I truly have a love/hate relationship with director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. While adoring his ‘Bright Future’ and ‘Tokyo Sonata’, some of his other acclaimed works such as; ‘Pulse’, ‘Cure’, and ‘Barren Illusions’ didn’t sit right with me. Even though he certainly mastered the art of creating a bleak and dark atmosphere early on, I’m sorry to say these three films felt extremely boring to me despite all having an interesting outline. There’s a fine line between an intriguingly calm pace and being slow as hell, and since the aforementioned two films I did love are his more recent ones, it seems Kurosawa started treading the right side of this line about ten years ago. When I found out he was going to direct a dark television drama I started getting cautiously excited. When I heard it would be based on a Kanae Minato novel, writer of the book the amazing 2010 film Kokuhaku/Confessions was based on, I was kind of thrilled. But when I discovered a star-studded cast list, helmed by Kyôko Koizumi, my expectations went through the roof.
Having high expectations can sometimes ruin a film or series for you, but when they end up actually delivering, it feels extremely satisfying. Thankfully enough, Shokuzai (meaning Atonement) definitely delivered. The core story does not stray too far from Kokuhaku; a mother loses her young child through a tragedy. The manner and time span in which this is handled differs significantly though. In Shokuzai, a little girl named Emiri is lured away from playing with her friends by a suspicious man. After a while the other four girls start looking for her, and horribly enough discover only her dead body in the school gym. Emiri’s mother Asako (Kyôko Koizumi) is devastated and obviously wants to find the person responsible. The police investigation, however, doesn’t get anywhere, mainly because none of the girls claims to remember what the man looked like. Asako has a personal sit-down with them and demands that they MUST know, but nobody speaks up. Asako then makes them promise that they will somehow atone for this sin of not being able to help Emiri, cursing them in a way.
This is the first part of the first episode, which moves on to set up the structure for the rest of the series. In each of the first four episodes we follow the lives of one of Emiri’s friends, 15 years after the murder, and observe the ways in which the incident influenced their lives and personalities. 1st up is Sae (Yû Aoi), a timid young lady who is introduced to a very gentle and patient man who seems perfect for her. Soon enough after their wedding the perfect appearance starts to break down bit by bit and the guy’s dark side emerges. In the 2nd episode we focus on Maki (Eiko Koike), who has become a teacher at a high school, and is unpopular for being extremely strict. She also gets a little too involved with the case of a girl who’s being bullied, although having merely good intentions, inciting the anger of many parents at the school.
At some point a strange man is seen hanging around the school, leading to a surprising situation, with even more exceptional repercussions. In number 3, Akiko (Sakura Andô) is shown having already had a very unhealthy home environment before Emiri’s death, which was enforced by the incident. At present we see her as a very withdrawn person, mostly holed up in her room like a borderline hikikomori. The one good thing in her life seems to be her relationship with her brother, but this takes a suspicious turn for the worse as the episode progresses. In the 4th episode Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki) at first appears as a very sweet and vulnerable girl, but halfway through the episode it is revealed that she’s quite the manipulative one, getting involved with her sister’s lover and dealing with the scars of a tough past in a highly assertive way. Near the end of each of the four episodes is a short appearance by Asoko, coming into contact with the girls separately once again, in some manner discussing the way in which they Atoned for their past sin. The 5th and final episode focuses on her, and her everlasting struggle with the loss of Emiri 15 years ago. Still wanting for revenge, her recent interactions with the girls gave her some clues, and it all builds up to a finale.
The structure of this show, for one, makes it quite remarkable. Every episode feels like a short movie on its own, even though they all undoubtedly work as a whole. Each of the women were affected by the tragedy (and the promise made to Asoko) in different ways, and all of them are confronted by peculiar men in their current lives, some of which might or might not actually tie in with the identity of Emiri’s murderer in some manner. Every viewer will have their personal favorite (mine being the first, Sae’s) episode, but all of them are definitely great. I must say, however, that the final episode perhaps did feel like the lesser one despite Koizumi’s amazing performance, but this doesn’t mar my overall appreciation for the whole.
I was pleased to see Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s fingerprint all over Shokuzai, but most of all in the visual aspect. Most of the time he uses a grayish filter to make it all appear more austere and bleak, and especially in the first and fourth episodes this works pure magic to reflect the characters’ inner psyches. All the actresses perform as convincingly as can be expected, and as icing on the cake there are appearances by the awesome Ryo Kase and Teruyuki Kagawa. All in all Shokuzai is impressive, having only five episodes it’s short and sweet, and quite obviously a tv show made by a film director. A great tv show, made by a great film director.