Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is having a hard time coming to terms with his sister’s incarceration for child neglect, and Mitsuko’s (Hikari Mitsushima) unbalanced mental state. An investigative reporter by trade, he decides to throw himself into researching a murder case gone cold which is about to reach its one year anniversary. The death of the family of three shook the community, but with no one to blame Tanaka decides to go back to the start, and meet with those that knew them to piece together a story. But through his interviews he soon realises that husband Tako (Keisuke Koide) and wife Yukie (Wakaka Matsumoto) were far from perfect.
Director Kei Ishikawa likens the story featured in Tokuro Nukui’s novel to The Great Gatsby, and with its heavy focus on the concept of ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ in a high class society in Japan it certainly makes sense. Family means everything in Tako and Yukie’s world, and if you’re not seen as ‘one of them’ you’ll never really be accepted even if they use you on the pretense that they will. The damage this causes is evident with many of the characters: Yukie’s school ‘friend’ Junko became embroiled in a bitter love feud, while Tako cheated on any number of women as a young man just so he could claw his way to the top. Everything points to a hidden hierarchical society in Japan that keeps undesirable people out, so in that sense it can be related to F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. But the link between the two stories is not ultimately the same.
Ishikawa approaches the story with a keen eye, using seemingly significant details to twist the focus of the story and cloud the viewer’s vision. He uses this to distract from the disturbing secrets that bubble underneath it all, and Kosuke Mukai’s script emphasises this tension to support Ishikawa’s bold and sometimes unsettling vision. He does this in a way that ensures the secrets are kept hidden, but also keep the audience on their toes. Through his words it is quickly established that no one can be trusted to tell the truth, but the extent to which this relates to the underlying narrative is what makes the film so interesting. And, when the true story is revealed, the audience are forced into a harsh and suspicious world with little warning, making it almost impossible to come out of the film without being affected by the chilling reality that it presents.
The imagery Ishikawa uses sets the stage for the dark themes to come, creating an unsettling feeling over scenes through music and haunting visuals to highlight the characters’ dire situations and ultimate lack of control over their bleak fate. Through their story he makes the audience question what it means to be human, and shows how depraved the world can truly be. For a crime thriller this works in his favour as the bleak surroundings suit the genre, but it is frustrating that it takes so long to get to the point where this can be fully appreciated.
Because of the way the story is told it is hard to become fully immersed, the use of flashbacks in the first half takes over a significant proportion of the narrative and there is ultimately very little payoff for this. The investigation into Tako’s nihilistic life felt like a particular low point in the story because of how repetitive and long-winded it was. While it’s true the expositions on the husband and wife’s hidden selves is necessary to divert the focus away from the main characters, it took up too much time and could have easily been shortened to ensure the film flowed smoothly. It is this slow pace that almost brings the story to a complete standstill at its midpoint.
It is thanks to the relationship between Tanaka and Mitsuko the story is able to keep afloat, even as the narrative goes overboard with heavy exposition. Satoshi Tsumabuki and Hikari Mitsushima are excellent in their respective roles, making the others seem inconsequential -almost wooden- in comparison. The subtle way they approach their roles and their use of simple movements builds up the illusion surrounding their characters, but it is the compelling way they deliver their performances that truly makes them stand out in this bleak story.
Gukoroku – Traces of Sin is being screened across the UK as part of the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme. For more information on cities and dates, go to http://www.jpf-film.org.uk/.
Director: Kei Ishikawa
Release: 2 February 2018 (Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme)
From: Warner Bros Japan
Format: Theatrical Release
Age Rating: 15