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

Love Letter (ラブレター, Shunji Iwai, 1995)

“People are forgotten so easily” a widow laments after an insensitive comment from a family friend, yet there is perhaps a difference between forgetting and letting go as exemplified in the distance between two accidental pen pals in Shunji Iwai’s profoundly moving romantic melodrama, Love Letter (ラブレター). A huge hit and pop culture phenomenon throughout Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s first theatrical feature bears many of the hallmarks of his enduring style in its soft focus, ethereal lighting and emphasis on nostalgia as the two women at the film’s centre each restore something to the other through their serendipitous correspondence. 

Iwai opens with a memorial service for Itsuki, the late fiancé of the heroine, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama), who passed away two years previously in a mountain climbing accident. Hiroko has since started a relationship with his friend Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa) who avoided attending the memorial out of misplaced guilt and gave up mountaineering soon after Itsuki’s death. Akiba is keen to move their relationship forward, but fears that Hiroko is still stuck in the past unable to let go of her love for Itsuki. On a visit to Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga), she finds an old address in his middle school year book for a home that apparently no longer exists and decides to mail him a letter saying nothing more than “How are you? I’m fine” of course expecting no reply. What she didn’t know, however, is that there were two Itsuki Fujiis in her Itsuki’s class, the other being a woman still living at the same address to whom Hiroko has accidentally mailed her correspondence. Confused, the other Itsuki (also played by Miho Nakayama) mails back and eventually finds herself recalling memories of the male Itsuki as an awkward, diffident teen she may have entirely misunderstood. 

Played by the same actress the two women are each in a sense trapped in an eternal present, unable to move forward with their lives. While Hiroko is consumed by grief and fearful of committing to her new relationship with Akiba lest she betray the memory of Itsuki, Itsuki is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic death of her father 10 years previously who passed away from pneumonia after contracting the common cold leaving her with persistent health anxiety. Meanwhile, she is also struggling to move on from her family home which is in an increasingly perilous state of disrepair. She and her mother (Bunjaku Han) want to move into a modern apartment, while her grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) prefers to stay even though it seems that the house will soon have to be demolished. 

Through their accidental correspondence, both women are forced to deal with recent and not so recent loss, Itsuki in some senses having forgotten the boy who shared her name while Hiroko remains unable to forget. Through his trademark ethereal lighting and frequent use of dissolves, Iwai hints at a sense of perpetual longing for the nostalgic past. The letters may not have been from the late Itsuki in a literal sense but were perhaps a message from him, connecting the two women and eventually freeing each of them as the love letter of the title is finally delivered ironically enough hidden inside a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. 

This sense of grief-stricken inertia is perfectly reflected in the snowy vistas of the lonely northern town of Otaru, thrown into stark contrast with the intense heat of the furnace in Akiba’s glassblowing workshop, or the gentle warmth of the old-fashioned stove in Itsuki’s room as she types replies to Hiroko’s handwritten letters. As Hiroko eventually reflects, they each knew a different Itsuki and have each in a sense both lost him if restoring something one to the other through the exchange of memories that grants Hiroko the understanding she needs to let go and Itsuki the poignant realisation of a youthful missed connection. A bittersweet meditation on love, loss, grief, and memory, Iwai’s epistolary drama has its own sense of magic and mystery in the strange power of this serendipitous connection leading to a tremendous sense of catharsis as a long delayed message finally makes its way home bringing with it a shade of melancholy regret but also possibility in the new hope of forward motion.


Love Letter screens at the BFI on 22/28 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba (108 海馬五郎の復讐と冒険, Suzuki Matsuo, 2019)

In Buddhism, there are said to be 108 earthly desires, 108 lies, and 108 human delusions. As he points out however, all that is merely coincidence to Goro Kaiba, his petty revenge is founded entirely on the fact that a Facebook status in which his wife, using a pseudonym, detailed an affair with a lithe young contemporary dancer, garnered 108 Likes. Waxing self-referential, Suzuki Matsuo’s surreal sex comedy 108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba (108 海馬五郎の復讐と冒険, 108: Kaiba Goro no Fukushu to Boken) in which he also stars, finds a middle-aged screenwriter somehow still trapped in adolescent insecurity, intensely self-involved as he pursues a “revenge” which is also a strange kind of ironic self harm intended to prove his manhood but accidentally exposing the love’s sordid underbelly in the vacuousness of its inversion. 

