Retribution (Sakebi) (2006)

Ghosts of the past always return.
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Retribution (Sakebi) - Ghosts of the past always return.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Retribution aka Sakebi (not to be confused with the 1987 Guy Magar film of the same name) manages to stand out from the crowd by refusing to conform with what was popular at the time. Coming from an era when the popularity of J-Horror relied on jump scares, contorted ghosts and Japanese people's willingness to accept the supernatural, Retribution relies on a much slower pace of spookiness, mysteriousness and emotional connections with the characters. This provides tension and dread more akin to the horror movies coming from Korea at the time. Initially the supernatural aspect is quite low key and, despite there being hints that something out of the ordinary is going on, this could easily become a thriller about a rebellious detective investigating a number of bizarre murders. There is an element of a blatant belief in spirituality but this is played down and approached with some cute scepticism. As the film progresses the supernatural becomes more prevalent and the oddities from earlier on make more sense in the context of ghosties. More attention is given to the story and the depth of characters and therefore creates a much more engaging experience rather than throwaway entertainment.

Kôji Yakusho takes on the role of Noboru Yoshioka, a seasoned detective investigating the murder of an unidentified woman in a red dress. Yoshioka is a tough character to love yet this is what makes him interesting. He obviously has issues and is prone to misplacing his temper while bouncing towards conclusions. These character flaws are what enables the story to twist and turn as Yoshioka investigates a number of incorrect theories on his path to solving the case. This introduces a number of red herrings for the viewer which maintains the mystery of the real scenario.

As the story progresses, the bodies pile up and, while all dying in a similar fashion (drowned in salt water), there seems to be no connection between the crimes. Each slaying has a different suspected murderer and no obvious connection can be found between them. The evidence starts to accumulate pointing the finger at Yoshioka as the only connection and suspicions are aroused that he is a closet serial killer. He even suspects himself for a while, convinced he is losing his mind with the appearance of the ghostly "woman in red" to reinforce his craziness. By this point in the movie it is obvious that there is something a little spooky going on or we are getting a view of a crumbling mind. Yoshioka is haunted by the mysterious woman in red and while her identity "seems" obvious the implications are skirted around. There are times when the ghost is genuinely creepy as she floats around the peripheries and there are times when the ghost aspect seems silly (like when she is flying around with the elegance of Christopher Reeve on his Quest for Peace).

When the connection is finally discovered, it is a tenuous haunting to say the least. The relationship between each of the murderers and their victims is an area of the story where a bit more effort could have been invested to solidify their motives. Maybe one of the red herrings would have been a better conclusion. Even so, eventually the loose ends are all tidied up neatly but there are still a few surprises in store as Yoshioka's true involvement is revealed.

Retribution is a slow movie but the characters are detailed enough to maintain interest. The horror aspect is delivered by a slow buildup of tension and numerous misdirections rather than gore and jump scares. There are a number of aspects outside of the main storyline entanglement that aren’t fully utilised but the viewer is given much more information than is expected from a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film. This level of explanation removes an element of fascination that is present in his other films such as Cure and Pulse and it seems that this film was trying to attract a more mainstream audience. Retribution is worth a watch but once the mystery is solved there probably isn't enough substance to induce many more visits.
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Categories: Asian Horror Movies
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