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Sakebi - Retribution (Kurosawa Kiyoshi 2006)


Sakebi [Retribution]

Genre: Supernatural Psychological Thriller
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (2006)

review in one breath

Soon after investigating the murder of a young woman, a hardened detective finds that he is haunted by the woman's ghost and discovers several inexplicable clues seemingly linking him to the crime. As he struggles to understand his nightmarish predicament, both inner and outer worlds collide in this disturbing and mind-bending morality tale.


Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a master of weaving tales in which the realms of human morality and the supernatural are irrevocably intertwined into a devastating whole. Admittedly, it is often difficult to follow every connection he attempts to make in his films (see for example his bizarre Kairo/Pulse), but it remains clear that this is how he sees the world and how he wants you to think about it. In a prior review of another Kurosawa film I wrote:

A characteristic motif of his films is the fluidity of individuality and his narratives almost always consist of a character's inner transformation through extreme situations. For Kurosawa, this transformation is not simply one toward greater maturity or conventional notions of self-knowledge. It often entails what he understands to be a consistent trajectory with the harsh, often cruel realities of the natural world, and so his characters often transform from a state the audience can at least identify with into one which lies outside the bounds of our expectations.

Kurosawa's latest film Sakebi falls squarely into this established motif though perhaps in more sinister and thought-provoking ways. In essence this is a tale about the transformation of one man's fragile psyche through his encounter with tragic personal and social "realities". As is common with Kurosawa's films, audiences are left contemplating the meaning of what they have just seen and frightening implications it suggests for the human animal.

The lead role of Detective Yoshioka is played by Kurosawa's long-time favorite actor Koji Yakusho. Yakusho is a prolific and effective actor appearing in many of Kurosawa's prior psycho-horror films as well as more recent international blockbusters such as "Babel". He seems to excel in depicting highly contemplative characters in the midst of stark experiential turmoil. Here he convincingly play the detective whose bounds of logic and experience are increasingly transgressed by inexplicable and damning encounters and discoveries.

The Japanese title of this film is Sakebi which can be literally translated "Scream". The scream referred to in the title is that of the ghost which suddenly haunts Yoshioka. For Kurosawa, this scream serves as a symbol for the psychological turmoil and transformation toward which the Yoshioka character is inevitably beckoned. Such symbolism seems an important part of Kurosawa's films, such as that of the ancient tree in Charisma of the luminescent jellyfish in Bright Future. Audiences of the current film might notice a second symbol, that of the earthquake, which points to the shattering of Yoshioka's psyche as he encounters and comes to grips with increasingly disturbing occurrences and facts.

The symbol of scream easily alludes to the primary phenomenon which Kurosawa wishes to bring to light in this film, and so it is a shame that the English title has been deemed "Retribution". Retribution, of course, refers to a "pay back" usually involving a form of punishment. But observant viewers will note that there is in fact no "pay back" here, much less punishment. It is true that Yoshioka's sudden new realities are far from what he would wish upon himself, but in the end these experiences prove to be a means of salvation or resolution, albeit to a dismal and pitiable state, from one state of mind to another.


Tokyo detective Yoshiaki is called to the murder scene of an identified young woman who was violently drown in a small body of water at a remote construction site. Although he has no clues as to the girl's identity, he eventually discovers several clues which suggest that HE was present at the murder scene: a missing button from his jacket, his fingerprints on the body, his uncanny ability to locate items pertinent to the investigation. Not long thereafter, Yoshioka is persistently pursued and confronted by the ghostly visage of the red-dressed murder victim.

As his mental stability is shaken, he speaks briefly to a therapist ahout the phenomena of ghostly visions and voices. The therapists suggests that these are in fact the "voice of reality" calling a person's mind away from their subjective view of themselves and the world to a more concrete and accurate realization. Armed with this, Yoshioka delves more radically into the investigation determined to discover the truth while at the same time fearful of what he might discover.

But it soon becomes evident that there is more at play here than merely the voice of a subdued conscience as Yoshioka is lead by the ghost to the mind-shattering resolution of the case.


I truly like Kurosawa's films for their creative depictions of and grappling with the complexity of human morality within the genre of horror. I believe he brings a very classic Japanese horror style to contemporary film. They certainly do not contain the shock value of a certain type of horror film exemplified by Ringu or Juon. His are far more contemplative, more atmospheric, and despite the undeniable presence of an often malevolent supernatural reality always seem to boil down to the human spheres of morality and choice. Thus in many ways I see some important parallels between this particular film and the truly classic Japanese horror film Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi Kenji 1953). The powerful delivery of the moral message of both these films linger in audiences' minds well after the credits have rolled.

This film is scheduled for release in the U.S. on April 15, 2008 by Lion's Gate under the title "Retribution". I wholly recommend you check it out if you get the chance.

Version reviewed: Region 2 DVD (no subtitles)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Latest film by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, frequent contributor of dark, supernatually laden psychological thrillers. Though the core of the storyline revolves around violence and human demise, they are all either off screen or implied. Despite Yoshioka having a HOT girlfriend, no contemplative shagging going on here. Very thought-provoking and mind-bending ghost tale.



I was looking for information on the movie Noroi and I found your
website - it's amazing! Excellent writing.

I was wondering if you'd have something to recommend along the
lines of Noroi - which I really enjoyed (except for the super
psychic... sorry to say but it was a relief when I finally died).

Keep up the good work!

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