Reason J-TV Networks Should Really Get Their Act Together 001: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Atonement”

There’s a lot of quality TV in Japan that never makes it (legally) to American home media. From what I’ve heard, there are U.S. distributors interested in acquiring some of them, but the TV networks in Japan are asking too much for their shows.

That’s too bad, because there are plenty of fans that are happy to do (often second-rate) translations of these shows for free, and plenty of video-streaming/file-sharing services are happy to make advertising revenue off (often sub-par quality) bootlegs, while the original artists and copyright holders get nothing. For the foreseeable future, this isn’t going to change, so I’ll devote some time on this blog periodically to singing the praises of shows you absolutely can’t see in the U.S., unless of course, you google the show’s name followed by the words “English” and “watch.”

Kyoko Koizumi. courtesy of WOWOW

“Atonement” (贖罪)

“Atonement,” a five-episode TV mini-series directed by cult-favorite Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Pulse,” “Cure” and “Tokyo Sonata”), seems like a particularly good candidate for international distribution, given the director’s vast overseas following. It’s a surrealist thriller that focuses on four young women who are haunted by lingering guilt over a childhood incident in which one of their friends was abducted and murdered. The experience was particularly traumatic because they witnessed the abduction but didn’t intervene and their murdered friend’s mother, played by the always outstanding Kyoko Koizumi, made a point of reminding them of that fact.

Shortly after the incident, the mother tells the four young girls that she will not forgive them for their failure to intervene and their inability to generate any leads on the suspect. For the most part, each episode focuses on one of the girls, detailing how the incident impacted their emotional development and how they’ve tried to atone for their perceived failure.

True to Kurosawa’s style, the show is mildly supernatural and invests in mood, imagery and allegory over plot coherence. As such, the plot is a mess, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating exploration of class, gender, entitlement, obligation, vengeance, social roles, and even free will itself, (most episodes feature key scenes in which shadows move with apparent agency, implying that the characters lives are being directed by that which they cannot see).

The first episode, in my opinion, is a near perfect hour of television. It wastes no time in establishing the themes and mood that characterize the series. In the first scene, an elementary school teacher introduces Emiri Adachi, the soon-to-be murder victim, to her classmates as the daughter of a wealthy, important family. It immediately establishes that Emiri is viewed as an exceptional girl, pretty and well-to-do. The abduction and murder occur almost immediately afterward, way to quickly for us to get to know Emiri as a person, (which is sort of the point, her role in the series is as a concept, not as a human being). We then see girls with Emiri’s mother, who seethes with anger at them. Though she does not say it explicitly, mother’s very essence exudes the belief that her wealth and status were to insulate her from such hardships in life. By extension, the fact that her daughter died, and her four humble friends survived, is not only a personal tragedy, it’s an assault on the social order.

As the initial set-up, the episode focuses largely on Sae, who, 15 years later, works as a nurse in Tokyo. She’s been emotionally and physically stunted by Emiri’s murder, leaving her unable to form genuine social connections. One day, she receives a mysterious marriage proposal from a man from her childhood town, who seems to intuitively understand her inner void.

This first episode of “Atonement” could stand alone as it’s own film. Subsequent episodes are not nearly that solid, and the finale doesn’t quite live up to the mystery or the themes the show meticulously builds over the previous four episodes. However, it’s still better than most TV shows in either the U.S. or Japan. Which is why it is my first of many reasons J-TV networks and U.S. distributors should get their act together and bring this show (legally) to an English-language audience.

About Ben Hamamoto

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's been published in the Oakland Tribune and has written for New American Media's YO! Youth Outlook and the Nichi Bei Times. He is a research manager for the Health Horizons Program at the Institute for the Future. He also edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine and contributes to Nichi Bei Weekly.

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