Home Video Hovel: Penance, by Sarah Brinks
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s five-episode Japanese miniseries Penance is an emotional mine-field. It is about the tragic murder of a young school girl named Emili and the effects that murder has on the lives of her friends and family fifteen years later. This sounds like a cool set up and it is but ultimately the series never quite delivers on it. The miniseries takes place in two different times, roughly 1996 and 2011. In 1996 Emili and her family move to a small town. She is befriended by four classmates and one day while they are playing a man comes up to them and asks Emili to help him fix an air duct in the school’s gym. He takes her to the gym and kills her. She is found an hour later by her friends, dead on the gym floor. Her mother is naturally devastated and is furious that Emili’s friends can’t identify the murderer. They all say “they don’t know” when asked by police. Six months after the murder the four girls come over to Emili’s for a birthday party. At the party Emili’s mom, Asako, tells the girls that they will each have to pay a penance for their inability to help find her daughters murder. Obviously, putting that kind of burden on children is unfair. They each take this threat differently with them for the next fifteen years.
Each episode tells one of the girls’ stories and finally Asako’s story and the truth behind the murder. Structurally the series is solid. We see how each girl applied (or didn’t apply) their promise of penance into their adult lives. This all leads to the final episode when all the pieces of the puzzle are put together and we see what led to the murder and it answers a lot of questions. It is hard to point a single thing the made Penance feel ultimately unfulfilling to me but I think a major problem is that it is only in the last hour and half that you get any real answers to why Emili was killed. The rest of the episodes are just each girl’s story. While the different turns their lives have taken are interesting, it doesn’t really seem to move the heart of the story further.
It doesn’t help that in the first story we see is about Sae. Sae lives a sheltered life, never dating and not really having a social life. She is finally matched up with a man she went to elementary school with back around the time Emili was killed. It turns out he stole her French doll back then and has obsessed about her being a living version of that doll for fifteen years. Sae’s story is the most disturbing and off-putting. After seeing a child murdered you are forced to watch a young woman trapped in a marriage with an overly-strict, crazy guy who wants a doll for a wife. The rest of the story lines are much more grounded in reality but you still feel off-kilter through the rest of the series. Even though I liked the structure and the overall story there is some really clunky story telling happening in this series and often people behave in a way that is not very believable. I don’t know how much of that is the culture gap between Western and Eastern culture.
A major complaint I have with Penance is the way it is shot. It looks like a 90’s soap-opera. It was all shot on video and it’s blurry and soft-focused. There is also a really bizarre effect used a couple times where someone behind the camera waves a Maglite around at a piece of action. It was unclear what this effect was supposed to evoke, but it just confused me. Also all the scenes in the past are shot in normal color but everything in modern day has a weird grey filter over it which only makes it look more like a soap-opera. They also don’t age the actress who plays Asako, so she is identical in 1996 and 2011. Sae comments on it which only makes it more noticeable and strange.
It is hard not to draw comparisons to similar Western shows of recent years such as Broadchurch/Gracepoint, The Killing and True Detective. All these shows share the mystery of an unsolved murder. What shows like Broadchurch or The Killing do more successfully than Penance is they constantly drive towards solving the mystery in each episode. I know that the three example of Western shows I gave are all about detectives or cops, but even the non-cop characters in those shows want answers and look for clues, etc. In Penance, no one really ever tries to actually solve the murder past the prologue. Once we start learning about the four friends’ lives, all attempts at solving the mystery are done. A couple of the girls mention Emili’s death as a motivator for their life’s choices but none of them really tries to think of clues or anything. So all the “mystery” is crammed in the last hour and it feels rushed and disjointed.
I really wish the series looked better because there was some good story telling happening for the most part. It is hard to recommend a show that looks ten years older than it is. The acting is pretty solid but sometimes the subtitles are a little clunky; I think that is mostly a translation issue. Penance is a good mystery overall but I don’t know that I really recommend it to anyone, it is a big time commitment and not visually interesting.
Penance is also showing in theaters in a cut-down version.