The Devil’s Path (Japan, 2013) [Japan Cuts/NYAFF 2014]

A brutal journey into the dark heart of Japan’s underworld, The Devil’s Path is a grueling look at the machinations of the yakuza which overcomes a number of flaws due to its unrelenting approach to its subject matter. Fujii (Takayuki Yamada) is a journalist who is assigned the task of following-up on a letter that his publication has received from Sudo (Pierre Taki), an incarcerated gangster who is awaiting execution for a string of murders and related crimes. Visiting the convicted killer in prison, Fujii is steadily drawn into his violent saga: Sudo recounts how he was framed by Kimura (Lily Franky), a real-estate broker and his former partner in crime, and offers the journalist information about other murders that his once-trusted associate was involved in on the condition that an article to reveal the truth surrounding his case. Although his editor considers the story to be old news, Fujii pushes ahead with his investigation, patiently listening to Sudo’s candid accounts of various murders while searching for proof in order to firmly place Kimura at the crime scenes. However, the resourceful Kimura has been rather expert at erasing any trace of his involvement, while the journalist’s growing obsession with the story threatens to rupture his already strained marriage.

Seeking to capture the everyday evil that lurks in Japan due to continued yakuza activity, despite various efforts to dilute the power base of such organizations, director Shiraishi Kazuya favors a largely anonymous aesthetic that seeks to ground a series of increasingly shocking crimes in an otherwise mundane recent past. The film’s low-budget trappings suit its rough blend of journalistic investigation and underworld confession, although it seems overly stretched at a little over two hours in length, sometimes straining for an epic grandeur which is at odds with its relentlessly grimy aesthetic. Its most compelling section is an extended flashback which comprises around 45 minutes of screen time as Sudo recounts three murders: the first entails burying a man alive; the second has a body being thrown into an incinerator; and the third touches on the attitude to Japan’s senior citizens with an elderly land owner being killed so that his family can get their hands on the life insurance money. These crimes are committed in a disturbingly proficient manner by Sudo and Kimura, with a capacity for evil seen as a necessary professional requirement. As ruthlessly methodical as he is morally repugnant, Kimura is even referred to as “Sensei” by his ultimately double-crossed partner due to his particular expertise.

If the detached approach works well when chronicling these crimes by keeping The Devil’s Path out of sensationalistic territory, it is less successful in the lengthy bookend sections that deal with Fujii’s immersion in the case and his dogged efforts to bring Sudo’s accomplice to justice. While the character of the investigative journalist usually serves as both a reliable guide and a point of audience identification, here both functions are undermined by Yamada’s rather stiff performance, not to mention some tiresome scenes of Fujii’s home life as his wife Yoko (Chizuru Ikewaki) struggles to deal with the challenges of domesticity. There is some effort to show the impact that the hulking Sudo has on the buttoned-down Fujii as the latter becomes revitalized in a quest for justice, although it is arguable that he is as much of a willing dupe in a criminal’s quest for revenge as he is a crusader for the truth. It’s often as vague as it is detailed – for all the murderous specifics of the flashback section, it’s lacking a clear timeline and fails to provide much sense of these crimes as part of a bigger underworld picture – but The Devil’s Path deserves credit for maintaining a steadfastly serious tone when it could have taken an exploitative trip down bloodbath alley.

The Devil’s Path is showing at Japan Society on July 12. This screening is a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and JAPAN CUTS. The full schedule for NYAFF 2014 can be found here; the JAPAN CUTS schedule can be found here.