughout, even if the lighting is more disappointing (a poolside battle between Maki and the knife-wielding assailant being a particular highlight, shot-wise, framed over the heads of watching children in the pool, from a distance).
That the first four segments are so good – so unexpectedly funny, rich and moving – makes it all the more disappointing that Kurosawa can’t quite bring it to a satisfying close. The overarching plot of the search for Emili’s killer runs throughout the five episodes, but mostly in the background. In the final one, Asako takes center-stage, as old secrets comes to the surface and she comes closer to finding her daughter’s killer. And while Koizumi is superb, showing many different faces, from vengeful matriarch to sympathetic sister figure throughout, the director spends much of the last hour or so reiterating the same events over and over again, as well as piling twist upon twist, straining plausibility and dragging the pace.
It may be a side-effect of nearly five hours in a theater, but we feel like the narrative issues there are pretty undeniable, particularly once the film becomes the one millionth piece of drama to conclude with the moral "revenge makes you feel empty." Which is a shame, as “Penance” had held our attention remarkably well until that point. Still, it’s a reminder of what a tremendously talented writer and director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is, and hopefully we’ll see him venturing back to the big screen sooner rather than later. [B-]