Villain (aka Akunin, 2010) Movie Review

Tough drama “Villain” emerged as one of the most acclaimed films from Japan in 2010, earning a massive 15 nominations from the Japan Academy, including those for Best Picture, Director and a variety of acting nods. The film was directed by Lee Sang Il, and is a very different proposition to his last outing, the hugely popular inspirational dance flick “Hula Girls”. Based upon the award-winning novel by Yoshida Shuichi, who also co-scripted, the film is a dark examination of modern Japanese society that charts the many aftershocks that follow a brutal and tragic crime. The film has a fine cast, headed by Tsumabuki Satoshi (“The Magic Hour”) and Fukatsu Eri (who won the Best Actress award at the 2010 Montreal World Film Festival for her stunning performance), with support from Mitsushima Hikari, (“Love Exposure”), Kiki Kirin (“Still Walking”), Emoto Akira (“April Bride”), and Okada Masaki (“Confessions”).

Having enjoyed a successful run at a variety of international festivals, including a prize winning appearance in Montreal, the film is now available on region 2 DVD through Third Window Films, coming with a length Making Of documentary, interviews with Tsumabuki Satoshi and Lee Sang Il, plus the usual standard trailer.

The film follows manual labourer Yuichi (Tsumabuki Satoshi), a down trodden young man who lives at home with his grandmother (Kiki Kirin) and who spends most of his time sleeping with women he meets through internet dating. This doesn’t seem to make him particularly happy, with his current girl Yoshino (Matsushima Hikari) treating him badly and using him to pass the time while she tries to catch the eye of rich college student Masuo (Okada Masaki). After Yoshino is found dead, the police suspect Masuo, though soon focus their attentions on Yuichi, who goes on the run with his latest internet conquest, forlorn shop worker Mitsuyo (Fukatsu Eri). Meanwhile, his grandmother is left to face the press and ends up in trouble with a group of conmen, and Yoshino’s father takes his anger out on Masuo.

Villain (aka Akunin, 2010) Movie Image

The best thing about “Villain” is its air of grim honesty, which makes it wholly compelling and convincing, and sets it apart from other films about criminals on the run or sad characters self-destructing. Benefitting considerably from having Yoshida Shuichi onboard as a co-writer, the script is powerful and atypical, and whilst the film is relentlessly dark and tough and certainly heaps on the misery, it never feels gratuitous or that it is wallowing in the worst of humanity simply to depress the viewer. Never pulling punches, it tackles a variety of difficult current issues in Japanese society, dealing with loneliness, sex, dating websites and more, all in an even handed manner. Though not explicitly a youth drama, the film certainly has much to say on the subject and paints a pretty disparaging picture of the younger generation in Japan, though again without any easy answers or even finger pointing.

Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t exactly make for cheerful viewing, with callousness and coldness the order of the day, being the most common ways in which the characters interact with each other. At the same time, the script never reduces them to simplistic caricatures, also weaving in sadness, guilt and regret, ensuring that it remains a painfully human story. Although the film is not without melodrama, with there being lots of tears and shots of characters wandering around in the ever-present rain, it’s never heavy handed. As a result, the story is really quite devastating, offering glimpses of love and hope, though tempering them with ambiguity, and without ever taking the easy route of transforming into a redemptive journey. By maintaining the courage of its convictions right through to the end, and by keeping its characters flawed, it covers some fascinating and challenging moral ground, leaving it to the viewer to decide which of them is worst and who is truly to blame for the tragic events. Since the film eschews the usual protagonist or even anti-hero figure, and is populated by some pretty monstrous, though recognisable people, it means that the title is fitting and ironic – how do you judge evil when everyone is bad in one way or another?

Villain (aka Akunin, 2010) Movie Image

Such lofty aims are made possible by a set of uniformly excellent performances from the cast, all of whom really bring their wretched characters to life. Although Tsumabuki Satoshi arguably has the central role, and indeed is utterly convincing as the tormented and brutal Yuichi, it’s Fukatsu Eri who impresses the most. Her lonely, initially meek shop girl and her sad hopes for loving him give the film its emotional core, with the actress making the role far more layered than that of the damsel in distress or kind woman trying to mend a broken man it could easily have been.

As well as a fascinating character study, the film works superbly as a thriller, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the viewer guessing, primarily as to whether or not Yuichi really is a cold hearted killer, and whether or not he will turn against the naïve Mitsuyo. The plot is a sprawling affair, not just following the runaway couple, but perhaps even more importantly charting how the murder affects everyone involved, in particular families of killer and victim. Interspersed with this are various other subplots, and though these do tend to drop in and out of the film, in particular the thread involving Yuichi’s grandmother and the con artists, they help to further flesh out the overall themes. As a result, despite a long running time of around two hours and twenty minutes, the film holds the interest throughout and never feels overstretched.

2010 was a particularly strong year for Japanese film, and “Villain” is up there with the best of them. A powerful, searching piece of drama that boldly explores the bleaker recesses of the human soul in non-exploitative fashion, though hard going at times, it ultimately makes for rewarding and moving viewing.

Sang-il Lee (director) / Shûichi Yoshida (novel), Shûichi Yoshida, Sang-il Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Eri Fukatsu … Mitsuyo
Satoshi Tsumabuki … Shimizu
Akira Emoto
Kirin Kiki
Hikari Mitsushima
Masaki Okada

Buy Villain on DVD