Rage (Japan, 2016) [NYAFF 2017]
Rage concerns the desperate need for human connection and the difficulties in maintaining trust when paranoia grips. It takes place in four different communities in three separate regions of Japan and follows the fallout of a grisly crime, with this ambitious framework allowing a star-packed ensemble cast to go all out in its bid for combustible drama, but not everything resonates.
The film begins in media res. A married couple in Hachijouji, Tokyo, has been brutally murdered by someone who escapes into the night. The only clues the police have are that the murderer is a man and he wrote the word “Ikari” (“Anger”) with the blood of the couple. This horrific incident leaves Japan gripped and people are watching the news with fascination and fear. Three drifters in three different places start to draw suspicion that they might be the murderer.
In Chiba, Yohei Maki (Ken Watanabe) works at a harbour. When we first see him he is rescuing his daughter Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki) from life as a sex-worker in Kabukicho. He returns home with his daughter to a town where Aiko’s recent misfortune is the hot gossip but he is more concerned that Aiko has taken a shine to Tetsuya Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama), an itinerant worker with a shady past.
In Tokyo we follow a cynical advertising executive named Yuma Fujita (Satoshi Tsumabuki). He cruises the gay quarter of Shinjuku and enters a sex club where he finds and forces himself on a gloomy young man named Naoto Onishi (Gou Ayano). Cheap sex turns into something deeper as he invites Naoto to live with him and the closer the two get the more Yuma draws Naoto into his life but Yuma soon develops suspicions that Naoto is the killer after he catches his lover in a lie about his background and whereabouts one day.
Meanwhile. Izumi Komiya (Suzu Hirose) and her mother (Urara Awata) move to Okinawa to escape the mother’s man-trouble. From their beach-side house they can see an isolated island which is where Izumi meets a backpacker named Shingo Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama) who is sleeping rough in a World War II era bunker. Izumi finds Tanaka intriguing, a fellow outsider in Okinawa and a man with lots of experience and wisdom. However a shy young man with a crush on Izumi discovers another aspect to Tanaka’s character.
Three different stories involving three different strangers who awaken hidden and powerful emotions in people, all will be linked by the murder.
This is the second time following Villain (2010) where director Lee Sang-il has turned to a novel by Shuichi Yoshida for his screenplay. While both stories have similar themes, Rage is drawn on a much bigger scale. Much like Villain, this is less a police procedural and more a psychological study of the hunger for understanding and acceptance and love as characters battered by society fall prey to darker emotions and take risks as they seek safety and empathy from the strangers, fellow outsiders in their communities.
The characters are all people who exist outside the norm whether it is because they are psychologically driven, because of their sexual orientation, or simply because society treats men and women differently. Izumi is a teenage girl maturing in a chaotic household and Hirose imbues her with an innocence and early cynicism that allows the audience to believe her character could be fascinated with Moriyama’s Tanaka, an amiable person who is also used to travelling but with a slightly goofy nature and the hints of crazy energy. Aiko is desperate for love and slightly deranged because of her desperation and Miyazaki plays her as childlike and innocent, knowingly weak so that it makes sense that Matsuyama’s character is all the more alluring as a pole of stability in his tight-lipped and distant, watchful and cautious way. Yuma is lustful and shallow, content to use others for his pleasure while nursing an ongoing personal tragedy and hidden loneliness which his huge grin and energy hide. In Naoto, he discovers a repository for his hopes and fears without truly thinking about the dangers of letting a complete stranger leave the bed and enter the heart. Out of all the performances, it is Tsumabuki’s which is the most layered and audiences will find that it opens up at the end to show that what we see and the reality are totally different.
These great performances work in tandem with the story which peeks into the police investigation that forms the loose connective tissue holding narrative threads together. The police issue information to news organisations and this pushes the plot along since it forces characters to act or alters their motivation in some way but their information is sketchy; probable suspects, circumstantial evidence, and artist impressions of the culprit. This throws the characters and audience into bouts of suspicion as to who the killer is and when you have Ayano, Moriyama, and Matsuyama doing a good job of being ambiguous it helps keep the everything on a knifeedge and makes the resulting drama between the characters believably tumultuous as people have to decide whether their happiness with a stranger could be a risk to their safety and the film maintains this all the way through to the the final overcooked sequences.
Rage almost comes off the rails at the end during the big reveal when all of the tension and individual stories overflow in an overly melodramatic and drawn-out finale where many of the protagonists burst into histrionics. As people scream and cry, the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, which has been restrained until this point, joins in with swells, nay, tidal waves of music that matches the big acting. The one actor who impresses in this explosion of emotion is Satoshi Tsumabuki who is more contained as befits a character struggling with being gay and closeted. His eventual burst of emotion simmers before bubbling through and it comes at the crescendo of a devastating plot thread that overturns every audience expectation based on what he has done before, revealing a deep truth about his character that should be interesting for audiences to engage with.
The finale is less of a problem when compared with the use of rape as character/plot development for two male characters while the female character it happens to is pretty much discarded. Indeed, sexual violence against women is treated too oddly. It is an on-going topic in the film and even discussed by the men but while they do the talking, the female victims are left silent and cut out from the narrative altogether. Without having seen the book, it is hard to tell just how much was sacrificed to fit the film but it feels as if the filmmakers had bitten off too much in dramatic stakes.
As a whole, Rage still works. Kasamatsu Norimichi’s cinematography is brilliant at bringing out the different characteristics of the areas the action takes place in while the sound and music are excellent. Despite the reservations mentioned earlier, no part fails completely but the way certain characters and issues are treated may leave some audience members feeling dissatisfied. Otherwise, the film is a solid thriller, which says something about the places on the screen, and about life in modern Japan.
Rage is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Tuesday July 5 at the Walter Reade Theater at 6:00pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.