Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s made-for-TV serial drama Penance is a wild, uneven ride through the oddities of the Japanese psyche, as much as it is a psychological thriller examining the far-reaching after-effects of a little girl’s murder. Complexly plotted, elegantly shot and orchestrated, this is the kind of long-winded, intermittently involving festival package that will earn the director of Tokyo Sonata more critical appreciation, but will struggle to find a theatrical audience. For a film that requires nearly five hours of viewing investment, it feels terribly stingy on the emotional payoff. Divided into five interlinked chapters, it aired on Wowow television in January, shored up by an all-star cast and the morbid fascination and human interest of bestselling author Kanae Minato’s original book.
The theme linking the string of tragedies might by synthesized as faulty education at home and at school, and indeed the story has its roots in a teachers’ college back in the Seventies, where three friends have a little falling out. Only at the end of the opus does it become apparent how an evil chain of cause and effect destroys the life of almost every character.
In a fifteen minute preface, innocent little 9-year-old Emili, the daughter of a rich industrialist and his wife Asako (glamorous dark lady Kyoko Koizumi), is enticed into the school gym and brutally murdered, while her four playmates wait outside in agony for her to return. They have seen the face of the killer but are too young to describe him to the police. Irrationally, and with fatal consequences, the cold-blooded Asako curses the kids to each pay her a “penance” for letting her daughter die.
Flash forward to fifteen years later. The four girls, now in their early twenties, bear deep emotional scars from the trauma plus guilt trip they have grown up with. Though the pattern repeats in each of the four stories, Kurosawa is remarkably versatile in varying the mood and tone, making it impossible to second-guess the developments. The first episode, “French Doll,” is a creepy love story between the beautiful Sae (Yu Aoi), unable to accept her body or sexuality, and a loosely wired young suitor (Mirai Moriyama) who is emotionally frailer than she is.
Teetering on the ridiculous as heralded by its title, “Emergency PTA Meeting” describes the dangerous psychological rigidity coupled with deep-seated fear in teacher Maki (Eiko Koike), who scares the daylights out of her young charges and almost kills a knife-wielding psycho on a rampage. The teaching staff’s public apologies and self-immolation in front of outraged parents is très Japanese. Once again, Asako reappears at the end of the episode like a bird of ill omen, or perhaps the heroines’ conscience.
The surly sass of punky Sakura Ando carries “Brother and Sister Bear,” a straight, heart-breaking drama about the grown-up Akiko, who has retreated into a childish fantasy world to protect her psyche from the memory of Emili’s murder. Its realism, accented by eerie Scottish bagpipe music, makes it the darkest and most memorable episode. The heavy gloom is fortunately dispelled in the change-of-pacer “Ten Months Ten Days” that audaciously tosses comedy and tragedy together. Yuka (Chizuru Murakami) is the only girl who tries to turn the tables on Madame Asako, sniffing at her threats; but it soon becomes apparent that she is extremely insecure and her sexual liberty only a mask.
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Audiences will yearn for closure to this tale as much as the protagonists do, but the final chapter, “Atonement,” is a mixed bag – Asako takes center stage, the police finally step in and mysteries are solved in a David Lynch-like finale. Yet the satisfaction remains cerebral, not visceral, and the film’s paradoxical end leaves mainly a cold feeling of admiration for the excellent cast, the nuanced female roles, the cinematic appeal of the art direction and photography based on variations of the color white, the unexpectedness of Yusuki Hayashi’s score and the boldness of the whole project.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition)
Production companies: Wowow Inc., Nikkatsu Corp., Django Film
Cast:Kyoko Koizumi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yu Aoi, Eiko Koike, Sakura Ando, Chizuru Ikewaki, Mirai Moriyama, Kenji Mizuhashi, Ryo Kase, Tomoharu Hasegawa, Ayumi Ito, Hirofumi Arai, Tetsushi Tanaka
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, based on a novel by Kanae Minato
No rating, 280 minutes.