For the first third or so of its running time, Sway leads us astray so well that by the time it closes around its real subject, we don’t mind. It’s only towards the end that we realize it was never digressing. It begins as a drama about distances between family members—like a Japanese version of The Ice Storm, maybe—and then turns with startling single-mindedness into a Rashōmon-like story of murder and guilt. And even that’s not the real story, either.
The first act, again, is all setup, but of character and not for plot. We see two brothers, Takeru (Jō Odagiri) and Minoru (Teruyuki Kagawa). Handsome Takeru has a career as a photographer, tools around in a vintage car, wears red leather pants, and affects an air of gentle detachment everywhere. Minoru, homely and reticent, is far more “conventional”—bowing, smiling, slaving away at the crummy little gas station he’s been running in their hometown for years, still living at home with his father.
The two are thrown back into contact with each other when their mother dies, and there is immediately bad blood from their father at Takeru “running away” from the family. Minoru is more accommodating towards Takeru—he’s the first one to dive in and defuse tensions at the funeral—but as time goes on we wonder if this self-effacing behavior is just another facet of his attempts to please everyone equally. The mask slips more than a bit when Takeru meets back up with a childhood friend, Chieko (Yoko Maki). They like each other a great deal. Minoru is all the more chagrined by this, especially since Chieko’s been working at his gas station all this time and is now probably going to leave with Takeru when he heads home after the funeral.
One day the three of them go on a hiking trip. While Takeru is off taking pictures, Minoru and Chieko have a confrontation on a narrow suspension bridge over a river. There’s an argument, and when Takeru returns he finds a near-catatonic Minoru clutching the side of the bridge. She fell out, the police conclude. But Minoru cannot live with the guilt that is building up inside of him—pre-emptive guilt, a guilt that he will be ostracized unless he takes full blame for his actions. He turns himself in and pleads guilty, and for the first time in his life feels like he has been honest. Takeru, distraught, turns to his lawyer uncle (Keizo Kanie) for help.
The trial takes up most of the second half of the film, but because of the way everything has been constructed and observed, we do not feel like we’re watching a “legal thriller”. It is more about the competing and conflicting feelings within each of them, and how this disaster—and all the legal probing that comes in its wake—exposes all of that. There are moments during the trial when the prosecutor and the judge (none other than Tomorow Taguchi, effectively invisible) are performing interrogations that are as emotional as they are logistical.
“I should never have been there,” Minoru says at more than one occasion, “or she would have been alive by now.” What’s creepy is how his words soon begin to echo Takeru’s own feelings, and how Takeru also begins to feel complicit (belatedly?) for engineering this emotional disaster. He can’t turn his back on any of this, tempting as it is, and he doesn’t want his brother to think he’s going to abandon him. “My life has always been about running away,” he admits, but maybe the two simply expressed their cowardice differently. One “runs away”, the other knuckles under. There is also the suggestion, subtly inserted into the film, that Takeru knows a great deal more about the incident than he is letting on, and is keeping his silence so that both of them can save some degree of face.
The acting is good across the board, but Odagiri and Kagawa are outstanding, and are alone three-fourths of the reason to see the film. Odgairi in particular: this performance is nothing like his lackluster wet-dishrag role in Shinobi or his loony over-the-topness in Azumi. Like Tadanobu Asano, he suggests enormous reserves of emotion by simply holding back. Kagawa—broad mouth, broad eyes, rounded shoulders—gives us a man who has finally found the one note of truth in his life, even if it consists of tearing himself to pieces in public. And then there is a long coda—paced perfectly, ended at exactly the right moment—that lets us wonder who of the two of them has lost more.