As the film opens, successful screenwriter Goro Kaiba (Suzuki Matsuo) is overseeing auditions for the musical adaptation of his greatest hit, Dancing in the Mental Ward. He tells us that he’s bored with his work and somewhat disrespectfully is actually writing a column due in a couple of hours’ time, barely paying attention to the actress as she valiantly perseveres with the less than stellar material before rudely dismissing her performance and suggesting she dump the boyfriend who helped her come up with it. Goro claims that he carries on in a job he hates for three reasons: he loves money, his wife’s a spendthrift, and he loves her. It’s something of a shock therefore when a young actress comes up to him after the auditions to ask for a private chat which turns out to be about something slightly different than he’d assumed. She shows him a Facebook profile she believes belongs to his wife, Ayako (Miho Nakayama), in which she claims to have fallen in love with a “contemporary dancer” named “Dr. Snake”. 

Confronted, Ayako admits “everything”, but explains that the Facebook profile is nothing more than wish fulfilment, a romantic fantasy to distract from the emptiness of her married life. Predictably, Goro fails to pick up on the fact there are obviously problems in their marriage, fixating on the extent of Ayako’s relations with Dr. Snake of whom she now has a large tattoo on her shoulder, something which he hasn’t noticed because they have not been intimate in some time. Ayako assures Goro that she means to stay with him forever, but will be fantasising about Dr. Snake when they make love, further hinting at another problem undermining their relationship. Goro, however, is not convinced and starts talking to his friends about divorce only to be reminded Ayako will be entitled to half his savings if he splits up with her. Consumed by pettiness, he decides to spend all the money so she’ll be left with nothing by sleeping with 108 women as “revenge” for her infidelity. 

Of course, the problem is less Ayako than his wounded male pride and emotional immaturity. Perhaps he’s doing this because he can’t admit to himself how much he really does love his wife and how hurt he is by her “betrayal”, but in any case he makes it all about him, refusing to engage with the problems in his marriage or reflect on the fact Ayako is obviously unhappy and unfulfilled. He tries giving some of the money away to his ex-wife and 20-year-old son Michio (Louis Kurihara) from whom he has apparently been withholding alimony and child support, put out that his ex won’t take it because she has no need of him, a man who abandoned her. Not abandoned, he points out to his son, simply “ran away”. In an awkward conversation, he goes so far as to blame Michio for his family’s collapse, claiming that he left essentially because Michio didn’t love him enough while complaining that no one seems to appreciate him. 

Meanwhile, we also realise Goro has been hypocritically carrying on a casual affair with an old friend, Mitsuko (Natsuko Akiyama), perennially unlucky in love but planning to put an end to their “arrangement” to marry a much younger man she is fully aware is only after her money. As part of his sexploits, Goro hires a high class call girl, Azusa (Shiori Doi), but she is also romantically challenged in that despite being the number one herself, she’s only really doing this to make her host club boyfriend top dog at his establishment. In love, it seems there is always some kind of transaction, a misplaced desire. Edging deeper into his pointless and petty quest to bed 108 women, it’s not until late in the game as he’s overseeing a pool full of glistening, gyrating bodies that he perhaps begins to realise how vacuous and meaningless it all really is, sordid in its emptiness. By then, however, he’s gone too far to turn back. 

Better to him than he deserves, Ayako eventually confesses that she was “fighting the inevitability of ageing”, both facing and refusing to face the fears which informed the choice she made to retire from acting and become his wife, but Goro remains petulant and immature, indulging in a romanticisation of their early romance but unwilling to confront himself, his fears, and the real reason he’s embarked on this pointless and silly quest to vindicate himself through aggressive masculinity. Worryingly indulging in fantasies of sexualised violence against his wife which admittedly have an unexpected pay off, Goro struggles to identify what it is he’s really reeling from while pursuing not so much pleasure but misdirected pain in flight from adult vulnerability. In his usual style, Matsuo has ironic fun with Goro’s flights of fancy, suddenly breaking into song like one of his shows while simultaneously mocking them and undercutting Goro’s thinly veiled misogyny by having the leading actress abruptly walk out in protest against his childishly smutty song about the joys of sex. Nevertheless, we leave Goro exactly where we found him, all at sea torn between the risky rewards of honest romantic connection and the dubious pleasures of hedonistic conquest. 


108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)