Nagasaki native Shūichi Yoshida is one of those so-hot-right-now writers in Japan, with his previous works having been adapted into films such as Christmas on July 24th Avenue. Despite a number of competing bids to bring his award-winning novel Akunin (Villain) to life, it was Korean-Japanese director Lee Sang-il who has adapted it to the screen, following the success of his previous award-winning Hula Girls in 2006.
Yoshino Ishibashi (Hikari Mitsushima, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Love Exposure), who sells insurance in Fukuoka, meets Yuichi Shimizu (Satoshi Tsumabuki, Villon’s Wife), a social outcast from a fishing village in Nagasaki, via a dating site. Not terribly impressed, she also dates Keigo Masuo (Masaki Okada, Life Back Then), or at least she think she is dating him. He is just an disinterested in her and she is with Yuichi. When Yoshino is found dead, Keigo is the prime suspect, while Yuichi goes on with his life in fear. When he receives an email from Mitsuyo Magome (Eri Fukatsu, A Ghost of a Chance), a woman he had previously met online. As the two become closer, Yuichi is now on the run from the law.
The central question behind Villain (悪 人) is “Who is the real villain?”. Yet do not mistake this for a simple whodunnit, as it is established fairly early on who the criminal is. The question of villainy remains ambiguous throughout, as our protagonist navigates through a sea of horrible people. If anything, Lee Sang-il makes it too easy for us to point fingers at the miscreants and social ills and forgive the acts of the central figures. Indeed, the observational approach of the film leaves a wide range of possible interpretations, right up until the twisty finale. The question as to whether Yuichi is a “bad person” is not cut and dried, especially when compared with the people who surround him. We have, as a comparison, Keigo, who not only abuses the women in his life, but publicly brags about it.
Yet as more people are drawn into the web, the mysteries take on another form. Mitsuyo, played by the magnificent Eri Fukatsu, is the richest puzzle in the film. We never wholly get a grasp on her motivations, and even after certain revelations are made about Yuichi, her love for him remains steadfast. Yet even this is ambiguous. Do either of the characters have a true love for each other, or is there a mutual obsessive need on both of their parts to be wanted wholly, without acknowledgment of any other. The parallel stories involving Yuichi grandmother (the incomparable Kirin Kiki, A Honeymoon in Hell: Mr. and Mrs. Oki’s Fabulous Trip) and Yoshino’s father (Akira Emoto, Life Back Then) may be tangential to the main narrative, but they are indelibly touched by it. Their encounters with the media and shady conmen to name a few bring home the point that there are villains around every corner. Does this excuse the actions of the killer? Does love and an appreciation of lighthouses eradicate the crime of murder?
The understated photography makes terrific use of the southern island of Kyushu, with much of the action taking place between Saga and Nagasaki. The film does feel as though it is taking place in an isolated pocket, and coupled with a score by the legendary Joe Hisaishi (known for his music for Studio Ghibli and Takashi Kitano) there is a subtle majesty at play here. Neither the photography or the music overwhelm, but rather they play the same unobtrusive and observational role that the director’s eye does. This keeps the morality of the film, and indeed the motivations of the players, ambiguous til the end.
Villain is playing at the Japanese Film Festival on 23 November (Sydney) and 3 December (Melbourne) 2011 at the 15th Japanese Film Festival in Australia.