The film begins in brutal fashion with the rape and murder of a serial killer's first victim (or so it seems). If the filmmakers - in this case director Tai Kato and his co-writers Haruhiko Mimura and Yoji Yamada - want to make sure we don't sympathize with this murderer, they couldn't have picked a much better way to open their story. And yet following the death of the victim, so far the only person whose face we have seen onscreen, we get several shots of the killer, Isao Kawashima (Makoto Sato), including one iconic close-up featured above. The trick of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho comes to mind. If our only possible protagonist has been removed, won't our allegiance shift to the next character we meet and/or spend a sustained amount of time with? Will this be true even if he is a cold-blooded criminal? In a way, the entire movie is a test of this thesis, with a few other troublesome twists thrown in for good measure.
This year (and a bit in past years) I have taken to reviewing mostly obscure films that I saw thanks only to Allan Fish and/or Sam Juliano at Wonders in the Dark. I, the Executioner, subtitled "Requiem for a Massacre," appears to be one of the most obscure of these. I first heard about it from Allan's 2010 review, which to date (at least until this is published) remains the only online write-up of this film. There are no comments on Letterboxd, IMDb, or MUBI - and information on Kato himself is limited, although he seems to be best-known for yakuza (Japanese gangster) films, a category that doesn't fit I, the Executioner with its lone wolf killer. Indeed, there is no mystery to the killer's identity, as it is revealed early on. The mystery of the film is in his motive: what connected the victims (five will be brutally slain over the course of the film, although not all of the murders are shown - and the first is by far the most graphic). And why does the suicide of a 16-year-old boy keep getting mentioned?
Another source of tension is the killer's growing interest in Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a young cook/waitress at the restaurant he frequents. Initially we are struck by her adorable mugging in the kitchen, but before long it's clear that she has her own dark side to contend with. Is Kawashima attempting to connect with another lost soul, or is he targeting her as a future victim? For a while, we may not be sure. But Kawashima also visits the home of the dead teenage boy, suggesting a more human side amidst his psychopathic killing spree. Meanwhile the manhunt draws closer and closer as the police quiz suspects and suss out connections between the dead women - whom we meet, before they die, sharing a secret we aren't privy to. Clearly they have some idea why they might be future victims, yet they don't want to share this knowledge with the police or with their husbands. What's going on?
As a thriller, the film weaves various threads together marvelously. And stylistically, it's a stunner, characterized by arresting off-kilter compositions, moody, flashy lighting, knife-like jagged cutting, and oversaturated flashbacks which place us in the tormented minds of the characters. But as a morality play, something it seems to strive toward at times, the film falters. Spoiler alert: Kawashima is slaughtering these women because they raped that teenage boy, leading to his shamed suicide soon after. An effective point is made about the characters' indifference toward sexual assault of men ("If it was my sister, I'd avenge all the rapists myself," one cop admits, "but if it was my brother?"). But this also feels like a flimsy premise on which to make a stand, especially given the viciousness of Kawashima's murders and the fact that his form of assault is far more common in reality than middle-aged women gang-raping teenage boys.
Is it unfair to apply reality to a fictional film? Perhaps, but the boldness of the film's role reversal invites such critiques, not to mention the use of rape as a tool of revenge against people who are less, not more, powerful than the protagonist even if they themselves abused their own power with the shy, provincial delivery boy. And making these victims rapists themselves ultimately provides a rather thin veil for the killer's misogyny ("Slut!" he hisses at one victim, an odd epithet to choose). This is especially true when we find out he murdered his newlywed wife thirteen years ago, apparently because she was cheating on him.
At its best, the film watches this character ambivalently, careful not to romanticize him too much. His manner is brusque and rude, even toward characters he ostensibly likes, and it's clear that he is primarily fueled by personal demons: the suicide was only a mere acquaintance whose unfortune death triggered a more deeply-rooted rage. The most interesting character in the movie might actually be Haroku, who killed her hoodlum brother five years ago and is serving a probationary sentence (perhaps because the judge knew how cruel the victim was toward his family). You might think this vengeful killing is what links her to Kawashima, but there's another possibility too. We are told that until she murdered him, she was her brother's greatest defender and so perhaps it is this that draws her toward Kawashima, another violent, offputting individual.
These dual, even contradictory, impulses - empathy and rage - are shown in much starker detail with Kawashima's actions. But it is through Haroku's eyes that we are able to potentially reconcile the contradiction. Both emotions have the same source: deep psychic wounds that cause us either to identify other people as fellow victims (or fellow victimizers), or define them (and ourselves?) solely as the enemy. Kawashima can't navigate this emotional deluge and allows himself to drown in it. Haroku, placing flowers on his grave at film's end, may be soaking wet (it's raining in the final frames) but she isn't running for cover. She's learned to exist in this storm and so she is the film's only real survivor and perhaps its only hero.