Villain, a Japanese drama directed by Lee Sang-il, is a curious experience. It’s about the murder of a young woman along a country road, although its focus is very much on those still-living who are affected by her death. At no point is the identity of the killer ever in doubt, indeed we spent the bulk of the film in his company. In the end it’s essentially a tragedy in the classical sense: bad things happen to those who probably don’t deserve it, but they happen nonetheless because of their own unchangeable behaviours.
Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima) works for an insurance company in Fukuoka. She has her eye on the dashing university student Keigo (Masaki Okada), and has been bombarding him with e-mails and phone messages. At the same time she’s taking another young man – the shy, withdrawn Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) – for a ride, only dating him in return for money. She pre-arranges to meet Yuichi, but walks into Keigo at the last moment and gets in his car instead. When the self-centred Keigo tires of her advances, he physically kicks her out of the car and onto a remote hillside road. Shortly afterwards Yuichi arrives, having followed them both. Minutes later Yoshino is dead: strangled and dumped by Yuichi.
From here the film follows the lives of five characters as the after-effects of Yoshino’s murder ripple through their lives. There’s Yuichi, a confused and withdrawn murderer who forms the film’s difficult, inexplicable centre. There is Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu), a timid shop assistant who has fallen in love with Yuichi without knowing his secret. There’s Keigo, whose self-centered cruelty put Yoshino in harm’s way and who goes on the run when he becomes the prime suspect. There is Yoshino’s grief-stricken father, who struggles to come to peace with his daughter’s death. Finally there is Yuichi’s grandmother, an elderly woman with a husband in hospital who raised Yuichi after he was abandoned by his mother.
It’s a film that creeps up on you. At first I questioned why the film was trying to make me sympathise with a young man who had just murdered a woman, and who has already connected with a second. It’s not easy to like Yuichi: he’s not only a killer, but sullen, anti-social, creepily silent and predatory. Then the film slowly worked at me, revealing his past and gradually transforming him from the villain of the title to something closer to a victim. He ends the film still a murderer, and it’s a relief to see him arrested and prosecuted by the police, but the by this late stage the waters have been so muddied as to make me feel sorry for him as well.
That sympathy extends to much of the cast, whether it’s a confused grandmother getting swindled out of her life savings by an unscrupolous doctor, or a grieving father who carries a wrench in his coat pocket in the hopes of meeting Keigo and beating him for leaving his daughter to die. It’s particularly sympathetic towards Mitsuyo: in Yuichi she thinks she’s finally found somebody to love, and who will love her in return, and this desperate yearning for human contact leads her to persuade Yuichi to go on the run with her rather than surrender himself to the police. Eri Fukatsu gives the best performance of the film to my mind – and it’s a film blessed with uniformly exceptional ones. When it was released in Japan it won five Japanese Academy Awards including all four acting prizes and Best Original Score for Joe Hisaishi.
This is a bleak, uncompromising film that showcases the damage that can cascade through a community based on one horrible act of violence. The title resonates: we begin the film in no doubt over who the villain of the title is, yet as the story progresses and the various characters are revealed, it gradually becomes less clear. In the end, there’s just victim after victim -all mired in their own life choices. It’s confronting stuff.
This review was first published at The Angriest on 31 January 2015.