Sun Scarred

2 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Katayama (Sho Aikawa) is on his way home from work when he overhears several youths accosting – and violently beating – a homeless man.  We’ve heard that the police are on their way, but it’s clear that the kids are enjoying escalating events with increasingly torturous tools – a knife, and now a nailgun.  Katayama approaches, and shouts a warning, and then takes some hits himself while countering the teens to the best of his ability.  He’s essentially defeated them, and is now unleashed, pummeling one of the kids viciously when the police arrive and pull him free.

His “reward” for saving the man’s life: being reprimanded for attacking the kids.  The kids are sent on their ways.

Director Takashi Miike doesn’t spare us the ferocity of Katayama’s attacks, but he’s also – along with DP Masato Kaneko and a deeply moody score from frequent collaborator Kōji Endō – sunken us deeply into the always-present potential threats of the subway ride home; of the walk down the alley.  From the moment Sun Scarred opens, there’s a heavy feeling to Katayama’s travels; when he interrupts the kids, it feels like an inevitability – only Katayama makes the choice of diving in head first when most of us would probably wait for the police to arrive.  It’s an interesting balance that, sure, posits our lead as a “hero,” but a violent one.  That his actions are against a child makes the scenario even more questionable.

However, that edgy feeling ends up being warranted: the kid who’d suffered the most at Katayama’s hand later kidnaps – and kills – Katayama’s daughter, sending Katayama’s wife into a spiral of depression.

Three years later, Katayama is alone.  He’s moved to a different city and works endlessly.  And his daughter’s killer is being released.

Sun Scarred sets up a lot of dramatic potential, and, visually, delivers quite a bit as well.  Miike is masterful at throwing us into sudden bouts of dangerous energy, and equally adept at emotional dissonance; both of these tones have their place here.  He also gets incredibly stylized in the transition from the time after Katayama’s death to her killer’s release – going from color to black and white – without it seeming like an unnecessary shtick.  Endō’s score is also haunting: while the composer often submits juxtaposing tracks for Miike’s film, here he works alongside the general surly and downbeat vibe to give us something both nervvy and, at the same time, quite sad.

But… something is missing.  To explain the plot, as above, is to lay out the mentioned potential, but it never feels like the film is compelled to explore it, even when the script starts inserting more and more layers, such as another young child prone to violence whose path Katayama crosses.  One of the first indications of the cause for this “missing” component is when Miike regular Kenichi Endō gets attacked by a pack of these kids: the scene borders on comical, despite the excessive violence, and then the lead kid is set up as an unhinged “villain,” licking blood and tasting the metal of his gun.  The kids chatter about a law that says that you can’t be convicted for murder if you’re under the age of 14; Sun Scarred has turned into a scare piece akin to a made-for-TV movie ripped from headlines.  Miike’s camer work gets more linear and less compelling.  Katayama commits more violence, but there’s no real question about it this time: it’s shot like an action movie, and he dodges bullets and saves the day and bests his villains, who are involved in ridiculous long-term evil villain machinations.

Sun Scarred comes back around to inserting some potential doubt in our reactions to / judgements against the violence in its final moments, but I don’t think we’ve watched some purposefully subversive take on the topic.  Rather, I think the script had beats that Miike hit, but perhaps 2006 was too early to really dig in to the rest.  I can’t speak to what the politics or current events in Japan may have been then, but the movie’s approach to the subject matter feels very, very surface, and its escapism with its finger-pointing toward a bad guy makes it feel shallow.  Sho was well cast – he has a decisiveness to the way he acts that makes his portrayal of Katayama effective – but the reason the movie gets knocked is because it’s never immersive.  This makes the streamlining of the visuals in the latter half stick out, and also makes the direction of the plot and characters’ decisions feel perfunctory instead of driven by the kind of “what would you do?” questioning that a film of this nature should lean in to.

All that said, I think this will be an interesting flick to come back to after a few years, tempered by expectations, to see if I’m maybe missing out on subtleties I disregarded or ignored.