By now, everyone’s heard of Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Best Director win at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. After 2008’s Tokyo Sonata, the man had been sort of lying low, making a TV series, Penance (Shokuzai, 2012) and two “small” films in 2013, Real (Real: Kanzen Naru Kubinagaryu no Hi) and Seventh Code.
He has come full circle back to Un Certain Regard where he had won the jury prize for Tokyo Sonata 8 years ago. This time his winning film, Journey to the Shore (Kishibe no Tabi), is a road movie featuring a woman and the ghost of her missing husband. But far from being one of his moody, quiet horror films, this one is a moving relationship drama. It’s yet another Tokyo Sonata-type detour from the kind of films he’s come to be known for.
I haven’t seen Real and Seventh Code, but judging from the reviews, these are minor additions to his otherwise impressive oeuvre. And Seventh Code is only an hour long, a vehicle custom-made for songstress Maeda Atsuko. Surprisingly, despite all this, it garnered a Best Director award for Kurosawa at the Rome Film Festival.
What I want to talk about here, is the far more interesting work done in the TV series Penance. Although in essence a murder thriller, the 5-part series goes off in all sorts of directions, from romance to family drama and more, but always with a dark twist ahead and drenched in the director’s famous psychological dread and unease.
Other reviewers have expressed how the series isn’t easy to decipher, especially its final episode. And I quite agree. The story begins with the rape and murder of a little girl in her school’s gym. Although four of her friends had seen the face of the perpetrator, they somehow do not cooperate fully with the cops. Incensed, the girl’s mother Asako (Koizumi Kyoko, could there be a more stylish actress in Japan?) tells the four girls that each of them will pay a penance for not helping.
Each of the episode then follows each of the girls 15 years later when they’ve grown into young women. Each deals with the grief and guilt of the past in her own way, and that strange “curse” put on them by Asako hangs invisible over their heads.
None of Kurosawa’s films are easy to read, even though they may be gratifying on a surface level. And on the surface, Penance deals with what happens to the people involved, in the aftermath of an unsolvable crime. One never truly leaves behind such an emotional past. Kurosawa takes an almost metaphysical and spiritual approach to creating this tragedy-haunted world in which the women live. But much more than female guilt dressed in Greek tragedy, Penance seems to point – albeit rather frustratingly for the viewer – to a deeper, much more disturbing layer of social intricacy.
If there is horror here, it’s the horror of the myriad ways women are mistreated at the hands of men. Each of the four episodes on the four women seems to quietly illustrate those ways – objectification, power, exploitation of trust (or innocence) and sex – and in a way, leads us back to the initial thrust of the whole story, the rape.
Kurosawa has always envisioned his cinematic world as one with a huge distrust of human relationships. Whenever I see (or re-see) his films, I’m always reminded of that scene from Pulse (Kairo, 2001) where someone explains the moving, almost Brownian dots in a computer simulation as human beings always trying to move closer to each other, but always ultimately severing the bonds and drifting apart. I’ve always felt that this one theory encapsulates all of what Kurosawa has tried to explore and convey in his work.
In Penance, he pushes this idea to its extreme, culminating in the final episode where Asako finally confronts her daughter’s killer, only to find herself forced to confront her own terrible past. It’s as if, in cursing the four girls, she had inadvertently cursed herself as well.
Actually, I’m looking at that final episode with a very simplistic eye. The denouement is really a hard nut to crack, as difficult as Asako’s quest for closure. But if according to Kurosawa, we are all doomed to fail each other, then it’s a world without closure, and we will all be, like Asako, left standing in a fog of uncertainty forever.
Penance is really Kurosawa’s return-to-form in thriller filmmaking.