Yurigokoro (2017)

Yurigokoro programme note for the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme (2019)

“You’re going too fast!” an alarmed Chie (Nana Seino) tells her fiancé Ryosuke (Tori Matsuzaka) as he aggressively speeds to overtake an SUV on a quiet two-lane road in the woods. “No more reckless driving, OK?” This is moments after Ryosuke had told Chie how his mother died saving him from drowning in his childhood, and it is hard not to see Ryosuke’s sudden acceleration as an unbridled emotional response to his abiding sense of pain at the loss of his mother so many years ago. 

In fact this opening to Yurigokoro is a happy one. The very first image we see is Chie’s face in glowing soft focus as she looks adoringly at her husband-to-be – and the couple is headed to the woodland café-restaurant that Ryosuke recently opened, so that he can show it for the first time to his widower father Yosuke (Kenichi Matsuyama), and also introduce his future wife. Business is booming, and if there is a hint of unhappiness – of an aching hole – in Ryosuke’s life, Chie looks set to fill it. 

All this changes, however, within the film’s first six minutes, as, in rapid succession, Chie vanishes without warning or trace, Yosuke announces he has inoperable pancreatic cancer, and Ryosuke discovers a strange journal in a closet at his father’s house. Hand-written in pencil and entitled Yurigokoro, this manuscript opens with the line, “I have no problem killing people,” and appears to be the memoir, whether fictive or real, of a female serial murderer named Misako. Mystified by the hidden presence of this strange text in his family home, Ryosuke is quickly hooked. “I can’t relate to it at all,” he tells one of his employees, “but I’m fascinated by it.”

Yet as Naoto Kumazawa’s film alternates between Misako’s coming of age as a sociopathic killer, and Ryosuke’s search for Chie, it will become apparent that these two stories are intimately related. For much as Misako (played as a child by Kaya Kiyohara and as an adult by Yuriko Yoshitaka) seeks a ‘Yurigokoro’ – a word that she misheard as an infant from a doctor – to bring balance and meaning to her life, Ryosuke too is struggling to displace the dark impulses lying dormant deep within himself. Misako’s sense of emptiness is figured by the holes that she keeps trying to fill – first the oral and urethral holes in her plastic ‘drink and wet doll’ Yuriko, and then the hole in the lid of a well that she sadistically feeds with live snails, lizards and frogs, and then her own bodily orifices (expressly compared to the doll’s) when she later works as a prostitute. Meanwhile, Ryosuke’s hole is the gap in his own life story that the journal he is reading gradually supplements in unexpected ways. 

Yurigokoro has been adapted from the 2011 novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata who, along with fellow novelists Kanae Minato, Kazuya Shiraishi and Natsuo Kirino, has become known for a relatively recent and highly popular subgenre of mystery fiction. Named for the sound that readers will ideally make while consuming it, iyamisu (literally “eww mystery”) combines traditional elements of the mystery with darker, more grotesque ingredients. Perhaps Gone Girl (both Gillian Flynn’s 2011 novel and David Fincher’s 2014 film) is the closest English-language equivalent, while Confessions (Minato’s 2008 novel and Tetsuya Nakashima’s 2010 film) is the Japanese example most familiar to western audiences. 

In the case of Yurigokoro, what starts as a sweet romance soon digresses to Misako’s disturbingly sensational narrative (full of casual cruelty, lesbian self-harm and cold-blooded murder), with Ryosuke’s own life gradually spiralling into an unhinged sort of melodrama. If these tonal shifts seem jarring, that is, given the film’s generic affiliations with Numata and iyamisu, an entirely intended effect. The journal Yurigokoro that Ryosuke finds elicits a complex response from him: it both freaks him out and increasingly infatuates him as he begins to suspect that it may not be a novel but a true story (with a very particular intended readership); it starts to haunt not only his daily thoughts but also his dreams; and ever so subtly it draws out characteristics and behaviours from inside of him that he never knew he had. As all this unfolds, we cannot help but be aware that we too are giving ourselves over to a text with the same name and the same themes. We might even wonder, beyond our initial ‘eww’, what effect its reception is having on us, and what it might be showing us about ourselves. 

In the film’s opening sequence, when Chie asks Ryosuke never to speed again, she is trying to change him. In a sense, that is the film’s principal theme – the nature with which we are born (e.g. Misako’s psychopathic tendencies and homicidal urges), and the capacity for love to contain or transform that nature, and tame the beast.  

© Anton Bitel