Shokuzai is a five episode TV drama directed by the prolific Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata, Pulse) for satellite TV channel, WOWOW. A 270 minute cut of the series was screened at the 69th Venice Film Festival. Based on a novel written by Minato Kanae (Confessions), Shokuzai tells the story of how one girl’s unsolved murder sets off a long, arduous journey for atonement.
Shokuzai opens with the introduction of Emiri Adachi, an elementary student who has just transferred schools because of her father’s work. She soon becomes friends with Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuka. A creeping sense of dread lingers through their idyllic days as friends as we find out that someone has been going around stealing antique dolls from young girls, and that feeling of unease heightens when we see a man observing Emiri and her friends as they play in the schoolyard.
The man whose face remains obscured approaches them and asks if one of them can help him with fixing the ventilation in the gym, specifically asking Emiri to come with him. Emiri doesn’t return for a long time and the girls decide to go to the school gym and check only to find her lifeless body face down on the gym floor.
Despite several interrogations by the police, the girls are unable to recall the murderer’s face which leaves the case unsolved.
Asako, Emiri’s mother then invites them all for Emiri’s ‘birthday party’. After serving them tea and cake, she goes on about how she won’t be able to forgive any of them until the case is solved. As if placing a curse on each of the girls, Emiri’s death dramatically affects the girls’ lives until adulthood.
The series paints a picture of five different women all bound not just by their guilt but as well as societal expectations.
The first installment of Shokuzai titled “French Doll” tells the story of Sae Kikuchi, a young woman who fears men and is unable to “grow up”, she hasn’t had her period and can’t have children. She meets the equally quiet Otsuki through a matchmaker. Although ready to reject him, Sae slowly begins to open up to him when he looks after her when a strange man grabs her and tries to force an apology out of her. Thus begins a tragic “love” story between two emotionally fragile people unable to face the harsh realities of adulthood and marriage.
Certain shots are made to look like Sae is ‘framed.’ Echoing the imagery of a French Doll in a glass box.
Sae literally becomes a doll for Otsuki after he proposes to her. It turns out that he was behind the French doll incident all along, and has been watching Sae for the longest time. And yet, Sae still accepts his proposal, as if unable to find any other person that would accept her for the way she is. After all, he promises never to touch her and goes on about shielding her from the external world. He gives the sense of security the delicate Sae needs.
Their marriage starts off as a protective cocoon only to morph into a stifling prison, Sae has quit her job and becomes caged in a luxurious apartment. Her daily routine consists of doing chores and dressing up like a doll for Otsuki. She is robbed of her freedom in exchange for a more stable and secure lifestyle. However, it can be seen that Sae is beginning to yearn for more than that perhaps because she’s developed an affection for Otsuki. She desires to share a more normal, and human relationship with him.
But Otsuki far too gone to be interested in a deeply physical relationship. He doesn’t even see Sae as a human being. He has molded her into his dream. Thus this opens another avenue for discussion, aside from the horrors of marriage for the young woman, we’re also seeing the horrors of idealization. Otsuki is so out of touch with reality that he becomes obsessed with what he sees as his ideal woman: a girl stuck in the past, naïve and pure. A girl who won’t defy him and will tend to his needs. So when Sae finally gets her period, blood grotesquely gushing down her legs and all, Otsuki’s dream ends and he no longer has any use for her.
Thus, their supposedly idyllic life ends. Sae refuses to be thrown away like a doll and violently murders Otsuki in his sleep. She finds Asako outside, gazing at the sea. Sae admits her crime to her and apologizes for not being able to find more clues as to who murdered Emiri. She then walks off to surrender herself to the police. Has Sae found atonement? Has she been punished enough? These are questions that will be asked through each episode that focuses on a different character.
But I do think the underlying message runs deeper than that, Shokuzai attacks the expectations people around Sae and Otsuki have for them. It attacks the mother who is unwilling to advise her newly wed daughter and the father who takes control of his son’s life. These characters who force all the responsibility on the damaged Sae and Otsuki have taken part in inadvertently destroying them.
The second episode is slightly reminiscent of Minato Kanae’s Confessions. This time we meet Maki Shinohara who has now become a teacher. She is called out by the Vice Principal for “overstepping her authority” when confiscating a hairclip from a student. Maki explains that the student’s hairclip was against school rules as they only allowed black hair accessories. She also believes that a young girl over dressing will entice men. Like Sae, she has developed a distrust towards men but not in such an overwhelming way. She cares deeply for her female students, but can be harsher on the boys. In one scene we have her making the boy redraw his vertical line on a chalk board despite it being straight, but then we realize this is so she won’t embarrass the female student who is the only one who doesn’t have her line drawn straight.
When she tries to make a female student confess about the boys bullying her, Maki is accused of using too much force and is deemed to have acted wrongly. The relationship between teachers, parents and their children is evidently toxic, most especially for Maki. Just like in Confessions, parents are unable to reflect on their own mistakes, often berating the teacher for ‘improperly’ handling a situation. Luckily, a fellow teacher named Tanabe stands up for Maki and defends her actions.
She practices Kendo, a choice I find to be fitting of her character as it gives her a phallic symbol that empowers her, especially during a critical moment where a knife wielding madman infiltrates the school and stabs a teacher.
After the heroic act, Maki then becomes the most popular teacher and her rise in popularity overshadows Tanabe. Her popularity also leads to the parents and fellow teachers questioning Tanabe’s inaction during the attack. He is forced to take a leave but warns Maki about the vice principal.
As Tanabe warned, it doesn’t take too long for the tide changes when suddenly she is criticized for using too much force. Tanabe’s reaction was frowned upon because it was deemed cowardly eventhough he was at a disadvantage, while Maki’s violent tactics are considered too much despite it effectively disarming the attacker. These establish the kind of expectations people have for both men and women and how they contrast each other. Again, it makes a fine point on how these expectations are unfair and perhaps even unattainable.
When an emergency meeting is held so Maki can explain her actions to concerned parents , Maki invites Asako. In the meeting she explains the motivations behind her actions. It is then revealed that after apprehending the criminal, she felt as if she had finally made amends for what happened 15 years ago. This was her atonement and Asako was there to witness her confession.
In a cruel final twist, Tanabe punches Maki in the face and she hits her head on concrete. The reasons behind Tanabe’s actions are unclear but I think it’s easy to speculate that Tanabe felt degraded by Maki’s actions. She has outshined him in every single aspect.
A worried Asako sits by her side, Maki tries to recall the face of the man who killed Emiri but no avail. She dies, finally achieving her atonement and being hated for it.
Shokuzai is a chilling psychological thriller that chronicles the lasting effects of one girls murder on each and every character involved. While it may be a TV series, Kiyoshi Kurosawa still fills the space with busy backgrounds entrenched in a cold atmosphere. His cinematic prowess pervades every scene, there are several shots that are beautifully composed and planned down to the smallest detail. The pacing is deliberately slow and works well when emphasizing the detached nature of the show’s characters. Shokuzai is a story that is both disturbing and heartbreaking, it takes five interwoven tales and forms a harrowing portrait of how one’s sins can catch up with us and there is no easy way to obtain forgiveness.