Memoirs of a Murderer (Japan, 2017) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2018]

In 1995, a series of five murders by strangulation take place in Tokyo. For each murder, a witness, someone close to the victim, is left alive. Detective Makimura (Hideaki Ito) and his team investigate the cases for two decades, but once the statute of limitations on the crimes expires, thereby preventing the prosecution of the serial killer, the police are forced to give up. The next day, the murderer stages a press conference for the publication of his memoirs on the murders. At the event, he reveals his face and name, while the victims’ family members (a doctor, a bookshop assistant, a yakuza boss, and Makimura, whose partner was also murdered by the serial killer) follow the conference helplessly on television. Now too late for the law to do anything about it, slick and suave serial killer Sonezaki (Tatsuya Fujiwara) attracts an immediate following from interested book readers. Things take a new turn once television star reporter Sendo (Toru Nakamura) wants to do a live interview the serial killer, and during the interview broadcast, a tape with new, previously undetected video footage of the murders arrives at the television station.

Memoirs of a Murderer is Yu Irie’s remake of the 2012 South Korean thriller Confessions of a Murder, directed by Jung Byung-gil. It certainly works as a mainstream example of its genre with an exciting and surprising plot, a star cast, and fast pace. But under the storyline, many topical social debates can be spotted. The letter of the law as opposed to the ethical sense of average citizens and the victims’ families, and contemporary commercial media tactics are two obvious ones. Once the law allows for the murderer to go free, the public is rightfully upset. Despite being a self-proclaimed serial killer, Sonezaki gets a cult following and female admirers almost to the level of Charles Manson. Sendo, a former war reporter with a shining career, claims to have serious journalistic reasons for his interview: he was reporting on the serial murders in 1995, and states that the media’s duty is to shine new light on the events. The way he is presented as a television star, however, casts doubts on his motives, and his program seems to be more about peddling gory shock effects for the curious than about delivering deep social issue journalism. No less complicit is the publishing industry, which publishes bestsellers written by murderers.

Irie’s interest also lies in the survivors’ sense of guilt. All survivors, who had to look as their loved ones were killed, bear not only grudge and a will to catch the killer, but also a sense of guilt for surviving. Detective Makimura’s sister Rika was one of the victims. But prior to her death Rika had moved to Tokyo to stay with Makimura. As the opening montage sequence reveals, the story starts in 1995, when Kobe experienced a big earthquake. It left thousands dead and even more wounded and homeless. Rika, a Kobe-based nurse by profession, was one those to meet them firsthand. It got to be too much for her, which adds to her sense of guilt and makes her ask, why she was the one to survive. After her death, this question falls to Makimura and Rika’s boyfriend Takumi – who later in the film has an important role to play. This contextualizing is further refined in Sendo’s backstory – years before, while doing freelance foreign reporting, he witnessed the killing of a colleague and friend by terrorists.

“Why not me instead? Why did I survive?” These are questions that run through the film – and through any survivors of a disaster.

Memoirs of a Murderer is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2018, which is showing at selected UK venues from February 2 to March 28.