Japan (2016) Dir. Lee Sang-il
Trust. It is not any easily relinquished commodity when meeting people in person for the first time yet we think nothing of embracing strangers online, maybe because we can’t them from behind the computer screen. But what if the real life person has an ominous cloud of doubt hanging over their character?
A grisly murder of a married couple takes place in Tokyo is punctuated by the word “rage” written in their blood on the kitchen door. Forensic evidence reveals the killer to be a man named Yamaguchi, now on the run having had plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Almost a year later, three men arrive in different cities of Japan, all with shady backgrounds, all possible candidates for being Yamaguchi.
In a small fishing town in Chiba, a taciturn drifter named Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama) is given a job by widower Yohei Maki (Ken Watanabe), who has brought his daughter Aoki (Aoi Miyazaki) back from Tokyo where she was working as a prostitute. Aoki takes a mutual shine to Tashiro which Yohei is wary of when he checks Tashiro’s background.
Meanwhile in Tokyo, closet gay salaryman Yuma Fujita (Satoshi Tsumabuki), hits the gay club scene for one night stands to ease his pain over his sick mother Takako (Hideko Hara). An unexpected hook-up with forlorn loner Naota Onishi (Gou Ayano) turns into something more, until Naota’s behaviour begins to concern Yuma.
Finally in Okinawa, Izumi Komiya (Suzu Hirose) has recently arrived from the city with her mother visits an isolated island across the bay where she finds backpacker Shingo Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama) sleeping rough in an old bunker. One night, Izumi is raped by two American GI’s and Tanaka’s reaction to this news is interesting to say the least.
Rage is Japanese-born Korean director Lee Sang-il’s second adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, the first being 2010’s Villain. Yoshida is known for his sprawling, convoluted stories with sinuous plots and grey areas of morality that holds humanity up to contempt and Rage is no different, except it gives us three times the intrigue, which Yoshida weaves this into these spiralling tales of trust and deceit, the hook being three potential victims have let a sociopathic killer into their lives.
As much as trust is the driving theme of each tale, the script goes to great lengths to show how this is a two-way street and to fully trust someone, they need to be able to trust you too. One of the scenarios explores this more prominently than the other two, a pang of jealousy having a catastrophic effect on the central relationship, which could have been avoided if they only talked instead of assumed the worst.
Jumping to conclusions is the prime fault elsewhere, again proving to be a costly error even if it did lead to a decision being made against better judgement. The message here is that there is always an explanation for everything but you have to want to hear it first, and the other person needs to feel comfortable enough to give it. Things are not always as they seem.
Of course this would be a very dull story if everyone was upfront and didn’t have that air of mystery and ambiguity about them. Films are usually time sensitive so characters tend to give themselves intimately to another rather quickly with the initial settling in period implicitly taken as read. Where Yoshida cleverly muddies the waters and extends the scope of attention to the foibles on both sides of the fence is in the characters.
If it isn’t Yuma’s vanity and fears about coming out it is Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), the teen friend of Izumi, being too weak to step up as a man. At the top of the list is Aoki, apparently damaged goods but to what extent, we don’t know, but by her own words other people are “normal”. Lee Sang-Il realises the complexity of these people through his excellent choice of cast.
Perhaps drawing the shortest straw is Suzu Hirose as rape victim Izumi, whose story becomes more about how Tanaka and Tatsuya handle her attack, thus is used less prominently. Regardless, Hirose makes every moment on screen count, propelling Izumi beyond being a token teen girl prop for the male characters, in spite of the tragedy that befalls her in the film’s moral nadir.
Satoshi Tsumabuki’s Yuma is the most contemporary character, a young office worker who happens to be gay but can’t publicly admit it. Yuma goes on perhaps the biggest emotional journey in this film, and Tsumabuki does a sterling job in charting this rocky rise to maturity.
Known as Hollywood’s favourite “go to” Japanese actor, Ken Watanabe returns home to play concerned widower Yohei, bringing a sense of seasoned humanity and gravitas to the role. Kenichi Matsuyama is superbly sullen and unreadable as Tashiro, giving nothing away to make the audience unsure if he is the prime contender for being the killer.
Once again, the seemingly ageless Aoi Miyazaki plays beneath her age – she is almost 32 but still looks 15. Aoki is needy yet likes to be needed and can be both petulant and endearing which Miyazaki captures with nuanced flair as if she has physically stepped back in time to her teens Along with Tsumabuki and Hirose, Miyazaki gets a huge scene stealing emotional scene through which she rips our hearts out.
The tightness and multi-layered construction of the script, coupled with the deft way Lee intercuts between the three concurrent stories whilst maintaining a brisk pace, makes the 135-minute run time fly by. However, the final act is decidedly rushed and raw emotion is supplanted by mawkish melodrama, suggesting maybe a downbeat ending was considered to be too much.
Weak ending aside, Rage is a compelling and neatly conflicted melange of psychological dissonance wrapped up in a taut mystery thriller that boasts total commitment from its superlative ensemble cast.