Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録, Kei Ishikawa, 2017)

gukoroku posterGenerally 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)

Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, SABU, 2015)

jon_chirashiNo fate but what we make – to steal the lines from another film just as one of the heavenly scriptwriters might in the latest film from the prolific Japanese director SABU (otherwise known as the actor Hiroyuki Tanaka), Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, Ten no Chasuke). Adapting his own novel for the screen (though the book was actually published after the film was completed), Sabu creates a romantic fantasy in which a lowly tea boy from heaven descends to Earth on a quest to save the woman he loves from certain death.

Chasuke (Kenichi Matsuyama) is the tea boy in “heaven” (his name, “Chasuke” literally means “tea assistant”). Here, there is a room full of scriptwriters who draft life stories for the people down below in service to The Man. Their task is a difficult one as each change in one person’s screenplay necessitates a change in all the others. It’s the butterfly effect gone mad. So, when The Man sends in a request for everything to suddenly go “more avant-garde” everyone is a little bit overworked. One writer asks Chasuke’s advice on what this might mean but all he comes up with is moving the action to a karaoke booth which has the unfortunate effect on the scene of getting the man’s proposal of marriage rejected causing him to leave in a mood and callously run Yuri (Ito Ono), whom Chasuke has developed a fondness for, over. Yuri’s screenwriter begs Chasuke to go down to Earth and use his unique powers to save her before it’s too late.

Luckily two of the other scriptwriters have pledged to support Chasuke’s mission from up above so he gets help from a former aspiring actor who now runs a small antique shop (Ren Osugi) and a broken hearted former boxer who now runs a ramen bar (Yusuke Iseya). Co-incidentally, both know and like Yuri who is a regular customer at both of their establishments. Coming from up above, Chasuke is already quite familiar with each of the character’s backstories and is able to fill us in with a touch of storytelling of his own. SABU has a dig here at unimaginative screenwriters who’ve ripped off most of their best ideas from other movies, which is sort of ignoring the fact that someone must have crafted the movies from up above anyway though the thought of screenwriters scripting screenwriters writing scripts about scriptwriters sort of makes your head spin.

Anyway, without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Chasuke’s quest is finished within the first half of the film with the remainder given over to a confused series of episodes featuring him as a celebrity healer committed to correcting all the awful scripts full of misery that his hack friends have come up with. That’s in addition to the constant threats of correction to Chasuke’s edits threatened by the jilted lover and a policeman who’ve both been given white painted faces (to be more “avant-garde”, as requested). Oh, and Chasuke’s memories of a former mortal life also start to return with a fairly surprising backstory of his own.

In truth, it’s all a little messy – almost as if someone were still working on the second draft even as we’re watching it. However, that’s sort of the point – we are watching someone re-writing on the hoof, trying to accommodate for someone else’s notes right as the keys are hitting the paper (or in this case, the ink splashing the parchment). When you come right down to it, life is a messy business and rarely makes any kind of sense during the “live broadcast”. Chasuke’s final message proves something of a riddle as he at once advises you to stick to The Man by living your own life and forging your own destiny whilst also putting his salvation down to the power of prayer which is about as close as you can get to an existential paradox.

Often beautifully photographed with Chasuke’s escape from up above an early highlight, Chasuke’s Journey is certainly a handsome looking film whatever faults it may have. Though the performances are committed, it never quite makes the jump from gentle satire to anything more emotionally engaging undermining the impact of its final sequence. However, for the vast majority of its running time Chasuke’s Journey does prove an interesting, if slightly flippant, take on freewill versus predestination with a hearty dose of social criticism thrown in to boot.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of Chasuke’s Journey includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer again though, sorry).