I just watched a couple of Japanese horror films back to back. One was the J-Horror standby Ju-On (The Grudge); the other was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (Pulse). It would be very easy to cover the two together under one tent, but that would be to court madness. Whatever its genre trappings, Pulse is the work of a metaphysical artist working through issues of alienation and the social contract; The Grudge, meanwhile, is an extremely literal-minded scare film about some very angry blue people, and while some symptomatic resonances might be at work, its makers are blissfully unaware of anything other than mechanics and (weak) theatrics. Though they share a sort of Typhoid Mary approach to their horrors—Pulse uses the internet to collect souls, The Grudge creates a daisy-chain of victims connected to that funky house—they couldn’t be more separate in intent, sense of style, or level of consciousness. But this being the world we live in, it was inevitable that the two approaches would wind up merging. The mash-up is Retribution, an uneasy alliance between Kurosawa and super-producer Takashige Ichise, who’s had his fingers in a sizeable number of J-Horror pots (including The Grudge). Lest you think such a relationship would be strictly hands-off, Ichise didn’t merely produce, but also helped write the screenplay, despite the fact that in the past, Kurosawa has mostly done the writing himself. In Retribution, the literal-minded world of standard J-Horror and the metaphorical brilliance of Kurosawa prove to be largely incompatible; it’s a fight to the finish, and the winner is the square literality of the genre itself.
The film starts in territory familiar to viewers of the director’s Cure. Police detective Yoshioka (Kurosawa axiom Kōji Yakusho) arrives on the scene of a murder where a woman has been drowned in a puddle. During his investigation, he finds a button that may belong to one of his own outfits; it’s also revealed that fingerprints found at the scene are his. He’s not considered a suspect, but he starts to wonder; then more victims start turning up in the same circumstances (drowned in shallow bodies of water), sometimes with the use of items that can be found in and around Yoshioka’s digs. The capture of one of the victim’s killers (a father resentful of his delinquent son) doesn’t stop the murders, or the sense that Yoshioka might have some splainin’ to do. The ominous (if slightly tired) implication is that Yoshioka could possibly be the killer—and his mission is to absolve himself, if that’s possible.
On the face of it, this might have been a decent Kurosawa premise: as his films have tended to limn the dynamic between a destructive individual and a restrictive common good (think tree vs. forest in Charisma, or harried lawman vs. serene murder enabler in Cure), it wouldn’t have been hard to take this confused cop/killer and used him to chart new territory in the director’s no-man’s-land. This is especially true considering that the murderers turn out to be multiple: again as in Cure, the potential for violence is within us all. Unfortunately, to carry that through would have required more metaphorical weight than the film permits itself. Retribution is more interested in setting a fixed identity to the objects within the story: gone are the narratively nonsensical but thematically potent images of Charisma and Pulse, to be replaced with the rather plodding mission to pardon a policeman and figure out the supernatural reason why people are offing other people.
This is all wrong. Nobody goes to Kurosawa for the safety of narrative frameworks: Pulse would have fallen apart instantly if that were so, its impenetrable ghost world being merely the medium for his message about the symbiotic relationship between alienation and social interaction. To use an overused word, it’s about archetypes—ones that Kurosawa has developed for himself, and which illustrate his metaphysical concepts. To make his film a plot-heavy whodunit is to take away everything that makes him interesting and replace it with some leftover imagery from The Grudge. (Warning: spoilers from here on out.)
It turns out that a dead woman is getting revenge on people who briefly witnessed her plight when she was alive. The simple beyond-the-grave explanation kills any hope for subtextual excitement; the revenge angle also brings up another distinction between J-Horror convention and Kurosawa practice. Standard bearers of the former (i.e., Ringu and The Grudge) have tended to be about inherited guilt—the idea of not only being punished for someone else’s crime but of passing that guilt on to large swathes of innocent bystanders. The director’s films, by contrast, don’t really deal with the idea of guilt—they reframe the notion of morality into the opposing forces of social and individual needs; the confusion that creates is where Kurosawa draws his interest and his relevance. Retribution hands him the chain of guilt concept and forces him to conform to it, despite the fact that it’s anathema to his process and way of thinking.
The director’s visual sense doesn’t fail him; in fact, it makes the script’s more risible concepts seem more palatable than they should. Scenes of our vengeful supernatural vixen are handled with a combination of silence and slow-motion that keeps it from being just a scary woman in a red dress. And at least one interrogation scene—in which a suspect sees what the police cannot and flails across the room—shows Kurosawa’s subtle genius for placing a mirror and tracking a camera with precision and variety. In fact, Kurosawa keeps the film from being the painful affair it might have been, making sure that the seams do not show. He hasn’t lost it; it’s just been hidden.
And here’s to not concealing it any longer. Retribution is a mediocre film with more style than it deserves: it’s what happens when you waste a brilliant filmmaker on something that doesn’t interest him. It’s the kind of thing that might have come to cheesy life under the aegis of a lesser horrormeister like Nakata or Shimizu, but which stalls in the gate under someone working furiously to conceal their lack of enthusiasm for what appears to be a semi-assignment. And it’s proof that artists should be left to their own devices instead of being fit into formats not of their own devising—a better title for the whole affair being, perhaps, Repetition.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.