For the first three-fourths of Retribution, I thought Kiyoshi Kurosawa had given us the best film of his career apart from Cure. Then, in the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film, he managed to completely undo that feeling. The conclusion to this film is so drawn-out and messy and tacked-on, it feels like a different writer and director took over to finish the job.
It’s all the more annoying because everything before that is quite solid and suspenseful, and provokes the kind of wonder and unease that the director’s other, better films all did. It’s just that after a certain point, Kurosawa starts falling back on tropes he’s used elsewhere to different effect, and they don’t belong here.
Retribution gives us a police detective, Yoshioka — Kurosawa’s perennial everyman actor, Kōji Yakusho — investigating a crime where a woman was apparently drowned in a puddle of seawater. The victim’s an unknown, but there are some things about the crime that begin to bother the detective. For one, his fingerprint was found on the body (something his co-workers are quick to dismiss as just him being sloppy), and there’s a coat button at the scene of the crime that is exactly like the one missing from his own jacket.
Is he the killer? The deck seems stacked that way for a while, until another murder takes place: a doctor poisons his son and drowns him in the same manner. But then there’s another killing — a female accountant who drowns her boss in the bathtub — and Yoshioka begins to suspect something far more widespread and complicated is taking place, something rooted in his own past. It’s a familiar dynamic to anyone who’s seen Kurosawa’s other movies; he’s fascinated with the way ideas and concepts can become physical things that direct and destroy human life.
What ought to have been one of Kurosawa's better films
winds up eating its own tail by the three-fourths mark.
Retribution looks and sounds great — much of the movie was shot in the crumbling waterfront section of (I think) Yokohama, where the peeling plaster and rotting cement stand in stark contrast to the super-clean, ultra-modern Japan we see in the movies. But instead of a clean and economical ending the film goes on and on and on, burdening the film with all kinds of annoying and unneeded baggage. The conclusion is particularly infuriating. It’s as if Kurosawa didn’t trust his better instincts about how this story should work, and he fell back on the same increasingly redundant apocalyptic tomfoolery he’s used before as a way to clear the deck. When all else fails to move your audience, blow up the world.
Maybe this movie did in fact need another writer and director to take over in the last act — or, maybe more simply, an editor to cut things short before they got really stupid. But up until that point, the movie works very well — so well, in fact, that I shall fall back on an old formula that I’ve used to talk about everything from Osamu Tezuka’s lesser work to a middling Vampire Hunter D installment: Even a bad Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie is still more interesting than many other good ones. But that doesn’t mean he has the right to abuse the privilege and make what amounts to the same film over and over again. Ever get the feeling you’d been cheated?