Seventh Code (Japan, 2014)

One of the most prolific visionaries to emerge from the V-Cinema sector of the 1980s, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been keeping a surprisingly low-key profile since winning multiple honors for his family drama Tokyo Sonata (2008). His recent return with the television series Penance (2012) and underwhelming scientific mystery Real (2013) suggested a genre master treading water as Kurosawa revisited horror territory with diminishing results, but the sly thriller Seventh Code is a welcome detour, even if it will ultimately be considered a minor entry in the his extensive filmography. A trim one-hour vehicle for the talents of singer-actress Atsuko Maeda, who developed a fan base from performing with the idol group AKB48 before going solo in 2012, this brisk caper tests the starlets appeal as a leading actress by casting her as a seemingly hapless tourist who becomes entangled with the shadowy world of international crime while pursuing the man of her dreams in Russia. While this escapade finds Kurosawa very much in director-for-hire mode – production company AKS is part of the idol empire that manages AKB48 and the final reel features a distracting plug for Maeda’s latest single – it’s a highly entertaining diversion that finds the filmmaker cleverly playing with his post-Soviet surroundings.

It begins in amusing fashion with Akiko (Maeda), dragging her suitcase around the streets of Vladivostok as she tries to catch up with a car driven by Matsunaga (Ryohei Suzuki), with whom she a had a chance encounter in a Tokyo restaurant a month earlier. It takes Matsunaga a while to recall the infatuated young woman, but he takes her for a drink to explain that she has inferred too much from their previous meeting then warns her about the dangers of Russia before giving her the slip. Akiko tries to follow the object of her affection, but is kidnapped and tied up by two thugs who unceremoniously dump her on the outskirts of town, leaving her without money, belongings or passport. After making it back to the center, the penniless Akiko bargains her way into a waitressing job at a failing café run by struggling Japanese chef Saito (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and his Chinese girlfriend Hsiao-yen (Aissy), with Akiko using the establishment as a vantage point for spotting Matsunaga again. With assistance from Saito, she learns that Matsunaga is involved with the Russian underworld but remains headstrong in her quest despite putting her life, and those of her new friends, at risk.

Kurosawa keeps it relatively simple throughout, fashioning an engaging thriller from stock elements – the naïve but resourceful protagonist abroad, a man of mystery, a city with a history of smuggling, an ‘abandoned’ factory, not to mention a few red herrings – while keeping the focus on the appealing Maeda. Although she is not required to push her dramatic limits, Maeda does a nice job of playing a character who starts out as a harmless stalker but turns out to be more complex, suggesting genuine star potential beyond the trappings of the idol machine. Throwing herself wholeheartedly into the role, she makes Akiko an immediately likeable ‘woman in trouble’ despite the largely self-instigated nature of her situation. Much of the film’s intriguing atmosphere comes from Kurosawa’s handling of dilapidated locations as he mostly frames Vladivostok in wide shots that accentuate its ruined state, with locals occasionally passing by in an unhurried manner while Akiko’s plucky determination stands out against the defeated backdrop. If a silly climatic twist and the aforementioned promotional music interlude prevent Seventh Code from being more than a fun throwaway exercise, the calculated slightness with which Kurosawa skips through this idol enterprise still makes it one of the year’s most pleasurable surprises.