“A flawed narrative saved by Miike’s masterly cinematographic hand.”
When the 7-year old Ninagawa Chika is found death and Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a man who has a prior conviction for assaulting and killing a girl eight years ago, becomes the prime suspect, the terminally ill grandfather Takaoki Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a very wealthy and powerful man in Japanese politics, decides to take matters in his own hand.
An ad “Kill Kunihide Kiyomaru, and I will pay you 1 billion Yen” including his picture, is placed in all the major newspapers in Japan, by which Ninagawa puts an almost irresistible price on the head of the suspect. Realizing he has become a target for almost anyone, he turns himself in at the Fukuoka Police Station.
Kazuki Mekari (Takao Osawa), Shirawai Atsushi (Nanako Matsushima) – both security guards at the Riot Police division of the Tokyo Metropolitan police department – Okumura Takeshi (Goro Kishitani), Kamihashi Masaki (Kento Nagayama) – both part of the investigation one division of the Tokyo Metropolitan police department – and Kenji sekiya (Masato Ibu), a sergeant of the investigation one division of the Fukuoka prefectural police, are asked to escort Kunihide Kiyomaru from Fukuoka to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police department, an trip that’s approximately 1200 km in a country swarmed by people, cops, gangsters, ordinary people, .. etc. all eager to murder Kiyomaru. It soon becomes clear that people who actually tried to kill also receive smaller sums of cash and that even people who help open up a possibility of killing him have a chance of a share in the prize money.
But as soon as the escort begins, Shirawai uncovers a new problem: everyone seems to know where they are, no matter which kind of transportation they use. The question arises: which one of the escorting policemen plays a double game and has left his duty for the reward of money?
The narrative of Wara no Tate has two divergent levels, two levels who’re equally characterized by what we could call a Japanese logic to some extent. The first level concerns the external narrative, the attacks of outsiders on the escort mission and the way the higher police hierarchy uses the escort, while the second level deals with the internal narrative, the interactions between those who escort and the escorted himself.
Looking at this first level of narrative and more specifically to the outsider attacks, we see the following: it’s only by way of having money problems, to which the money reward forms a solution, that the showing of emotionality – that every gruesome murder evidently brings with it – and acting upon this emotionality seems possible. This aspect, the aspect of money problems, which characterizes every person who tries to murder Kiyomaru, nevertheless dismisses the individual responsibility and desire somewhat in favour for underlining the ‘subjective’ necessity to act upon the money reward. In other words, it’s only because of having money problems that they act upon the ‘desire to revenge” of Takaoki Ninagawa.
This first level delivers nothing more than the setting, whereas the second level is the level where the main narrative unfolds. The main questions the narrative thrives on are thus found in the internal narrative level: Which police agent will be the first the leave his duty; Who is the police agent that plays a double game? And although these questions are very present(ly staged) in the narrative, they fail to attain a sensible weight for the viewer. The dilemma: “is it worth killing others for the sake of the criminal; that underpins the interactions between the five police agents, fails to function as the prime source of narrative tension.
This lack of effect is not caused by the way the different characters are progressively elaborated and how they are positioned in relation to the dilemma. This elaboration, how the narrative structurally deepens characters, is actually one of the strong points of the Wara no Tate. The distrust between different divisions (and even the distrust of some men to be working together with an ambitious women (note 1)) act as a catalyst for conversations, conversation who reveal each one of the police officer’s backstory and motivation. The fact that the dilemma as well as the narratively elaboration of characters that encircle it, fails to operate, has everything to do with the ineffectiveness of Kunihide Kiyomaru, the prime suspect.
The prime suspect is very difficult to position as inherently bad/evil; even though it’s clear that something is off about him. The way the murder is introduced – the not-showing of the deed, the revelation of information concerning the murder, by way of conversations between the police officers, as well as his gestures and actions lack a demonizing impact for the viewer. In the end even the irrationality he displays vividly lacks any real impact. And because Kiyomaru fails to have an emotional impact on the viewer the narrative that’s structured around the above mentioned dilemma loses its tension and importance. The narrative doesn’t succeed in making the viewer care about the fact if Kiyomaru dies or not (note 2). As a result it’s difficult for the viewer to invest in the dilemma that the police officers face and as such the movie fails in its premise of being a thriller.
If there’s something that’s exceptional about Ware no Tate it’s the way in which Takashi Miike staged the flawed script/narrative. In this sense the movie is a real showcase of Miike’s cinematographical prowess. With ease and smoothness Miike moves from short shots to longer static shots, longer moving shots and even some close ups. In some scenes, he fixates on the important aspects, characters, and follows them though the space; In action scenes he lets the camera crudely follow the central character, giving each action scene a sensible impression of chaos and urgency, empowering the action staged. Every scene acts as evidence of the talent Takashi Miike has and shows his firm grasp on the narrative and a clear vision he has in staging the narrative.
The aspect that most clearly shows Miike’s prowess is his use of space i.e. the framed space as well as the implicated (not-framed) space. This is illustrated for example in scenes where interactions between characters are staged. In these scenes the gazes from the characters are quite often used to implicate the aspect of interest behind the camera. These interactions and the way they’re staged also have the benefit in quickly assigning each character its position in the narrative and introducing the relations between each police department. In fact, we have to say that every scene, by way of the coupling of the shots that give existence to those scenes, accounts for Miike’s awareness of the space in front and the space behind the camera. It’s because of this attention to space that Miike succeeds to communicate this awareness to the viewer, resulting in an ever present viewer’s consciousness of the implicated space and resulting a sensible implication of the narrative in the greater reality.
Another way in which this consciousness of space is illustrated is in Miike’s placement of the characters in the scenes. The prime example is the hospital scene where a total of the eight characters are present. In this scene Miike succeeds masterly to make the viewer conscious of the spatial coordinates of the hospital room, so that the spectator, at every moment, remains conscious of the position of each of the characters. This masterful cinematography and placing of characters is of course featured throughout the entire movie and thus infuses the spectator with an ever present consciousness of the spatial coordinates and of the position of each character. In the end, Miike’s cinematography is the greatest quality of Wara no Tate.
Wara no Tate, to put it boldly, is a movie that doesn’t succeed in fulfilling its premise. The dilemma that underpins the entire narrative is never able to function as it should be. The viewer is never able to fully feel implicated in the dilemma that drives the characters, thus resulting in a lack of overall tension.
But the flawed narrative is saved somewhat by way of Miike’s masterful cinematographic hand. In every shot, in every scene one senses Miike’s directorial talent. The fluent use of different techniques, the space-conscious way of structuring the scenes and the way of placing the characters in space all provide evidence for this talent.
Wara no Tate is in no way a bad movie; in fact it’s even a quite entertaining movie. But the entertainment value comes for the greater part only from Miike’s staging of the narrative. A mounting that in the end reveals itself as the only redeeming quality of Wara no Tate, whose ineffective script nevertheless keeps haunting the finalized cinematographical product.
Note 1: Wara no tate also touches upon the tense relational reality between women and men in the police world (or even in the Japanese corporate world). The negative idea of being bossed around by a women at work, in addition to be bossed around by the wife at home is explicitly stated.
The drama Kyou Ha Kaisha Yasumimasu for that matter, stages the ideal image of how a women should function in a Japanese company.
Note 2: People who’re able to demonize the suspect more spontaneous, will be more sensible for the dilemma that underpins the narrative.