Prophecy (Japan, 2015) [JFF2015AU]
Yoshihiro Nakamura is a filmmaker that always surprises me. The stories he tells are never what they seem to be on the surface and his attention to character always amazes me. I remember watching my first Yoshihiro Nakamura film, Golden Slumber (2010), thinking that it was going to be a “man-on-the-run” thriller, similar to The Fugitive (1994) or The Bourne Identity (2002). But it turned out to be so much more, with many elements – nostalgia, lost love, friendship, distinctively human characters and a heartwarming climax – that I never thought would be possible within its genre. Next I watched Fish Story (2009), thinking that it was a comedy, but again, it turned to be so much more, with thriller elements, sci-fi touches, scenes featuring martial arts, and fantastic characters. After those two films, I realized that Nakamura is amazing at mixing genres to suit his own style while his emphasis on character really gives his films punch. And after watching The Snow White Murder Case (2014), I recognized that his films had themes that seriously resonate with their audience. The Snow White Murder Case deals with the evils of social media, enduring friendships and celebrity fandom. Now comes Prophecy, a thriller that is based on a manga (a first for Nakamura as most of his films are based on novels). Does it retain his distinct filmmaking style or does it suffer from the problems that plague all manga adaptations as the struggle to condense vast source material?
Toma Ikuta stars as “The Newspaper Man” or “Gates”, in reference to Microsoft creator Bill Gates, an online terrorist leader who starts a major crime wave, involving violent acts meant to punish and denigrate those who prey on the weak. After each attack, he posts videos of his crimes on the Internet in order to expose the people of their wrongdoings. This catches the attention of Inspector Eriko Yoshino (Erika Toda), a cyber-crime police detective, who starts an investigation that culminates into a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase.
From the synopsis, it seems to be a typical chase thriller with similarities to the likes of Seven (1995) or Law Abiding Citizen (2009), but as with all Nakamura films, it ends up being a lot more. There are some thrills to be had in Prophecy, but they are more subversive than you might expect. For example, there is a chase scene between Gates and Yoshino through the neighbourhood streets, with fast paced music accompanying the action, but in a strange move, the music stops completely even though the chase is still happening. Oddly enough, it pays off in an unexpected way that, without revealing anything, just goes to show how well Nakamura handles character beats. But those who are looking for actual thrills and all the tropes that are associated with a thriller will probably leave disappointed.
Like Nakamura’s other films, there are many themes here one of which is carried over from The Show White Murder Case – the use of social media. In Prophecy, it is used by Japanese society as a modern version of the scales of justice to convey whether The Newspaper Man’s actions are defined as right or wrong. Leading to another theme, it is revealed that it is society itself that makes The Newspaper Man the way he is and the wrongdoers who they are, so what is it about society that corrupts people so? Or is it that the people themselves are weak-willed that they are not self-sufficient enough to succeed on their own will? It is in the social commentary in the film that provides the dramatic backbone that makes the storytelling so immersive. Everything from unemployment, workplace bullying, poverty and suicide are integrated into the story with subtlety and it engenders sympathy towards the characters.
Speaking of the characters, the movie would not have been as effective if it weren’t for the acting. Ikuta, whom I assumed was just an idol cashing in on his fame by attempting an acting career, has demonstrated range in such varied projects as action-thriller Brain Man (2013) and wacky yakuza comedy The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (2014). With Prophecy, he continues his winning streak. Portraying his character’s vulnerabilities in the earlier stages of the film and his anger in the later stretch, Ikuta succeeds in making you care about Gates. As for Toda, she has come a long way since her role in Death Note (2006) wherein she was very awkward and overly cutesy on-screen, limitations that transferred to other films as well, but in recent years, as well as in Prophecy, she seems more confident, which was crucial in portraying her character. Not once did her awkwardness or her cutesy type of acting come into play, nor did she seem petulant or acting overly tough to seem superior, she portrays Inspector Yoshino as a great foil to Gates. In the later stages of the film, her character’s backstory is revealed and it is a poignant moment to witness how it develops the unspoken relationship between herself and Gates, even if it is done from a visually murky distance.
The supporting roles are small and archetypal, but the actors give more life than the script provides. Yoshiyoshi Arakawa is amusing as Metabol (short for metabolic) while Ryohei Suzuki is charismatic as the world-weary, good-natured Kansai who helps Gates when he is down on his luck. Gaku Hamada, a frequent collaborator of Nakamura, also does well as the shy Nobita (a reference to Doraemon). Kohei Fukuyama elicits plenty of sympathy as the Filipino refugee who really is the heart of the group of workers that Gates befriends.
The film’s sprawling storytelling does have some snags, especially in the third act. There are a few plot twists too many and it makes the ending overlong, diluting the emotional and thematic impact quite a bit. What is also lacking is Nakamura’s use of quirky humour that was prominent in his earlier films. Although some is present (such as during an interrogation between Yoshino and a victim of Gates), the film could use more to offset the depressing nature of the story. The postscript is also a bit corny, but I have to admit, I was caught up by it since I really cared about the characters. A similar case goes for the climax, which could be polarizing for audiences in terms of their attitude towards Gates’ intentions.
Prophecy is a great watch that shows that Yoshihiro Nakamura remains a brilliant storyteller and I can’t wait to see what he tries his hand at next.
Prophecy is showing as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2015 Australia which runs from October 14 to December 6. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.