What are the limits of forgiveness? Our various gods may forgive our sins, but we humans don’t always find it easy to follow suit. Violations of the body are among the crimes hardest to forgive, since the victims are left with not only scars, visible and invisible, but also a cold anger against the perpetrator(s).
Tatsushi Omori has been filming the outer limits of human behavior since his 2005 directorial debut “Germanium no Yoru (The Whispering of the Gods),” whose outlaw hero, sexually abused as a boy, returns to the monastery where he was raised for a confrontation with his now elderly abuser.
Not unexpectedly, violence is also a frequent motif in Omori’s five films to date, including his latest, “Sayonara Keikoku (The Ravine of Goodbye).” Based on a short story by Shuichi Yoshida, whose fiction also inspired the critically acclaimed “Akunin (Villain)” and “Yokomichi Yonosuke (A Story of Yonosuke),” the film begins with a media pack besieging the apartment of a woman suspected of murdering her own child. When the police come to make the arrest, the pack’s frenzy reaches a peak, though the couple next door, busy with their passionate love-making, have been oblivious to the commotion outside.
That night Watanabe (Nao Omori), a middle-aged magazine reporter who has been desultorily covering the story, meets a reception of quite a different kind from his irritable wife, who rages at him for reasons that go deeper than his late arrival home.
Then the child-killer suspect tells the cops that she has been having an affair with the guy next door, Shunsuke (Shima Onishi), the moody lover of the hot-to-trot Kanako (Yoko Maki). Smelling a big story, Watanabe and his smart, savvy partner Kobayashi (Anne Suzuki) spring into action.
The above may make “The Ravine of Goodbye” sound like a modern noir — James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” comes to Japan. The film, however, is not lurid or pulpy in the slightest; it is instead an earnest, somber drama about an affair that seems to defy moral sense, but has its own emotional logic.
(This paragraph contains a spoiler, so skip ahead two paragraphs if you don’t want to know.)Watanabe learns that Kanako and Shunsuke’s relationship not only goes back 15 years, to when the latter was a star pitcher on his college baseball team, but began with (spoiler alert) the rape of the teenaged Kanako by Shunsuke and his teammates in the course of a drunken party. Shunsuke was expelled from the team as a result, but the damage to Kanako was greater, leading to a train of personal catastrophes that ended with a total breakdown.
How did she move from seething hatred of her defiler to something resembling love? The film’s squaring of this psychological circle is probably never going to convince those who feel that the very question is offensive. Also, as Kanako tells Watanabe, wrestling with the breakdown of his own marriage, an outsider can’t understand their relationship, though judging it may be easy.
What the film attempts, in scenes that show rather than explain, is how Kanako and Shunsuke reunite, years after the incident that ruined their lives: Shunsuke burdened with guilt, Kanako with a past she can’t escape, while being harshly punished for trying. To put it simply, they are two lost souls who find each other. But the spark that ignites their passion is something of a mystery, as is the fuel that keeps it burning, in a remote wooded retreat where they futilely hope to escape the world’s prying eyes.
Onishi’s Shunsuke is an intense, brooding presence that recalls his drifter hero in Genjiro Arata’s “Akame Shijuya Taki Shinjyu Misui (Akame 48 Waterfalls),” his breakout role. But this wary, closed-off man, relentlessly hunted by the media and interrogated by the police, gradually opens up to Watanabe, another once-promising athlete, while revealing a more ordinarily human side.
As Kanako, Maki has a harder task in making her character credible. A go-to actress for TV dramas and commercial films, including the hit 2011 romantic comedy “Moteki (Love Strikes!),” in which she played a hard-nosed magazine editor, Maki may not be the obvious choice for this role, but she is the right one. There is a bitter wisdom and simmering rage in her Kanako, but also a fragility and weariness that helps us understand her odd (or, if you will, outrageous) choice of lover.
This woman is no victim who has fallen under the spell of her victimizer. Instead, she has found in Shunsuke a sort of refuge from the world outside. Kanako also has a measure of power over this man who is forever in her moral debt. But this power is not unlimited, as she learns.
Serving as a needed real-world entry-point into the closed universe of this pair is Omori’s Watanabe. The brother of the director and the son of famed butoh performer Akaji Maro, Omori has played the hang-dog everyman so often that his Watanabe is more of a revisit than a revelation.
But Watanabe’s puzzlement is also ours and his awakening, when it comes, has the force of truth. The “Goodbye” of the English title, we see, is really a farewell to illusion, including the lie that we can make it through this vale (or ravine) of tears alone.
Fun fact: Nao Omori and Anne Suzuki also both appeared in Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Keibetsu (The Egoists),” with Omori playing a loan shark who hounds Suzuki’s outlaw lover (Kengo Kora) for payment of a debt.