Reviewed by Chris MaGee
In the cinematic world of Kiyoshi Kurosawa ghosts don’t just appear out of the ether and start tormenting innocent people for no good reason. No, ghosts in Kurosawa’s films have always been the shadow side of the human psyche, taking form from or feeding off of the guilt, loneliness, greed, and hidden rages of people just like you and me. That’s what makes them so scary. When the supernatural forces that plague you are in fact aspects of your own self there’s no easy way to exorcise them. None of Kurosawa’s films have crystallized this viewpoint better for me than his latest film “Retribution” (2007).
In what could be described as the final film in a loose detective trilogy that started with 1997’s “Cure” and continued with 1999’s “Charisma” Koji Yakusho stars yet again, this time as Yoshioka, a homicide detective investigating the murder of an unidentified woman. F18, as the woman is referred to around the department was found drowned, her lungs filled with salt water, on a muddy manmade embankment that developers have built out into Tokyo Bay. Most evidence has been lost after a brief but powerful earthquake, so the investigators have to go on old fashioned police work and gut instinct to solve the crime. Yoshioka’s gut instinct takes him back to the embankment, described as a place “between building up and tearing down” by a tug boat captain who works the bay. It’s in the urban no man’s land that Yoshioka finds a vital but disturbing clue: a button from a trench coat, one exactly the same as the button that Yoshioka is missing from his own trench coat. He doesn’t voice the nauseating feeling that he might somehow be connected to this murder, but he doesn’t have to. Soon more evidence comes to light that ties Yoshioka to the crime; but when a doctor is picked up for drowning his son in saltwater the police change tack. The investigation shifts to a serial murder case and Yoshioka is dropped as a suspect, but do they have the right man behind bars?
To outline anymore of the plot of “Retribution” would be a crime in itself (bad pun, sorry), but suffice to say that, as is the case with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, things aren’t as simple as they seem. What I can say and will warn is that fans of hardboiled detective stories may not appreciate some of the gaping plot holes, but these viewers would have missed the point of the film.
Like most of Kurosawa’s films there is an underlying issue that he wants to explore and in “Retribution” that issue is the past as personified by the urban landscape of Tokyo. After its traumatic defeat in the Second World War and the bitter poverty that followed Japan was ready to leave the past behind. During the boom years of the 1960’s rural areas were quickly eaten up by concrete apartment blocks and industry and in many ways the urban sprawl hasn’t stopped since. With his symbolic use of earthquakes and Yoshioka’s recurring memory of the ferry route that used to run right through the newly built embankment Kurosawa warns us that to forget what we keep buried in the bedrock of the past never goes away, that it waits there ready to be acknowledged and brought to light.
That’s not to say that “Retribution” is some kind of dry, didactic exercise. Far from it. This one has some truly chilling moments; and in some ways I’m glad that Kurosawa made this film when he did. After the disappointment that was 2005’s “Loft” and what seems to be his swing towards more straight dramatic fair with his upcoming “Tokyo Sonata” I think it was important that Kurosawa staked his claim once again as one of the best horror directors of the past 20 years with “Retribution”.