Just when every variation on serial murderers seemed played out, along comes “Copycat Killer,” a strong return to form by writer-director Yoshimitsu Morita (“Family Game,” “Keiho”) after his wobbly crime drama “The Black House.” By turns satirical, dreamlike, classical and unsettling, plot has superficial resemblances to the Leopold-Loeb case that inspired “Rope,” “Compulsion” and the recent “Murder by Numbers.” But film keeps the audience on its toes with a complex structure, ambivalent mood and a large cast of characters whose threads eventually connect. Fests and other platforms for quality Asian fare should seek this out.
Miyuki Miyabe, author of the controversial 2001 original novel, reportedly insisted on Morita handling film chores. Morita has attacked the material with evident glee, avoiding the procedural style of “Keiho” and taking as many potshots at the media as at the whole serial-killer genre.
One day, a young woman called Mariko fails to return home and, 10 months later, a severed arm is found in a shoulder bag in a Tokyo park. Shinichi Tsukada, the guy who discovered it, turns out to be still bruised from surviving a family massacre, and Shigeko Maehata (Yoshino Kimura), a journalist who interviewed him at the time, invites him to stay at her home.
A scrambled voice claiming to be the killer calls a TV station and says the shoulder bag is Mariko’s but the arm is someone else’s. The voice later calls Mariko’s grandfather, Yoshio Arima (Tsutomu Yamazaki), setting up a fake meeting and leaving Mariko’s watch at his home while he’s out. The self-styled killer also sends porno pictures of young women to TV stations, boasting that he killed them, too.
While the media and police run in circles — with their scenes shot in a jocular, antsy style — the voice calls again, promising that he’ll broadcast the next murder live via a webcam. In a section that rates as a mini-thriller all its own, two characters in a car — Hiromi Kurihashi and Kazuaki Takai (Kanji Tsuda, Takashi Fujii) — end up plunging over a cliff and, on evidence found, the cops reckon the case solved. At that point, almost 40 minutes in, pic suddenly flashbacks two years earlier to Okinawa.
As if the viewer doesn’t have enough characters to cope with already, pic now sets off on a separate tack, introducing a smooth-talking young wacko, Koichi Amikawa (Masahiro Nakai), who casually murders a woman while she’s pleasuring him in a car. Koichi tells his best friend — none other than Hiromi — that he wants to commit murders that have never been done before, and the two set out to realize their plan.
At a secluded country villa they keep a collection of young women chained to the floor of the basement, while Hiromi, a tech wiz, scrambles his voice and deals with the media. They hope to create a great event, “The Serial Murders,” that will make everyone, including the victims, famous. They then set about planning Mariko’s murder and framing Shinichi.
Still only at its midpoint, story then starts to overlap with the pic’s early scenes, as Hiromi communicates with Mariko’s grandfather. Latter, showing some mettle, says he’s guessed there are two people involved in the murder, not one, and starts baiting Hiromi. Extremely complex plot then fans out to involve the journalist and her husband, with an outre finale that’s a pure jaw-dropper.
At the end of the day, the movie is an exercise in pure cinema rather than a searching examination of a serial killer’s mind. Morita plays with the viewer on many levels and the denseness of the plotting — more suitable to a mini-series than a two-hour movie — often obscures the shallowness of some of the characters. Pic’s postscript is also one loony idea too many.
However, through sheer technique and clever plot twists Morita makes the picture an engrossing ride. He’s helped by a top-flight cast, from vet Yamazaki as the clever grandfather to Nakai as the arrogant killer and Kimura as the journalist. Overall weird tone owes much to Michiru Oshima’s quirkily atmospheric score, plus Nobuyasu Kita’s alternately agitated and classically composed lensing. Original title literally means “Copycat Crimes.”