Penance benefits from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s distinctive understanding of dank, lonely atmospheres that seem to imbue time with tactile malevolence. The film concerns the murder of a young girl, Emili (Hazuki Kimura), who’s snatched on a playground right in front of her playmates and found dead soon after in their school’s gymnasium. A manhunt begins, and the four playmates, weirdly, remember nothing of Emili’s killer despite seeing him directly, and at length, when he propositioned them for help while disguised as their school’s maintenance man. It’s an unlikelihood that Emili’s mother, Asako (Kyôko Koizumi), cannot forgive, and she corners the girls and forces from them a promise: that they’ll eventually offer her a penance for their inadvertent obstruction of justice.
Fifteen years later, the girls, Sae (Yû Aoi), Maki (Eiko Koike), Akiko (Sakura Andô), and Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki), have grown into young women whose lives are still informed by the torment they feel over their involvement with Emili’s murder. Penance proceeds as an elaborate domestic-thriller anthology film that devotes a chapter to each struggling young woman, the suspense derived from trying to anticipate the fashion with which survivor’s guilt will eventually, inevitably manifest itself. A fifth chapter, a wrap-around story, concerns Asako, who also appears in all the other tales, circling the women as an infuriatingly impassive and unforgiving wraith who’s apparently incapable of empathy for essentially blameless people whose burden could be potentially lightened by a hint of mercy.
Sae’s episode is classic Kurosawa, involving a plight so strange that it doesn’t bear ruining, except to say that it relies strongly on the filmmaker’s gift for long, unrelieved passages of hypnotic silence that serve to ground the high concept in the textures of domestic everyday life, rooting the incestuous symbolism in primal, erotic dread. Maki’s story features a tonally risky sequence in which the woman, now a teacher, avenges Emili by transference with a duel with another potential killer along the edges of her school’s swimming pool. Kurosawa plays the scene nearly for comedy, rendering the confrontation banal by emphasizing the vertical planes of the swimming pool, which is characterized by a vastness that appears to contextually humble the exertions of attacker and victim. By the time we get to Akiko’s story, however, the distinctions between the episodes (and the women) begin to blur, and the dexterity of the filmmaker’s invention wavers. (It doesn’t help that half of the central quartet, exempting Aoi and Ikewaki, have been directed to give the same drab, lifeless performance.)
Like most crime fiction that follows characters haunted by a huge regret, Penance approaches its central mystery as a metaphor for how time universally plagues and conquers those who refuse to evolve and move on from a certain station in their lives. All four women are revealed to be arrested-development cases, and a good joke, which comes too late, allows us to understand that the guilt they carry for Emili’s killing is explicitly misplaced. The various twists are diverting, but increasingly mechanically so, as the film, which was made as a miniseries in Japan, succumbs to a syndrome that’s typical of American television: a fealty to plot for its own sake. This narrative preoccupation pushes Kurosawa’s formal virtuosity (not just his use of silence and spatial perspective, but also his color symbolism) to the backseat in favor of the talking that must be done to explain the whodunit, which turns out to be unsatisfyingly typical and elaborate anyway. Penance is ultimately, and disappointingly, revealed to be a contraption that’s less concerned with mental portraiture than with getting all of its expository ducks in a row.