by Jason Suzuki
From the opening scene it becomes clear that Kei Ishikawa is a perfectly competent first time director. The scene carefully introduces Satoshi Tsumabuki's character to the audience; on its own it could be taken as a brief but malicious short film. But upon the realization that this opening scene is actually a foreshadowing of the plot and its narrative structure as a whole it becomes clear Kei Ishikawa is one of the most exciting new voices to come out of Japan. This tale of a tabloid reporter's re-visitation of the unsolved murder of an upper class family after a year has passed is adapted from Tokoro Nukui's novel. Ishikawa adds feint traces of the otherworldy in what is an otherwise grounded and simple story with many moral questions remaining afterwards.
Tanaka (Tsumabuki) is a quiet man. The only time we see his tone escalate is when he must convince his editor to allow him to do another piece on the Tako family murders. It's been a year, maybe their friends and neighbors have something new to say. That's his angle. Tanaka's sister Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima) is currently in jail for child neglect, her baby kept in the hospital in critical condition. The film is a series of interviews and confessions, sometimes overlapping: between Tanaka and those who knew late-corporate ladder climber Hiroki and his wife Yukie, between Tanaka and his sister during visiting hours, and between Mitsuko and a psychiatrist.
From Tanaka's interviews we get a series of flashbacks that play out like a Neil LaBute star-crossed love story. Hiroki and Yukie freely use people for their own advancement in life. The stories recounted about Hiroki revolve around the women he uses for career advancement. With Yukie it is her maintaining of a social order within her university. The theme of class divide is the backbone to both of their tales. A higher social standing being a reason the film suggests why so many gullbile have-nots were drawn to these two in the first place.
It cannot be stressed enough how simple of a story Traces of Sin possesses. Most viewers should be able to figure out the perp before the film has reached its halfway point. This is because the films wants to discuss justice. Why is the film so anti-climactic yet can linger like a bitter aftertaste? So much time is spent with the murdered and the callousness of their time on Earth that it dulls the gravity of finding their murderer. Tsumabuki has never been better, and for those looking for an respite from his recent ubiquity with Yoji Yamada should relish the cold and the ulterior aspects to his performance.
The movie begs for a discussion of its ethics. It's engrossing how much the film wants to leave you cold. I can see its plot revelations being accused of half-bakedness, but its distance must be respected as it eschews the typical feel of its kind of mystery.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.