Japanese master of quiet suspense and disquieting unease Kurosawa Kiyoshi returns with “Penance”, an adaptation of the 2009 novel “Shokuzai” by “Confessions” author Minato Kanae. Though it similarly deals with the murder of a child, the five-part television series is a very different affair, focusing more on the effects of the crime on those involved, primarily the mother and a group of witnesses. Having premiered on television in early 2012, the series was then shown in Japanese cinemas in a complete five hour feature version, and has since been screened at a variety of international festivals including Busan and Venice, to considerable acclaim.
The film starts off in a small Japanese town with the killing of a young schoolgirl called Emili, who is snatched by a stranger while four of her friends look on and do nothing. After the girls fail to aid the police, Emili’s mother Asako (Koizumi Kyoko, also in the director’s masterful “Tokyo Sonata”) tells them that she will never forget or forgive their transgression until either they have tracked down the murderer or paid a penance that she approves.
Skip forward 15 years, and the four girls are now damaged young women with serious issues, an episode being dedicated to each of their troubled lives, beginning with “French Doll”, in which the beautiful though cold Sae (Aoi Yu, “Rurouni Kenshin”) attracts the attention of an odd suitor (Moriyama Mirai, “Love Strikes”) with a link to her past. Following this, overly strict schoolteacher Maki (Koike Keiko, “20th Century Boys”) discovers her violent side while confronting an attacker in “Emergency PTA Meeting”, and the disturbed Akiko (Ando Sakura, “For Love’s Sake”) retreats into her own bizarre world in “Brother and Sister Bear”. Asako also turns up to visit the women and remind them of their promise. The fourth girl, the amoral and calculating Yuka (Ikewaki Chizuru, “In His Charts”) manages to turn the tables on Asako while chasing after her sister’s policeman husband, setting up the final chapter “Atonement”, in which the full scale of the grim tragedy that has destroyed so many lives is revealed.
Whether working in the horror genre or not, no one does ominous dread quite like Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and “Penance” is a tense and gripping affair throughout. Despite the five hour running time, the series (which has been released on two DVDs in Hong Kong) never feels too long, and is surprisingly easy to get through in one sitting – and indeed arguably performs better this way. As a mystery it works very well, precisely due to Kurosawa underplaying the central question as to who the murderer is, focusing instead on the psychological damage suffered by the four girls and the ways in which their lives have been shaped and destroyed by the incident.
As such, the first four parts are actually better than the more predictable and straightforward final wrap up, ranging from profoundly creepy chills through to moments of surrealism and off-kilter laughter. Each episode dealing with a different take on penance and redemption, the overall effect is a thoughtful and grim meditation on passive/aggressive revenge, covering some very grim territory indeed and exploring the dark shadow of modern Japanese society. Though there are inevitably some similarities with “Confessions”, primarily in terms of basic setup, “Penance” takes a very different path and tone, and while neither offer easy answers, its final notes are perhaps even bleaker.
Kurosawa is a meticulous director with a fantastic eye for finding menace and suspense in seemingly dull, everyday life situations, and his detached yet voyeuristic camera gives each of the episodes a sinister look and feel. Though quiet and devoid of either scares or blood, the series manages to shock and disturb, partly through the inherent direness of the situation, and partly through some excellent character development. While, quite deliberately, the viewer is never made to particularly like or care for any of the four girls, all are richly detailed and fascinating figures, making their fates and self-destruction truly absorbing to watch, bolstered by excellent performances by the female cast. Knowing that things are unlikely to work out well for any of them and meditating on whether or not they deserve their so-called penances or indeed whether they are to blame themselves adds another dimension. With Kurosawa offering no judgements, the viewer to an extent is left to draw their own conclusions as to blame, leading to an overall air of hopelessness and moral confusion.
“Penance” certainly isn’t a fun or easy proposition, though it’s an incredibly accomplished and riveting watch, whether approached as a television series or five hour feature. Kurosawa Kiyoshi is unquestionably one of the most talented and unique directors working in Japan at the moment, and the film is another fine addition to his already very impressive CV.
Kurosawa Kiyoshi (director)
CAST: Kyôko Koizumi