Erica 38 (Japan, 2019)

Inspired by true events, Erica 38 tells the story of a con-woman named Satoko Watabe who defrauds 50 billion yen from unsuspecting dupes in a pyramid scheme before finally being caught. The lead character, played by former pop idol Miyoko Asada, may have a silver tongue that can deceive others but, in the end, the biggest dupe turns out to be her.

Told in an unsentimental and unostentatious way by Yuichi Hibi, Japan, Erica 38 allows the audience to engage in an interesting character study where we see the rise and fall of Satoko Watabe (Miyoko Asada), a woman we are first introduced to as she is being arrested in Thailand where she has donned the persona of Erica, a 38-year-old Japanese ex-pat. The narrative then uses the character of an investigative journalist interviewing people involved in her scam (and asking questions the audience will have) to initiate a series of nested flashbacks to tell us how she got to this point.

We see her evolving career in Tokyo, rising from a middle-aged hostess at a club to wooing roomfuls of people, many of whom are vulnerable, who are wowed by the fantasy of investing in schools in Cambodia. Through chance meetings with con artists who value her silver tongue, she learns to dress sharper, speak more eloquently and weave bigger dreams, thus fooling larger audiences and throughout it all shows little signs of guilt as she accrues wealth through lies.

A montage of fancy clothes, flash cars, facials, wads of cash stacked in a safe, and expensive jewels wrapped around wrists, concisely tell her growing decadence powered by her mercenary behaviour. Less deftly told is the root of how she became so ruthless. The flashbacks reveal that she comes from a working-class milieu and has a broken family background, which possibly includes abuse by her father, but it never quite convinces. It is enough to show her career trajectory, her character traits like materialism and distrust which she later displays and so, when one fellow grifter tells her, “Money is far more dependable than people. The human heart is weak”, we understand why Satoko takes this advice to her own heart as she fleeces people who are convinced she is genuine.

Asada, a pop idol who got her start in the 70s, really impresses as the heard-headed and hard-hearted Satoko, an air of geniality and brightness that masks the indifference she can display for the people she betrays even as they plead and beg for their money back and reveal the extent of their woes. The acting of the supporting cast borders just on the right side of melodrama to be taken seriously as we get invested in their terror and fury and marvel at the implacable Satoko, a picture of innocence. Asada also has a skill for showing and hiding vulnerability and reveals it when she dares to admit love, another way to count the things she hasn’t got, and allows herself to be blinded by it. The film takes on a little tragic hue in this regard as we see her inability to fully trust another person and defensively recoil from caring but still want to be sucked into the emotion.

Perhaps the only person loyal to Satoko is her mother. Played by Kirin Kiki (in her last acting role), she displays a hard-won resignation to life, something her daughter finally adopts as the end comes for her and she finds she can no longer hide behind a false smile as she has to admit that as much as she has fooled others with elaborate dreams, by allowing herself to get wrapped up in her decadent fantasies and not confront her worst traits and bitter past, she is the biggest fool. As the narrative closes, the journalist gives Satoko one last myth to hold on to although it is a bittersweet lie in itself.