Lesson in Murder (死刑にいたる病, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2022)

Parental disconnection and the legacy of abuse come under the microscope in a dark psychological thriller from Kazuya Shiraishi, Lesson in Murder (死刑にいたる病, Shikei ni Itaru Yamai). Adapted from the novel by Riu Kushiki, the film’s ironic Japanese title means something more like Sickness Unto Death Sentence and hints at an almost spiritual infection that spreads violence and cruelty as embodied by the moral vacuum at the film’s centre, a genial serial killer of stereotypically “good” kids chillingly played comic actor Sadao Abe. 

The psychodrama is played out, however, in the mind of young legal student Masaya (Kenshi Okada) who once frequented the popular bakery owned by Yamato (Sadao Abe) before he was exposed as the killer of 23 teens and one adult woman. On returning home for his grandmother’s funeral, Masaya is surprised to receive a letter from Yamato asking for his help. He admits killing the 23 teens (and perhaps more) but claims that he is not responsible for the death of the adult woman who after all does not fit his pattern. As he reveals, Yamato killed teens in their last year of high school and the grooming process which may have started even years before was central to his M.O. He delighted in winning their trust and then betraying it by torturing them to death in a smokehouse on the grounds of his isolated farmhouse. 

In court, Yamato explains that killing is simply “essential” to his being while insisting that he was caught because he became complacent rather than as a result of efficient policing. Yet he tells Masaya that it annoyed him that he never fell under suspicion, people always trusted him without question and he wanted to challenge that level of social complacency. In any case what’s clear is that he is and has always been a manipulative narcissist attributing those personality traits to his childhood abuse implying that they were a part of an abandoned child’s defence mechanism. He praised others to make them love and protect him, becoming drunk on the power he held over them. At first it seems as if his killings stem from resentment towards these “perfect” children who were well behaved and studied well in school but in fact the reason the children behaved in that way was often born of a desire for parental approval which made them vulnerable to Yamato’s grooming. “Repressed children have low self-esteem” he tells Masaya, an abused child himself, claiming that he wanted to help them grow in confidence through his persistent love bombing. 

Masaya is also on some level being groomed and may at times even be aware of it, but is so consumed with resentment towards his own father that he longs for a more sympathetic father figure and is even willing to accept to a serial killer as a potential paternal mentor. He becomes desperate to prove Yamato didn’t kill Kaoru (Ryo Sato), a 26-year-old office worker, almost forgetting that the killing of the 23 teens is not in dispute. His father resents him because the family run a prestigious school but Masaya was not academically gifted, bullying and beating both Masaya and his mother who is also an underconfident survivor of childhood neglect. She constantly asks for Masaya’s help making decisions, as do other survivors that he meets, while Yamato ironically tells him that the choice to investigate Kaoru’s death is entirely his own while wilfully manipulating him. Even so under his influence, Masaya’s own feelings of resentment towards the conservative society as mediated through middle-aged salarymen eventually bubble to the surface leading him on a dark path towards a potentially murderous destiny. 

Then again, as much as Yamato tries to take control of the narrative Kaoru’s death would still have been as a result of his actions no matter who it was who actually killed her. In another uncomfortabe irony what he’s doing while clearly grooming Masaya is in a sense as he claimed to be doing with his victims restoring his self-confidence in forcing him to face his dysfunctional family situation while proving that he is capable of solving this crime and perhaps in the end solving it a little better than intended. A killer final twist lends an additional layer of insanity to Yamato’s banal evil while Shiraishi’s cool direction at times superimposing the faces of the two men one over another in the glass that divides them at the prison with the faces of the victims projected behind may suggest that darkness hangs all around us and more to the point within. 


Lesson in Murder screens at Lincoln Center 21st July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2022 ”Lesson in Murder” Film Partners

The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

korou_honpos_0220_fin.aiJapanese cinema, like American cinema, is one of the few in which the hero cop is a recognisable trope. Though they may be bumbling, inefficient, obsessed with bureaucracy, or perhaps just lazy, police in Japanese cinema are rarely corrupt or actively engaged in criminality. Even within the realms of the “jitsuroku” gangster movie, the police maintain a fringe presence, permitting the existence of the underground crime world in order to contain it. “Jitsuroku” is, in a fashion, where we find ourselves with Kazuya Shiraishi’s throwback underworld police story, The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Koro no Chi). Set in 1988, the end of the Showa Era which had seen the rebirth of post-war Japan and the ascendency of yakuza thuggery, The Blood of Wolves is based on a novel by Yuko Yuzuki rather than a “true account” of life on the frontlines of gangsterdom, but otherwise draws inspiration from the Battles Without Honour series in updating the story of nihilistic yakuza violence to the bubble era.

In 1988, a young accountant “goes missing” sending his sister to ask the police for help in locating him. The case gets passed to sleazy detective Ogami (Koji Yakusho) and his new rookie partner, Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). Ogami leers disturbingly at the dame who just walked into his office before dismissing the newbie and extracting a sexual favour from the distressed relative of the missing man. Unfortunately, the accountant turns up dead and the bank he worked for turns out to be a yakuza front caught up in a burgeoning gang war between the Odani with whom Ogami has long standing connections and the gang from the next town over who are looking to increase their territory.

Ogami, a chain smoking, hard drinking, womanising detective of the old school, has one foot in the yakuza world and the other on the side of law enforcement. Hioka, a recent graduate from the local but also elite Hiroshima University (something of a rarity in his current occupation), is not quite sure what to make of his new boss and his decidedly “unorthodox” methods, becoming increasingly concerned about the way the police force operates in a town defined by organised crime. Deciding that Ogami has gone too far, he eventually makes the decision to go to IA with a list of complaints but there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Hiroshima and it is possible he may have picked the wrong side.

What he discovers is that the police force is so intrinsically rotten as to have become little more than a yakuza gang itself, only one with the legal right to carry guns and a more impressive uniform. Ogami, for all his faults, apparently has his heart in the right place. His “friendships” with gangsters are more means to an end than they are spiritual corruption, gaining leverage that will help him keep a lid on gang war – after all, no one wants a return to the turbulent days of the 1970s when the streets ran red with the blood of unlucky foot soldiers and that of the civilians who got in their way. Meanwhile Hioka, starting out as the straight-laced rookie, is himself “corrupted” by the corruption he uncovers, developing a complex mix of disgust and admiration for Ogami’s practiced methods of manipulation which, apparently, place public safety above all else.

Ogami, as he tells the conflicted Hioka, knows he walks a tightrope every day, neatly straddling the line between cop and yakuza, and the only way to stay alive is to keep on walking knowing one slip may lead to his doom. He may say cops can do whatever they like in pursuit of “justice” (and he does), but Ogami has his lines that cannot be crossed, unlike others in his organisation who care only for themselves and have long since given up any pretence of working for the public good.

Shiraishi channels classic Fukasaku from the noticeably retro Toei logo at the film’s opening to the voice over narration, garish red on screen text, and frequent use of freeze frames familiar from the Battles Without Honour series and associated “jitsuroku” gangster fare that followed in its wake. Moving the action up to 1988, the gangster world is once again in flux as it tries to corporatise itself to get in on the profits of bubble era prosperity which largely has no need for the thuggish gangster antics of the chaotic post-war years in which the yakuza could paint itself as a defender of the poor and oppressed no matter how ridiculous it might have been in reality. Ogami is a dying breed, a relic of the Showa era meeting its natural end, but perhaps you need to be a wolf to catch a wolf and guardian spirits can come in unexpected forms.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)