Laplace’s Witch

4 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

The majority of the feedback I’m reading on Takashi Miike’s film adaption of the book ‘Laplace’s Witch’ by Keigo Higashino is that it’s slow; that after an intriguing opening, it slogs through a final hour without much fanfare.  I understand this feedback, but it’s also a bit puzzling, as we’re now years beyond the “Takashi Miike = Audition and Ichi” understanding of the director, and yet this seems subject to a similar type of expectation.  Although I suppose this could be the post version of that syndrome, in which the closest comparisons are those that Miike has made after shifting into the blockbuster Japanese movie system (as compared to years when it was still viable to mix with V-cinema), and it’s true that those flicks tend to have a bit more ‘oomph’ throughout, as befitting that system.  But Laplace’s Witch felt so purposeful in its approach, to me, that I suppose my confusion is regarding what viewers felt they saw in the opening half that wasn’t there in the concluding half: from start to finish, the movie has a slow, graceful style to it, hardly speaking aloud – characters are often stiff during conversations, mouths barely moving (and even not moving in a couple instances!) – which I feel helps to massage a pseudo-sciency plot into something more mystical, and contemplative.  Beats which would, in a typical flick, be played for thrills or comedy are turned poetic, and while I do wish its concepts had been pushed further, the way it shifts, mercurially, from a mystery into more obviously encompassing some Miike themes of legacy, and inherited behaviors, and then beyond that into, possibly, some meta-ponderings on film and its pursuit as a career had me desperately immersed throughout the movie, and immediately wanting to watch it again, which is not a feeling I’ve been left with from most of the director’s blockbuster-era works.

Laplace’s witch is somewhat how Madoko (Suzu Hirose) refers to herself, as a play off of the concept of “Laplace’s Demon”: the ability to, essentially, know the outcome of any given scenario by being able to understand every single affect upon any given object, down to the minutest detail.  The movie’s use of this is to predict weather patterns.  We start out with two deaths related to gas poisoning that scientist Shusuke (Shō Sakurai) is brought to weigh in upon, proclaiming them as curious accidents, much to an obsessed detective’s protestations, but he notices Madoko looking into the same events, and then is brought to wonder about Laplace’s Demon: could it be used to predict the flow of such noxious gasses, allowing one to weaponize them “naturally?”  The flick explains this stuff fairly naturalistically, and I can appreciate that the movie essentially solving its murders through the introduction of this ‘demon’ is what makes it feel like it suddenly slows down afterwards, but again, Miike’s very deliberately tip-toeing approach (with a very warm, lightly ominous score from frequent collaborator Kōji Endō) keeps the mystery-as-a-focus very much in the background; we are, instead on the characters, and on their interactions with each other.  When we’re placed in a laboratory-ish setting for a big explanation on this demon business, Miike’s camera is static, or at a distance, and there’s hardly any bustle in the background, when most would take the opportunity to stuff such a set with gizmos and diagrams and whatnot.  I loved it.  But, yes, the wedding of this stuff to the more meta aspects – which is where the detective factors in, keeping us apprised of further developments with the story while Madoko and Shusuke ping-pong off one another – is imperfect, and there’s an ultimately compelling and clearer version of the movie that more successfully ties it altogether, either digging into the more scientific side of Laplace’s Demon or dives deeper into its conceptual implications.

Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to rewatching this, to sinking into Miike’s graceful visuals and the movie’s sound and look in a way that I haven’t really been able to with his CGI spectacles.

(And as a side note, I found this to be an interesting juxtaposition to the show Devs, which deals with similar subject matter in a seemingly more in depth way – with some similar conversations – but ultimately came across a lot more shallow to me than Laplace’s Witch.)