Written & Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, one of the most talented working directors in international cinema, is undeniably a master formalist, and skilled enough that, though a primarily a helmer of horror movies, he's usually able to easily move across genres, even within a single film; Doppelganger, for example, begins as a straight horror movie and ends up a farce with a successful ease that Eli Roth could only dream of matching. (Not to mention it takes a detour in its middle as a road movie.) His central flaw, however, is his convoluted narrative-style; while it can be a virtue in absorbingly enigmatic films like Charisma, other times it merely renders his stories, and his films, incomprehensibly uninteresting.
His latest, Retribution, produced by now nearly legendary J-horror producer Takashige Ichise (of the Ringu and Ju-On series) falls somewhere in between the obscurity of Pulse and the perspicuity of Seance; it's best described as the host of the screening at the New York Asian Film Festival, where I caught it, explained it for the audience: half standard J-Horror, complete with a female ghost sporting long and straight black hair, and half far-out Kurosawa, a generic hybrid if Kurosawa could be considered his very own genre. Unfortunately, it's infected with the lesser aspects of both; from Kurosawa, it's incredibly difficult to follow, and as J-horror it's merely boilerplate. But as a testament to Kurosawa's commanding directorial acumen—he's no run-of-the-mill director, even when he's a little bit off—Retribution, remarkably, ultimately succeeds in at least as many ways as it fails, and though it won't be the focal feature of any Kurosawa retrospectives anytime soon, it's rife with clever symbolism and a biting subtext about the nature and causes of contemporary culture's decay.
Set in Tokyo, which Kurosawa envisions as a crumbling city ravaged by an epidemic of recurring earthquakes—a cheap cinematic metaphor that Kurosawa just barely gets away with—much of the action takes place at landfills; literally, Retribution takes place on solid trash, in buildings built on top of garbage, indicating a society built upon untenable foundations. "This area's the pits," the captain of a river barge, a modern-day Phlegyas, remarks, "stuck between building up and tearing down." In this milieu, a series of killings, believed at least at first to be serial, occur, the victims drowned in a spot of salt water found on dry land. (Cf. a puddle, or a bathtub filled by jugs full of sea water.) Detective Noboru (the fantastic Kôji Yakusho, Kurosawa's frequent cinematic alter-ego who provides one half of the finest Japanese director-actor team since another and unrelated Kurosawa found his Mifune) investigates the killings as they occur, and the film plays out as a procedural, part supernatural and part psychological thriller; the twist is that, though he has no memory of it, Noboru uncovers a string of clues that lead him to suspect that he may be the murderer; or, at least one of the murderers.
For Retribution is not actually about a serial killer, not a corporeal one anyways. It opens with a murder, silently viewed from a distance as a woman in a blazingly red dress is forced face down in a puddle at a construction site; the betrenchcoated assassin may or may not be Noboru, though from our distance it passably looks enough like him. Kurosawa keeps the scene creepily silent; there are no screams from the victim nor shouts or grunts from the killer, just a quietly performed deed that Kurosawa cuts away from as soon as he's done with it. The screams are yet to come, however, as the murdered red-dressed woman appears to Noboru as an apparation, occasionally releasing an unexpected body-splitting and theater-shaking shriek. (The Japanese title is Sakebi, which literally transliterates to Scream, a title that of course that has already been memorably claimed in the American market.)
Aside from Yakusho's performance—he is hilariously introduced in the midst of an earthquake, awoken on his couch and instinctually reaching, desperately, to keep his bottle of Jack Daniels safe—Retribution's notable for some powerful imagery, such as a puddle with what appear to be pixelated ripples, but more importantly it contains two remarkably executed scenes that evince the directorial talent present. The first, an interrogation of a doctor suspected of murder, is a master class in subtlety, implication, convention-defiance and cinematic reserve, as the scene plays out in front of a static camera that refuses to cut, the doctor cowering by a table, insisting he can see his dead son—and another person he doesn't recognize—even though the audience, diegetic and theatrical, cannot. In another, Kurosawa lingers on Norubo, awake in the middle of the night following a nightmare, as he smokes in his kitchen; the lights go off, and a mirror—a frequently recurring leitmotif, playing up the "build up, tear down" dualism that occupies the film's characters and setting—dominates the frame, provoking the audience into expecting something to turn up and yet frustrating us by revealing nothing as the suspense unstoppably builds. (As an example of his mercilessly marvelous teasing, when something finally does appear in the mirror, Kurosawa moves the camera away as though he could hardly care.)
The script, on the other hand, is light on masterful touches; with the appearance of perfunctoriness, Kurosawa quickly introduces characters only to have them immediately kill off someone in their life—the aforementioned doctor drowns his troublemaking son, a secretary drowns her insensitive lover and so on—and it becomes clear that they're all having visions of the woman in the red dress, named "F18"—the eighteenth unidentified female corpse found by police in Tokyo that year. Trying to piece together all of the muddled story's specifics, particularly after only one viewing (though I'm comfortable that I've got the gist of it), is a formidable task, especially since Kurosawa throws in some unnecessary red herrings (as if this wasn't difficult enough!), such as a snarky suggestion that the killings may be connected to an old legend about an evil sanitarium.
But the essentials of the story's core can be largely culled from the images alone; for example, Kurosawa's Tokyo, essentially Retribution's main character, is a mostly unspoken story in and of itself; it's not only a city that, on the outside, is on the verge of destruction but also one that, on the inside, is inhabited by people who're haunted by ghosts, and not just those who have the misfortune to see "F18"; for example, in the course of his investigation, Noboru meets a paramedic haunted by the ghost of a dead woman he encountered when responding to a report of an accident. The ghosts serve as manifestations, whether physical or only imaginary, of a society's shared guilt, and Kurosawa's Japan is one comprised of citizens crippled by compunction.
"A few more earthquakes," Noboru tells his oft-visiting lady-friend Harue (Manami Konishi), "and we'll all just slide back into the sea...maybe that's what everybody wants." Regardless, that seems to be what they'll get, as the drowning-murders continue even as prime suspects are apprehended and in police custody. Retribution's greatest defiance of horror convention is that despite the identical MOs of the murders, there is no serial killer afoot, as the police suspect (though the audience knows that isn't the case); Kurosawa's cultural commentary, vaguely similar to that found in Mario Bava's Bay of Blood, hints that the sorry state of our global society is not the result of one bad individual, one rampaging murderer of the Michael Meyers variety, but as a result of all of our combined actions; nearly everyone in the film is a killer, implying that we are all collectively culpable, not only for the things we do but for the things we don't do that nevertheless manage to have a pernicious effect on others, even though we might not be conscious of it. "F18", in her postmortem appearances, might be real or she might not be; ultimately, it doesn't much matter. She may be a revenge-seeking ghost and proof-positive of an afterlife or she may simply be a psychological symbol of collective guilt that drives the characters to behave madly. "I died," she plaintively insists, "so everyone else should die, too." It's revenge that drives her, meanness, bitterness and a "misery loves company" attitude more pervasive in our world than it ought to be. Retribution, coming in the era of the Iraq War, serves to show the devastating result of an unquenchable need for vengeance, and how when one sees violence and turns a blind eye, they become complicit and culpable.