One of the stages of grief is anger. In Takahisa Zeze’s “In the Wake,” the trauma of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake turns into a powerful thirst for vengeance, aimed at those who could have done more for the victims.

Nearly a decade on from the disaster, police detective Seiichiro Tomashino (Hiroshi Abe) is tasked with investigating a pair of murders in the northeastern city of Sendai. Both of the victims had worked in the social welfare system, and while their colleagues remember them as upstanding citizens, the police start to suspect that they had made some enemies by cutting off support to 3/11 survivors.

Seiichiro is a survivor himself, having lost his wife and son in the tsunami, and Abe’s haunted expression sets the tone for the film.

In the Wake (Mamorarenakatta Mono-tachi E)
Run Time 135 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

In extended flashbacks, “In the Wake” depicts the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, in scenes that recall Ryoichi Kimizuka’s harrowing docudrama, “Reunion” (2012). Seiichiro and the story’s other key players converge on a school that’s been turned into an evacuation center, where they wait anxiously for news of those who are still missing.

Yasuhisa Tone (Takeru Satoh), a fierce-eyed loner, looks more like he’s waiting for redemption. With his hunched posture and constant scowl, he clearly isn’t out to make friends, yet he finds himself drawn to an orphaned girl known as Kan-chan (Misaki Ishii), and an elderly woman, Kei (Mitsuko Baisho). With no one else to rely on, they form their own ad hoc family.

Back in the present, Seiichiro starts delving into the vagaries of the benefits system, with help from an idealistic young caseworker, Mikiko (Kaya Kiyohara). When he discovers that Kei had fallen through the cracks, with tragic consequences, he realizes that her friend Yasuhisa may be the one who’s been bumping off bureaucrats.

There’s a lot to cover in the story, culled by Zeze and co-screenwriter Tamio Hayashi from a dense novel by Shichiri Nakayama. The director seems to crank out a couple of these glossy literary adaptations every year, and he’s awfully efficient about it.

With its depiction of people living on the fringes of society, coupled with a robust endorsement of the welfare state, “In the Wake” can at times feel like a procedural drama written by Ken Loach. But while Loach also takes time to make you care about his characters, Zeze is constantly rushing on to the next plot point.

Even cinematographer Atsuhiro Nabeshima’s camera can’t seem to sit still, prowling through each scene as he casts the action in inky, desaturated hues. It’s an appropriate palette for this noirish tale, full of performances that are just a little too mannered.

“In the Wake” touches on themes of collective responsibility, the limits of compassion and the social stigma surrounding welfare in Japan. Zeze’s methods aren’t always subtle: In one extraordinary scene, a character reels off a bunch of factoids in the middle of a physical altercation.

While the story’s self-appointed angel of vengeance demands moral clarity, the film suggests that things aren’t so neatly delineated. It’s a worthy sentiment, though it makes the neatness of the conclusion all the more of a letdown. After reminding us how complicated real life can be, “In the Wake” is content just to be a movie.

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