Mysteries are hot in the Japanese movie business now, but they have long been hard sells abroad. This may seem strange, since the mystery genre in Japan, from novels to films, has been heavily influenced by foreign models — starting with the genre’s father, Edgar Allen Poe.
But if contemporary Hollywood mysteries tend to be on the gritty side, such as the film adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s oeuvre, their Japanese counterparts usually tell stories that are elaborate puzzles, ending with lengthy explanations of who did what how. In other words, they own more to Agatha Christie, the queen of the brain-teaser mystery, than Raymond Chandler, the once and future king of the hard-boiled whodunit.
Based on a best-selling novel by Keigo Higashino, Yoshihiro Fukagawa’s “Byakuyako (Into the White Night)” is a Japanese mystery movie with a difference: Two of its principals are only children when the murder that sets the plot in motion occurs — one, the daughter of the prime suspect, the other, the son of the victim.
Also, instead of simply clicking off plot points on the way to a brilliant solution, the story follows the two children as they grow to adulthood, still living with the trauma of long ago. That is, it wants to probe into the heart of darkness, less like Dame Agatha, more like the Fyodor Dostoevsky of “Crime and Punishment.”
Unfortunately, Fukagawa, who made the excellent 2005 childhood drama “Okami Shojo (When the Show Tent Came to My Town),” is saddled with a two-track plot structure that leaves much, including the relationship between the two children, murky until the final 15 minutes. This may follow local genre formula, but the film plays like a long, chilly, vaguely menacing walk in the fog.
Our guide is Detective Sasagaki (Eiichiro Funakoshi), who in 1980 is assigned to a task force investigating the murder of an Osaka pawn broker. The initial suspects are the mousy wife (Keiko Toda) and her smarmy shop-clerk lover (Tetsushi Tanaka), but the victim’s 10-year-old son, Ryoji (Yuki Imai), supplies an alibi for his mother with an adultlike coolness that rattles Sasagaki.
Suspicion next falls on Reiko Karasawa (Kumi Nakamura), an impoverished shop customer who was sleeping with the victim, but her bookish, brainy daughter Yukiho (Shiori Fukumoto), also 10, is uncannily adept in her defense. Stymied, the cops finally close the investigation, despite what Sasagaki sees as unanswered questions.
Years later, Yukiho (Maki Horikita) is sweetly scheming her way to success as she passes through a tony girls’ high school and, later, college. There she meets Kazunari (Nobuo Kyo), the handsome, suave, soft-centered son of a rich family, with whom her best friend — the pretty, naive, socially awkward Eriko (Yurie Midori) — is madly in love. Yukiho decides he and his well-connected clan could be the ideal tools for her ambitions.
Ryoji (Kengo Kora) has taken a darker path. Leaving home, he pimps out bored middle-aged women looking for sexual thrills and extra cash. He ends up living with one, the lonely, insecure Noriko (Urara Awata), who works as a pharmacist.
Meanwhile, the dogged Sasagaki is in the background, still trying to solve the case into retirement, while keeping tabs on its players.
As the three principals, who seldom directly interact until the climax, Horikita, Kora and Funakoshi play in mostly minor keys, with few words and lowered voices. We are supposed to sense the lava bubbling under their surface, but their cold, inscrutable manipulations (Horikita and Kora) and quizzical bloody mindedness (Funakoshi) begin to grate, like overheard whispers that seem momentous but make little immediate sense.
Also, subsidiary characters Kazunari and Eriko take over the film for long stretches at a time, but given that their only crime is falling under the spell of bad-faith lovers, they do not deepen the mystery, and simply diffuse the focus.
The last act, when the plot threads converge and repressed emotions erupt, with consequences both destructive and revelatory, comes too late to make us care, even as we understand. And the big reveal, while clever in a by-now-familiar way, is implausible in the extreme.
But watching Yukiho stride away from her troubled past toward a brilliant future, shedding her soul like an old skin in one perfectly modulated scene, I could sense a better movie than the one Fukagawa ended up making. Next time, perhaps?