Retribution (2006) aka Sakebi
Dir. and written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Koji Yakusho, Manami Konishi, Riona Hazuki, Tsuyoshi Ihara
Well folks, here we are at very nearly the end of what turned out to be the most grueling four-month Halloween horror movie festival ever. I wanted to save something special for the end, so I held off on this one, the last out-and-out horror film from the great Kiyoshi “no, you’re thinking of Akira” Kurosawa in a decade. The guy has never disappointed me, and I correctly guessed that he wasn’t going to start now; RETRIBUTION isn’t quite on par with his classic masterpieces CURE and KAIRO (PULSE), but it’s still a spectacular testament to both the man’s formidable imagination and technical prowess.
It’s kinda a mish-mash of tropes from a couple previous films, but recontextualized and reimagined. It’s got the apocalyptic overtones of KAIRO and mysterious vengeance-minded apparitions of SEANCE, but it begins as almost a sequel to CURE, with detective Noboru Yoshioka (Koji Yakusho, CURE, 13 ASSASSINS) on the scene of a bizarre, inexplicable murder. Seems a young woman in a bright red dress has been drowned in a flooded field beside a river… but the coroner discovers something stranger: her lungs are filled with salt water. She’s been drowned somewhere else and deliberately placed here. Not only that, but there are some curious clues at the scene: fingerprints and a orphaned button. But when the crime lab examines them, they both turn out to belong to Yoshioka himself! He didn’t commit this crime… did he?
Things get stranger. Yoshioka starts seeing a ghost in a red dress, but strangely it may not be the same woman from the opening. Elsewhere, a series of seemingly unrelated murders occur, all featuring a completely unexpected and violent murder of a friend of loved one. It all has something to do with the ghost in the red dress, but what? And what does it have to do with Yoshioka himself?
The answer, as you would hope from a K. Kurosawa film, is never entirely clear, but leaves you just enough of a trail of breadcrumbs that you can try and parse it out. In part, of course, it’s the classic revenge tale, with an aggrieved ghost lashing out at those who wronged it in life. Only, just like Kurosawa’s intriguingly atypical SWEET HOME, this movie has decidedly mixed feelings about how valid that anger is, and if the right thing to do is placate the ghost or try and oppose it (or if that’s even possible).
Possibly to an even more extreme degree than is typical for him, Kurosawa directs this with a resolute aversion to anything resembling your typical scary movie hokum. No jump scares, loud noises, creaky old houses, dark and stormy nights. Almost everything here takes place in the bright, cold sunshine, in the most ordinary and mundane domestic situations imaginable. And of course, it’s this very juxtaposition which makes everything so much more frightening. Ordinary horror movies play on our fears and vulnerabilities -- darkness limits your senses, teeth and claws threaten your body, loud noises startle you and provoke an anxiety response. But you can protect yourself from those things: switch on a light, get yourself a boomstick, keep yourself on alert for sudden danger. But what do you do when the danger is more diffuse, enigmatic, when it can come suddenly from anywhere, shattering the comforting security of the mundane? What do you do when you can’t understand or predict, when you must finally admit that you are well and truly at the mercy of a capricious and dangerous world? And, even more troubling, what if the threat, this menacing evil that threatens to lash out, unbidden at any time… what if it maybe in some way might come from you, yourself, in some way that you can’t understand or control or even remember, but find yourself inexplicably linked to?
Like KAIRO a bit, but also quite a bit like JU-ON/THE GRUDGE, this one is interested in the idea of guilt, and in particular collective guilt. The ghost here is very, very angry, in part at a few specific people but also more or less at the entire world. It’s not entirely unjustified, but then again, who other than George Clooney doesn’t have some reason to be mad at the hand life dealt them? It’s not fair, none of this is fair. But when we set our mind on retribution, what does that do to us? If that secret, curdled little impulse of violent resentment exists in all of us, what does it take to let it out? I don’t know that these questions are specifically on K. Kurosawa’s mind, and in fact I don’t think his films are exactly meant to be parsed for hidden moral messages. But his mastery of cinematic language and his icily evocative, quiet little nightmares stir the psychological pot in an interesting way, get you to engage with issues on an emotional and subconscious level. These feeling are deeper than words, so why try and use words to untangle them? Here, we’re allowed to simply experience, unencumbered by the taming, transfiguring forces of logic.
If there’s a reason this one isn’t quite on par with his best work, it may be that it’s actually a little too literal, a little too plot driven (not by any normal standards, obviously, but in comparison with his previous output). It’s plenty metaphorical and ambiguous, but at the heart of things here there really is a discreet mystery, with a clearly delineated solution. Who’s causing problems? A ghost. Why? Well, we’ll find out by the end. Kind of unusual for a K. Kurosawa joint, it’s just not the sort of thing he’s typically been interested in. I don’t know much about the production here, but I’d wager that a part of this has to do with Japanese superproducer Takashige Ichise, who is well-known for his contributions to J-horror, having produced THE GRUDGE, THE RING, and their various sequels. In fact, RETRIBUTION was produced as part of Ichise’s “J-Horror Theater” cycle, which also included Masayuki Ochiai’s INFECTION, Tsuruta Norio’s PREMONITION, and of course Takashi Shimizu’s REINCARNATION. Haven’t seen all of those, but boy, a whole bunch of the ones I’ve seen have that same image of the pale female ghost with the long hair lurking around and causing problems, and they nearly all have the same mystery structure where we have to find out why. The script is credited solely to K. Kurosawa, but there’s a lot of speculation online that Ichise has a pretty big hand in shaping the way this turned out. Unquestionably, it’s the director’s most conventional horror film structure since the strangely normal horror romp SWEET HOME back in 1989.
Fortunately, though the structure of the narrative is a little more straightforward than usual, the director keeps a firm hand on the helm and comes out with something plenty evocative and interesting. Another fabulously impenetrable performance by Yakusho helps a lot; he’s a rare actor who is fascinating to watch even when we’re deliberately kept in the dark as to what we should think of him. He’s inscrutable and opaque --for most of the movie we’re not even sure if he’s the hero or villain-- but still an absolutely arresting presence. And even the more standard horror stuff is executed with wit and vigor. There’s a great bit where the cops are interviewing a suspect who can see something they can’t, and all but has a heart attack while the investigators stare in confusion. And if you’ve gotta have a scene with a pale woman with long hair menacing people, this is the guy you want to shoot it; he knows to keep quiet, to let the images linger and soak into your brain rather than tart them up with a bunch of flashy editing and scary musical stings. If it’s something of a minor film by the standards of this great auteur of horror, well, it’s still better than 99% of the movies out there by anyone else. There are plenty of things in life which are unfair, but this particular movie is solid enough that no Retributin’ will be necessary.*
* At least, it won’t be as long as we get another Kiyoshi Kurosawa horror movie this century. Come on, K-dawg, horror fans are getting the shakes here. I know your movies are supposed to be slow and deliberate, but does your work pace have to be, too?!