Retribution (2006, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Don’t know why I’m frustrated by this, but the movie seems VERY Kiyoshi Kurosawa in themes, plot, pacing and look. It’s nice to see auteurist consistency, but Kurosawa’s not injecting his personality subtly into a studio picture, he’s writing all his own films, so maybe he could stick these themes somewhere else than another supernatural detective story. Those complaints aside, going through the screenshots I was struck again by what a nice looking movie it is… probably superior to the rest of the now decaying J-horror genre, which is again why I wish he’d break out of that genre for good instead of coming back to ghost stories after showing his depth with Bright Future and Charisma. Although, maybe Kurosawa was requested to write this kind of picture by his producers, who have done a whole ton of J-Horror, including the Ring and Grudge series, Reincarnation and Cross Fire… yeah, I’ll go with that.


Kurosawa fave Kôji Yakusho plays Noboru, an unremarkable detective with a cute girlfriend he sees off and on. A murder is committed, a woman in a red dress drowned in salt water, and the clues point to Noboru. His partner Miyagi suspects him and he begins to suspect himself, but soon there are two other murders to distract them. A high-school kid and an office worker are also found drowned in salt water, but Noboru, playing on a ghostly intuition, quickly finds the murderers: the boy’s father Dr. Takagi, upset at the boy’s out of control behavior, and the man’s secretary with whom he was cheating on his wife.


The two (three?) are unlikely people to be murderers, but they are all apparently driven to kill by the ghost of the red dress lady, who has been haunting our detective. I think she was either a former inmate at a black asylum on the river or a passer-by who got lost there. The ferry used to pass that building a decade ago, and our hero would see her in the window. The killings are her revenge for being ignored and left behind. “I died, so everyone else should die too”. She’s the collective conscience of the ferry riders, or the guilt of a civilization.


I’m not sure if our detective killed the woman in red, but he is revealed to have killed his girlfriend. In the end, he alternates between seeing her (ghost) and being able to hold her, and seeing her dead decayed body on the floor, drowned in a pan of salt water. He goes to the black building and confronts the woman in red, who is grateful to be recognized, but carries on her quest to drown everyone in salt water. The final scene is our man wandering the empty city streets, once again (as in Pulse) the survivor of a ghostly apocalypse brought on by loneliness and neglect (and revenge [let’s not forget the title of the film], another of Kurosawa’s very favorite topics).


Kurosawa reveals the ghost in different ways. Sometimes the detective is haunted in his dark apartment (the usual way to be haunted by a ghost), but sometimes he sees her in broad daylight, disturbingly composited into the shot to give her an otherworldly appearance, and sometimes (as in a great long-shot interrogation scene with Dr. Takagi) she’s in the room with a group of people, but only visible to one (and not to the audience).


The movie is not too scary as horror (just a few jumpy moments), and it’s only okay as a detective story or a parable about society, but Kurosawa brings his usual mastery to the plotting and camera work, making it the most worthwhile movie I watched this week anyway. It’s not nearly as complicated / incomprehensible as reviews seem to indicate… jeez, are these people playing video games during the movie that they can’t ever follow a story, or am I some sort of narrative expert that I can? The movie portrays Tokyo as a crumbling metropolis besieged by earthquakes, and scenes are set in decayed abandoned buildings and over landfills.

H. Stewart at Film School Rejects writes:

Retribution’s greatest defiance of horror convention is that despite the identical M.O.s of the murders, there is no serial killer afoot, as the police suspect; Kurosawa’s cultural commentary, vaguely similar to that found in Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, hints that the sorry state of our global society is not the result of one bad individual, one rampaging murderer of the Michael Meyers variety, but as a result of all of our combined actions; nearly everyone in the film is a killer, implying that we are all collectively culpable, not only for the things we do but for the things we don’t do that nevertheless manage to have a pernicious effect on others, even though we might not be conscious of it. … Retribution, coming in the era of the Iraq War, serves to show the devastating result of an unquenchable need for vengeance, and how we’re all responsible.

Our guy and his partner:

Interestingly, the working title for Rob Zombie’s new remake was Halloween: Retribution, so I just saw two movies in a row named Retribution.

The cinematographer previously worked on K. Kurosawa’s Loft as well as Fatherfucker and Splatter: Naked Blood. Dr. Takagi starred in Princess Raccoon and Kurosawa’s Bright Future. The woman in red starred in Parasite Eve. Detective Toru Miyaji (above, right) was the horse-riding Baron in Letters From Iwo Jima and starred in the first of the 90’s Gamera movies. Harue starred in Udon, which I just missed at Emory last week. Kôji Yakusho (our star Noboru) starred in Cure, Charisma, Doppelganger, Seance, Eureka, The Eel, Shall We Dance, Babel, Memoirs of a Geisha, and appears at the end of Pulse.

One article on this film refers to Loft as a “ghost story/mummy film”. Can’t wait.

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