“I Will Never Forgive Any Of You”: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Penance’

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Penance (2012) is a five-part miniseries about the murder of Emili Adachi, who’s lured to the school gymnasium by an unidentified man, while Emili’s four playmates watch from afar as their young friend is led to her death. Asako Adachi, Emili’s mother, played with subtle mastery by Kyoko Kuizumi (Tokyo Sonata, 2008), is inconsolable as her daughter’s murder remains unsolved months later, in spite of the four girls who saw the killer’s face. Under the pretense of Emili’s birthday, the four reluctant witnesses are invited to Asako’s home, where they are confronted with Kyoko’s grief and anger, condemning each of the four girls to a life of paying penance for allowing her daughter’s murderer to get away with his unforgiveable crime.

Ostensibly, what ensues from Kyoko’s moral indictment of the four girls’ complicity in Emili’s death, is how each girl endures the psychological burden of betraying their slaughtered classmate and her mother. More specifically, each of the first four episodes focuses on how Sae Kikuchi (played by Yu Aoi), Maki Shinohara (played by Eiko Koike), Akiko Takano (played by Sakura Ando), and Yuka Ogawa (played by Chizuru Ikewaki) have lived with their guilt fifteen years later. All of them have been traumatized and have lived with the consequences of this trauma until it has infected every part of their being. However, it would be unfair to say that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s story is based on a simplistic cause-and-effect notion of karma. On the contrary, what unfolds in the four narratives—the fifth is reserved for Emili’s mother—is a complex story, and character analysis, of how Japanese women survive, yet are ravished, by a society that values order and decorum above all else, even if it means coercing people, such as Emili’s playmates, into silence about the abuse, agony, violence and distress they witness and undergo in their own lives.

I have been watching Kurosawa’s work for several years now and have always admired the thoughtful and stylish way in which he tells his stories, especially in Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). More so in Penance than in any of his previous works does Kurosawa display his admiration for the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Yasujiro Ozu. By this I mean Kurosawa has developed his own unique combination of showing sympathy for the lives of ordinary people while turning his fascination with the dark side of their personalities into a compelling sense of drama and the horror of realizing that the real monsters we need to fear are ones that dwell within human nature.

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Photo credit: David Martínez

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