The Japanese are big fans of mysteries of the puzzle-plot sort, with murders committed in the kinds of odd and ingenious ways that real killers seldom use. The detective hero not only cracks the case, but delivers a detailed postmortem to an appreciative audience, somewhat like a chess master analyzing an opponent’s flawed middle game.
Based on a novel by Kanae Minato, whose fiction also inspired the hit 2010 film “Kokuhaku (Confessions),” Yoshihiro Nakamura’s new film “Shirayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken (The Snow White Murder Case)” would seem to be in this brain-teasing line.
First, there is the corpse of the lovely Noriko Miki (Nanao), found stabbed and charred in the woods of a national park. An OL (office lady) at a cosmetics company, she was renowned for her beauty, as well as rumored to be sleeping with her handsome, conceited boss Shinoyama (Nobuaki Kaneko).
When a young director (Go Ayano) at a TV production house quizzes a former girlfriend (Misako Renbutsu) working for Noriko’s company about the case, she tells him her mousy colleague Miki Jono (Mao Inoue) was dating Shinoyama, who soon ditched her for the gorgeous Noriko.
He interviews others who know Miki, including a co-worker who saw her suspiciously running up the stairs of a train station on the night of the murder. Afterward, she stopped showing up for work, pleading a family emergency. How fishy is that? Believing he has a big, career-making scoop, the director persuades his superiors to run the story on TV, igniting a media firestorm. Trial and conviction by public opinion soon follow.
Since all this transpires in the first act, we understand that there has to be more to this story, but there is also no other suspect in sight. Who or what to believe?
The solution to this puzzle, however, is not the film’s only point. As in previous Nakamura films, such as the 2010 man-on-the-run thriller “Golden Slumber” or the 2009 sci-fi/fantasy film “Fish Story,” the twisty tale serves as a vehicle for meditations on deeper themes, beginning with the elusiveness of truth and the importance of friendship. Not the Facebook click-a-friend type, but the sort of soul mating that withstands time, distance and circumstance, including accusations of murder.
Also, the usual all-wise, all-explaining detective is nowhere to be seen. Instead the case against Miki, as well as the answers to the film’s various mysteries, emerges from a welter of testimony, as well as from a firestorm of comments on social media that fill frame after frame. All this may sound very of-the-moment, not to mention confusing, but Nakamura, working with scriptwriter and frequent collaborator Tamio Hayashi, keeps the narrative lines clear and the focus squarely on flesh-and-blood people, not their digital avatars.
He also leavens the proceedings with his playful, biting sense of humor, mainly targeting the craven, opportunistic, anything-for-a-story mass media.
At the center of this blizzard of information (including the false clues) is the enigmatic figure of Miki, an awkward and isolated woman who is rumored to possess the dark power to hex her enemies — or kill them. And yet in Inoue’s self-immolating performance, another Miki emerges, whose sweetness and naivete belie the terrible deed she is supposed to have committed. We also see a scary emotional volatility that makes the insinuations of murder somehow plausible.
The other characters are shaded more to the comically grotesque, from Ayano’s blindly ambitious director to Renbutsu’s tell-all OL, who is not the Miss Average she first seems to be.
Finally, there is the Noriko of fashion model/actress Nanao, towering like an office goddess over the likes of the lowly Miki while dazzling the men with her twinkly smile and statuesque looks.
The usual local mystery film would present this designated victim uncritically as an object of male desire. Nakamura’s, however, views her more from the perspective of her female co-workers, who shrink in the blaze of her beauty and arrogance — and naturally resent her. If this Snow White could be revived by their kiss, she’d have a long wait indeed.
As Nakamura fans have come to expect, the film ends in a blazing flurry of revelations — and no pedantic explanations. And once again, the climax has an emotional tug I wasn’t quite expecting, but that feels right, not tacked on. And whodunit has nothing to do with it.