After the lame “Loft,” Japanese psycho-maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa bounces back with “Retribution,” a modern-day ghost story/serial-killer mystery that blends the helmer’s typical ingredients of guilt, suggestion and waking madness in largely successful doses. Film lacks the sheer clammy-handed creepiness of his earlier “Cure” — with which it shares some plot similarities — but should have an offshore market, especially in ancillary, as a more-than-solid slice of J-horror.
Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho here plays Yoshioka, a stressed-out cop investigating the murder of Reiko Shibata, a young woman in a vivid red dress. Though she was apparently drowned in a small pool of muddy water, her stomach is found to be full of sea water. The most worrying aspect of the case for Yoshioka is that a button found at the murder scene matches one that’s missing from a coat he himself bought.
When fingerprints on the body match his, Yoshioka starts thinking he may have been the murderer, even though colleagues say he probably just handled the body without gloves on. However, Yoshioka has also started seeing a ghost in the same vivid red dress (Riona Hazuki), whom he presumes is Reiko.
Kurosawa takes this simple premise of a cop who may or may not be a murderer, and then skews it. When a surgeon, Sakuma, drowns his own son in a similar way, he seemingly sets up Yoshioka as the murderer, to a point where even Yoshioka’s sidekick, Miyaji (Tsuyoshi Ihara), starts to suspect his colleague. Also, the hauntings of Yoshioka — including a striking sequence where the ghost-woman appears to climb out of his bedroom wall during an earthquake tremor — have increased.
Plot seems to resolve itself two-thirds of the way through, before Kurosawa springs the first of two major twists. As Yoshioka delves into his own past to settle the mystery, he sends his girlfriend, Harue (the ethereal Manami Konishi), away for safety. But then the final twist reveals everything the audience thinks it’s seen is far from the truth.
Pic’s original Japanese title literally translates as “The Scream,” which explains the occasional ear-splitting wail the ghost-woman summons up. Throughout, there’s a sense of the spirit-world pressing against the real world, like a face against a window pane, demanding retribution for a past wrong. In line with this, the film’s horror is rarely full-on, more a growing sense of unease punctuated by occasional striking effects.
The hang-dog Yakusho makes an ideal protagonist, one with whom the audience is never quite sure whether it can identify. And at least one rather remote performance only makes sense at the very end.
In essence, “Retribution” is just a clever box of tricks that keeps turning the tables on the viewer, and pic never sticks to the ribs like some of Kurosawa’s earlier movies. But it’s classily made, with the lucid colors and chiaroscuro lighting of d.p. Akiko Ashizawa keeping the sense of gentle dread bubbling away.