Over twenty companies scrambled for film adaptation rights of Shuichi Yoshida’s novel 'Akunin' ('Villain'). By the 2011 Japanese Academy Awards, the movie won prizes in all four acting categories and was nominated for 11 others (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Score). Understandably, expectation for a film of such sweeping recognition is high. By and large, it does not disappoint.
Living in a barren fishing village of Nagasaki, Yuichi (Santoshi Tsumabuki) spends his days alternating between work in construction and looking after his ailing grandparents. Friendless and destitute, his only solace is confined to his mean looking GTR Nissan Skyline. Through a dating site, Yuichi meets Mitsuoyo (Eri Fukatsu), a shop-assistant whose life is beset with a different type of monotony - her entire existence remains on one road, a primary school at one end and her job at the other.
However, Yuichi has kept a sinister secret. He is suspected of the murder of Yoshino, a young insurance saleswoman who was found dead only days before. Yoshino’s murder leaves two grieving parents confronting the sadness and desperation of losing their only child. Meanwhile, Masuo, a college student who was with Yoshino on the night she died, has fled.
The first twenty minutes of 'Villain' leading up to the murder that sets the narrative in motion feel like an underwhelming and mundane murder/mystery. It may have been forgivable with good editing and use as an opening sequence before the title screen, but this problem may spurn inattentive viewers.
Gladly, once the film gathers momentum it stands tall as a powerful drama. 'Villain' carefully explores several themes of tragedy from Yuichi’s and Mitsuoyo’s isolation, Yoshino’s parents’ bereavement and failure, and Yuichi’s grandmother’s plight. Channelled through the character of Masuo, the entire tragedy is underpinned by a contemptible culture of machismo and vanity amongst Japanese youth that unwittingly created such a dangerous situation for the murdered Yoshino.
'Villain' questions the audience and the public’s willingness to categorise behaviour into intrinsic “good” or “evil”. Lee Sang Li depicts several inherently evil acts of varying severity (murder, rape, extortion, and misogyny) and manipulates the audience’s knee-jerk disgust by drip feeding sympathy. He undercuts these despicable acts by introducing external elements of blame and adding other aspects of equally inherent human fragility.
By the end of the film, the director desires the audience to have sympathy at arm’s length, but whether that is achieved is arguable. Though not completely sentimentalising murder, we’re invited to consider the subtleties and complexities of evil conduct - spontaneity and premeditation, malice and regret. As a taxi driver innocuously remarks after the film’s climax, people who commit such awful deeds as murder must only be inhuman.
The acting of Eri Fukatsu is outstanding, offering an aching portrayal of a compassionate introvert, struggling to reconcile her vision of ideal love and the dangerous reality in front of her. A notable mention goes to the performance of Yuichi’s grandmother played by Kiki Kirin. The frailty of age and responsibilities that bear down on her prove heartbreaking to watch.
Lee Sang Li’s direction is often fantastic, creating a sense of implicit drama by focusing on objects in the scene belonging to characters that aren’t present in the sequence. The production purposefully lacks the ostentation of Japanese city cinematography, excelling in beautifying grim and shabby environments.
People will appreciate how this film won awards for acting. However, slightly overcooked shots and inconsequential moments sometimes sap the control of a very solid drama (running time 140 mins). Nevertheless, as each tragedy unfolds, the film becomes gripping. Ultimately, 'Villain' merits the attention it has received.
'Villain' (aka 'Akunin') is out today on limited release in UK cinemas.