A grizzled police detective named Yoshioka investigates a murder in a muddy waterfront in Tokyo. The victim, although drowned in a puddle, has lungs full of saltwater. As Yoshioka investigates, all of the clues all seem to point to the him. In the process, he grows more unhinged and defensive whilst troublingly remaining unable to write himself off as a suspect. His violent, murky memories seem to implicate him as well, and he suffers from insomnia and possible hallucinations.
Soon afterward, more killings occur with the same under similar circumstances. Yet they're easily explained and, in doing so, fail to exonerate Yoshioka in the first case. Kurosawa uses twists and turns not merely to keep the audience guessing about the true nature of the crime, but also to take the viewer somewhere unexpected-- into a feeling of loneliness and a state of guilt about ignoring the plight of others because of our collective societal embrace of insensitivity and deliberate emotional isolation.
Although the cover of Lion's Gate's DVD suggests that the film is merely another "scary hair" ghost story (and in some ways it is), it's mainly an atmospheric mood piece that has more in common with Antonioni and his ilk than horror directors. The title, Sakebi, literally means "Scream," which makes a lot more sense than the English translation of "Retribution," which seems chosen to mislead potential viewers into more false expectations. Anyone expecting horrifying vengeful ghosts will likely be disappointed by the glacially paced and contemplative film, although there are (mostly startling) moments of horror.
Tokyo, as depicted by Kurosawa, is a grimy, crumbling place unnerved by frequent earthquakes. Every wall is covered with peeling paint and the muddy ground is covered with dead weeds. The result is a grimly and beautifully stylized world where there is a vague suggestion of an apocalypse around the corner.
The film avoids close-ups for the most part, subtly emphasizing our feelings of isolation and confusion. It's hard to recognize characters at times, since they're usually filmed from a distance. And confusion over the identity of characters is a key element to the film's hallucinatory tone.
Although Retribution and most Japanese films like it are usually pinned with the J-Horror tag in the US, this one (and others) really belong more in the thriller genre, where suspense, psychological perturbations, and the supernatural are favored over terror, violence and gore. All in all, it's a satisfying and beautiful film that depresses while it dazzles.
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