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Japanese Cinema

Villain (Akunin, Japan 2010)

Yoshino (Mitsushima Hikari, left) is the giddy insurance clerk boasting to her workmates about the rich playboy she has met. Photo © Third Window Films

Villain is a Japanese crime film based on the novel by Yoshida Suichi (released in English translation in the UK in 2010). It was placed No 1 in the Japanese magazine Kinema Junpo‘s Top 10 of 2010 and released in the UK by Third Window – which earlier this year released Kokahaku (Confessions), No. 2 in the same chart. Villain gained several Japanese Academy Awards. We should thank Third Window for bringing these important Japanese films to the UK. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have attracted the audiences they deserve. This film had a single screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester as part of the Asia Triennial Festival (which includes a film programme running through October and November) and I thought the audience was disappointing, despite a significant East Asian presence.

One of the problems associated with the film for UK audiences is its genre classification. Contemporary Japanese Cinema in the UK is too often assumed to be ‘extreme’ – horror, gangster/ultra violence etc. Villain is a crime film but as one IMDB poster puts it, it fits the Japanese notion of a ‘Howdunnit’ or ‘Whydunnit’ rather than a suspense thriller. In fact, this film is more a social drama centred around a killing. We discover who the murderer is halfway through what is quite a long film (139 mins). What interests us why the murder was committed, whether it was really murder in a ‘premeditated with intent’ sense and how the other people involved react to what happened. This makes it a little more like some of the South Korean dramas dealing with crimes such as Memories of Murder (Bong Jun-hoo, 2003) or possibly like some of Hitchcock’s work.

The victim is a young woman, Yoshino, who has left home and her parents’ barbershop to become an insurance clerk in the city and live in the company ‘dormitory’. As part of her attempt to have an exciting social life she attempts to flirt with a rich young playboy and also has casual sex with Yuichi someone she meets through an internet dating site. On the night in question she meets both men (by accident) and ends up dead on a mountain road. The playboy has a circle of friends but we don’t meet his family. The internet dating guy lives many miles away in Nagasaki (the story is set on the most southerly of the Japanese main islands, Kyushu). We meet his grandmother who has brought him up and later his mother who abandoned him. He also hitches up with another person he meets online, Mitsuyo, a lonely woman who works in a clothing store. The other major character is the dead girl’s father who seeks some form of revenge. I won’t spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess who did it. I did suggest that the whodunnit angle is not important. Whydunnit is the key to the film and we are offered a range of characters and situations which suggest that there are many ‘villains’ in society and that crimes and criminals are not always obvious.

The film is in some ways quite conventional – and perhaps ‘old-fashioned’. I think that this too might put off younger viewers in particular. The colour palette is quite subdued and the pacing is slow. Some of the acting styles are also perhaps not what we expect in a mainstream film – in a way, the film moves into quite a stylised mode in the last third, particularly in the playing of some of the older characters and of Yuichi and Mitsuyo. Allied to this is the score by the celebrated composer Joe Hisaishi. I barely noticed the music except on a couple of occasions when I thought “Oh, this is good”. This suggests to me that Hisaishi was doing exactly what the great Bernard Hermann said all film composers should do, which is to support the narrative.

The real question is what does the film ‘mean’? Why has it won so many prizes in Japan? The film’s director is Lee Sang-il, who is a ‘Zainichi Korean’ – someone from the established Korean community in Japan, i.e. living in Japan through several generations since the era of Japanese colonialism and the occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. There is a category of ‘Zainichi Cinema’ that has been identified in Japan – see the discussion in this review of an academic conference last year. However, although Lee’s first film Chong (2000) focused on Korean characters, his subsequent films have all featured Japanese characters and in interviews (see Midnight Eye) he has distanced himself from being categorised as a Zainichi director. Instead, his films tend to feature characters who might best be described as either ‘rebels’ or more generally ‘marginal’ in difficult social circumstances. Thus in Villain, the two most sympathetic characters are perhaps Yoshino’s father and Yuichi’s grandmother – both of whom fight for their dignity and for their children (the grandmother has brought up Yuichi). Other adults fall more easily into social types who are uncaring and exploitative – and therefore potentially ‘villains’ in the scenario mapped out here. Of the four younger people, Yushino and the playboy are broadly drawn types, very easy to dislike and without too many redeeming features. Yuichi and Mitsuyo, by contrast, are quite complex characters and their relationship in the second half of the film is perhaps the best element in the film. (My feeling is that Mitsuyo might be a few years older than Yuichi and if so this is quite important.)

In the bar after the screening I casually mentioned that in many of the Japanese novels (mainly crime novels) I’d read and in several recent Japanese films, ‘youth’ is nearly always a ‘problem’ and inter-generational conflict is there in the narrative. This position was strongly attacked and it was suggested that perhaps this was just a function of the novels that came into English translation and the films that got UK screenings – in other words, was I guilty of a Westerner’s partial view of Japanese culture? Of course, that must be a possibility. I can’t claim to have read or seen even a fraction of what is produced in Japan, but what I have engaged with is often the most important in terms of box office and critical commentary. See, for instance, the No 2 film of 2010, Confessions. The reason I latch onto this potential reading (i.e. about ‘troubled youth’) is not to denigrate Japanese culture but because something similar has been a feature of both British and American literature/films at various times and because Japan offers an example of a rapidly ageing population profile. In fact, the ‘ageing of Japan’ is much faster than in any other advanced economy. I don’t necessarily agree with all the analyses of what this means for Japanese society, but it is a significant factor, especially in relation to the stresses of education and pressure to conform that seem to provide the narrative conflict for so many Japanese horror/high school/youth pictures etc. These themes are not directly applicable to Villain, but it is a film that makes you think.

UK trailer (which includes part of the scene where the victim’s father meets his daughter’s ghost at the site of the accident):

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