Generally speaking, murder mysteries progress along a clearly defined path at the end of which stands the killer. The path to reach him is his motive, a rational explanation for an irrational act. Yet, looking deeper there’s usually something else going on. It’s easy to blame society, or politics, or the economy but all of these things can be mitigating factors when it comes to considering the motives for a crime. Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録), the debut feature from Kei Ishikawa and an adaptation of a novel by Tokuro Nukui, shows us a world defined by unfairness and injustice, in which there are no good people, only the embittered, the jealous, and the hopelessly broken. Less about the murder of a family than the murder of the family, Gukoroku’s social prognosis is a bleak one which leaves little room for hope in an increasingly unfair society.
When we first meet Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) he’s riding a bus. Ominous music plays as a happy family gets off but the real drama starts when another passenger irritatedly instructs Tanaka to give up his seat so an elderly lady can sit down. He snorts a little but gets up only to fall down next to the steps to the doors and subsequently walk off with a heavy limp. The man who told him to move looks sheepish and embarrassed, but as soon as the bus passes from view Tanaka starts walking normally, an odd kind of smirk on his face in thought of his petty revenge.
In one sense the fact that Tanaka faked a disability is irrelevant, the man did not consider that Tanaka may himself have needed a seat despite looking like a healthy man approaching early middle age. Perhaps, he’ll think twice about making such assumptions next time – then again appearances and assumptions are the lifeblood of this mysteriously complicated case.
Tanaka has a lot on his plate – his younger sister, Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima), has been arrested for neglecting her daughter who remains in intensive care dangerously underweight from starvation. In between meeting with her lawyer and checking on his niece, he’s also working on an in-depth piece of investigative reporting centring on a year old still unsolved case of a brutal family murder. Tanaka begins by interviewing friends of the husband before moving onto the wife who proves much more interesting. Made for each other in many ways, this husband and wife duo had made their share of enemies any of whom might have had good reason for taking bloody vengeance.
The killer’s identity, however, is less important than the light the crime shines on pervasive social inequality. As one character points out, Japan is a hierarchical society, not necessarily a class based one, meaning it is possible to climb the ladder. This proves true in some senses as each of our protagonists manipulates the others, trying to get the best possible outcome for themselves. These are cold and calculating people, always keeping one eye on the way they present themselves and the other on their next move – genuine emotion is a weakness or worse still, a tool to be exploited.
The key lies all the way back in university where rich kids rule the roost and poor ones work themselves to the bone just trying to keep up. There are “insiders” and “outsiders” and whatever anyone might say about it, they all secretly want in to the elite group. Here is where class comes in, no matter how hard you try for acceptance, the snobby rich kids will always look down on those they feel justified in regarding as inferior. They may let you come to their parties, take you out for fancy meals, or invite you to stay over but you’ll never be friends. The irony is that the system only endures because everyone permits it, the elites keep themselves on top by dangling the empty promise that someday you could be an elite too safe in the knowledge that they only hire in-house candidates.
Gradually Tanaka’s twin concerns begin to overlap. The traces of sin extend to his own door as he’s forced to examine the legacy of his own traumatic childhood and fractured family background. The reason the killer targeted the “happy” family is partly vengeance for a series of life ruining wrongs, but also a symbolic gesture stabbing right at the heart of society itself which repeatedly failed to protect them from harm. Betrayed at every turn, there’s only so much someone can take before their rage, pain, and disillusionment send them over the edge.
Despite the predictability of the film’s final twist, Ishikawa maintains tension and intrigue, drip feeding information as Tanaka obtains it though that early bus incident reminds us that even he is not a particularly reliable narrator. Ishikawa breaks with his grim naturalism for a series of expressionistic dream sequences in which hands paw over a woman’s body until they entirely eclipse her, a manifestation of her lifelong misuse which has all but erased her sense of self-worth. There are no good people here, only users and manipulators – even the abused eventually pass their torment on to the next victim whether they mean to or not. Later, Tanaka gets on another bus and gives up his seat willingly in what seems to be the film’s first and only instance of altruism but even this small gesture of resistance can’t shake the all-pervading sense of hopeless loneliness.
Gukoroku – Traces of Sin was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)