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‘Shokuzai (Penance)’

Kurosawa's new TV drama is an absolute horror

by Mark Schilling

How much will they miss you when you’re gone? Directors typically keep putting off the answer to that question as long as possible, working until they drop. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose 2008 dysfunctional family drama “Tokyo Sonata” won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, got his answer with his latest work to win a major festival invitation and his first in four years.

This is not a film but a five-part drama series Kurosawa made for the Wowow entertainment channel. Broadcast in Japan from January to February this year, “Shokuzai (Penance)” will screen out of competition at the upcoming Venice Film Festival. Since festivals such as Venice ignore TV dramas as a rule, the exception made for Kurosawa is a measure of his high international reputation. That is, he’s been missed very much indeed.

Based on a novel of the same title by Kanae Minato, “Shokuzai (Penance)” will not dent that reputation, despite its TV-quality production values and a whodunit story line that, stripped down, wouldn’t be out of place in a weekly network “Misuteri Gekijo” (“Mystery Theater”) program.

The sense of creeping dread familiar to fans of “Cure” (1997) and other of Kurosawa’s pioneering J-horror films is still present, however. Also, the series is created more with his usual artfully minimal means — plastic bags blown eerily by the breeze, a translucent plastic sheet making strange shadows on the wall — than standard genre effects.

At the same time, the story of a mother (“Tokyo Sonata” star Kyoko Koizumi) implacably seeking the killer of her young daughter may not please fans hoping for Kurosawa’s return to J-horror form, though its knowing explorations of the heart of darkness will be familiar to viewers of Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Kokuhaku (Confessions)” a 2010 film also based on Minato’s fiction.

The story begins with a man dressed in work clothes approaching a group of five girls on a playground and asking one of them to help him with a job. When she fails to return, her friends finally go looking for her and find her dead in the school gymnasium. They cannot describe the man to the police, however, despite having got a clear view of his face. After months of fruitless investigation, the victim’s mother grimly tells them they will all pay a price for playing dumb, though exactly what their penance will be she leaves up to fate.

The first four episodes focus on the four surviving classmates 15 years on and how they are still linked, willingly or no, to the bent-on-revenge mother, Asako.

One, Sae (Yu Aoi), has acquired a distrust of men since the traumatic murder, but marries a sincere-sounding, well-off guy (Mirai Moriyama) who promises her the sheltered life she craves. But her new hubby turns out to be controlling and sexually kinky.

Another, Maki (Eiko Koike), is an elementary school teacher whose unsmiling strictness is a cover for her insecurities. When she bravely confronts a disturbed school invader, she is feted as a hero — until a smarmy vice principal leads a reaction against her “overuse of force.”

Still another, Akiko (Sakura Ando), is a hikikomori (recluse) who feels herself unworthy of human company, until her scampish brother (Ryo Kase) brings his promiscuous new girlfriend and her charming young daughter to visit. Akiko and the daughter hit it off immediately, but her brother’s behavior toward the girl awakens memories of an old trauma.

The fourth, Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki), is running a small flower shop, but still resents her once-sickly older sister (Ayumi Ito) for monopolizing their mother’s attention when they were children. While plotting revenge, she comes across a clue to the killer’s identity — and contacts Asako.

As for the concluding episode, I’ll say nothing, only that throughout the series the Kurosawa style, minimalist but atmospheric, imparts an eerie, intimate tension to even the most mundane scenes, while revealing inner lives more by incisive suggestion than the usual TV-drama shouting.

And the penances (including Asako’s), have a stern if at times melodramatic emotional logic, while reminding us that even inactions have consequences and that our demons, creative and destructive, never rest. Thankfully for us, that includes Kurosawa’s.