Sacrifice (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

After working with Makoto Shinozaki on 3.11 psychology/premonition drama Sharing (2014) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa on haunting ghost story Journey to the Shore (2015), Taku Tsuboi made his directorial debut with Sacrifice as part of his work at Rikkyo University. He draws upon the aforementioned films and mixes a murder mystery narrative with a doomsday cult context to make a heavily contemplative thriller in which three teens ponder their place in the world while dark forces swirl on the edge of their reality.

We are first introduced to Midori (Michiko Gomi), a young woman who once belonged to a cult named Shio no kai (Golden Wave) when she was a child. She predicted the Great East Japan Earthquake while she was a member but escaped their clutches and is now a university student keeping a low profile lest the cult’s followers find and kidnap her for her much coveted powers of premonition. However, when a serial cat killer near the campus graduates to offing a student, Midori is reluctantly drawn to the case. Already investigating is a pretty, and pretty deceitful, student named Toko (Miki Handa) who seeks to enliven her dull reality by toying with the person she suspects is the culprit, her seemingly affable classmate Okita (Yuzu Aoki) who might be hiding a dark side behind his nice smile. All the while, graduation looms and the violence of the adult world and natural disasters presses upon the three.

While this low-key film has a murder mystery angle, the atmospherics feel less high tension and more like “end of the century enervation”. The story eschews horror imagery and slowly unspools the investigation in broad daylight through characters discussing cult religion, social collapse, and catastrophe. In this chatpocalypse, the characters explore existential questions around fate and how much control people have over their own actions, which is rather fitting for a film about cults and university students who are under stress with academic pressures and searching for jobs.

And so it turns out that the most fascinating aspect of the story is not understanding the killer or cults and their machinations, which turn out to be too ill-defined to be convincing or menacing. Instead, it is the development of the relationship between three central characters whose perspectives inform the action. With Toko and Okita, there is an interesting examination of alienation as they discuss authentic behaviour and the nature of violence while questioning their roles in life, all with the added frisson of constant shifting in power dynamics as Toko, with infinite naivete, threatens to expose the boy who bristles with dark energy. Meanwhile, Midori’s powers, which take the form of dreams and visions gained from physical contact, a la Johnny from Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone, allow the story to introduce events via flashbacks and flash-forwards/dream sequences, lining up interesting twists to the plot.

Through these characters, Tsuboi manages to weave his tale with confidence and, while Sacrifice doesn’t rank up there with such landmark serial killer films as Cure (1997), it certainly flows well. The actors handle the material to the best of their abilities, although there is the nagging sense that they are a little too fresh-faced and clean cut to truly convince in their roles. They easily inhabit the surface level details but do not quite catch the darkness and anxiety inside.

My reservations aside, Sacrifice proved to effective enough for other viewers since it was awarded Best Picture (Japanese Feature) honors at the 16th Skip City International D-Cinema Festival. It went on to earn a place at the 2019 edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival and is now included in JAPAN CUTS 2020. And no, don’t worry, no cats are seen getting killed, although there is mild threat to one.

Sacrfice is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.