With fewer American independent films making it to screens this fall, perhaps its time to fill in the gaps in one’s viewing of past films. I’m not a horror film fan—the genre is too formulaic for me—but the subgenre known as J-Horror holds out the promise of psychological nuance banished from standard slasher films. Long before it became a recognizable genre, the Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the great Akira Kurosawa) had been creating creepy, atmospheric movies with many of the elements of J-Horror, but with far greater formal daring and completely without the mopey adolescent longing of true J-Horror films.
Kurosawa teamed up with veteran J-Horror producer Taka Ichise in Retribution (2006), which represented a return to form for the director. His breakthrough film was Cure (1996), among the best psychological thrillers ever made, and he had another hit with the technophobic Pulse (2001—not to be confused with the misbegotten English-language remake of the same name, released in 2006). However, Kurosawa’s intricate style works against his workaholic tendencies, and he had trouble rediscovering the right emotional and formal pitch in his films after Pulse.
Retribution allowed Kurosawa to right himself by leaning heavily on J-Horror conventions, especially the victims’ empathy with their supernatural tormentors. Kurosawa most recognizable connection to his earlier films is reappearance of the hangdog Tokyo police detective Noboru Yoshioka, played by Koji Yakusho, who appears to be wearing the same set of clothes he wore in Cure. Retribution begins with the discovery of a young woman in a red dress face down in a puddle of seawater, with Yoshioka’s overcoat button next to her and his fingerprints all over the body. Yoshioka’s colleagues don’t make much of the evidence pointing to their detective, but the dead woman’s ghost is absolutely convinced the Yoshioka killed her, even though he can’t remember ever seeing her before.
The ghost’s red dress is literally the only bright spot in this drab landscape, shot by Akiko Ashizawa, whose visual style is film noir without the key lighting. Everyone fades into the background, visually and metaphorically, making the ghost’s insistence on having her demands heard all the more poignant. She haunts ordinary people trapped by disappointment, on the verge of realizing their dreams. A young secretary drowns her lover in a bathtub filled with seawater. She’s quickly caught by police—murders in Kurosawa’s films are always caught within minutes of committing their crimes; it’s the motives that are hard to find—and she explains to Yoshioka that the ghost’s “emotions started flowing into me. Nobody notices me. I’ll be forgotten in this world. People who are in front of me won’t see me at all. Onoda [the lover] was one of those people.”
Nobody sees anything clearly because nothing appears as it really is. The police station is as bright and well-furnished as a private home; Yoshioka’s apartment is as drab as a police station. Tokyo is a gray, post-industrial wasteland; the sun only shines on ruins. Kurosawa heightens the sense of unreality by editing metonymically, picking one easily overlooked element from one scene, then unraveling it in the next. As a result, rather than dreading the reappearance of the ghost, you come to wish for it.
The world of Retribution is split between the seen and the unseen, with earthquakes and seawater puddles serving as portals between the realms. Yoshioka and the ghost peer into these portals to find the individual desires buried by a collectivist society. In the end, the ghost only wants to be recognized, and Yoshioka’s crime is that he failed to do so when he had the chance. She was too far in the background, like everyone else in Japan. Kurosawa concludes his best films with a twist that undermines our tenuous sense of certainty, and at the end of Retribution we have the feeling that we haven’t really seen the stoic police detective, either.