MMC! rounds out this proposed Tai Katô set with another film from the director’s tenure at Shochiku and arguably the best work considered here – Minagoroshi no reika (1968), otherwise known as I, the Executioner or Requiem for a Massacre. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it; Tony Rayns shouts his admiration for I, the Executioner loudly from the rafters of the Time Out Film Guide.
Up there with Oshima’s Violence at Noon and Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine as one of Japan’s most disturbing anatomies of a serial killer, Kato’s shattering film eschews suspense (it confronts male violence against women head-on from its very first shot) in favour of mystery. What links the murders of five women with the suicide of a 16-year-old delivery boy? Plodding cops (one with a bad case of piles) investigate, and solarised flashbacks eventually provide a denouement, but the near metaphysical ending ensures that the mystery somehow lingers. Kato anchors it in location-shot observation of Tokyo’s quotidian realities, which makes the unorthodox approach to questions of sexual politics all the more bracing.
I, the Executioner opens with a woman being struck, rendered unconscious by an unseen assailant within the confines of a dark apartment. Her shirt is torn open and she is bound and gagged in a bathtub. She is roused by water sprayed on her from a handheld shower head and then flogged with a section of tubing. She is forced to write a list naming four other women and where they may be found. A flashback shows the women playing a high-spirited game of Mahjong before the woman’s attacker rapes her and then stabs her to death in a furious rage.
Police investigate the murder but cannot prevent the killer from viciously murdering the women on his list, unable to establish quickly enough the connection between these women and the delivery boy who leapt from the apartment building’s roof just days before the first murder. And while the killer sadistically works his way down his list, he also develops a romantic relationship with a pretty young woman who works in a modest noodle shop. I, the Executioner is a dark thriller that develops tension between the closing investigation of the police and the sequential deaths of the five targeted women, however the film is even more preoccupied with unpacking the secret identities and hidden motivations of its characters – the offence being avenged against the five women, the history of the killer and his connections to the laundry boy, the traumatic past of the seemingly innocent waitress. Together, Katô’s film becomes an exceptionally lurid, criminally melodramatic whirlpool of fear, angst, and death.
I, the Executioner takes that Tai Katô style discussed in other posts and elaborates on it in extraordinary ways. Virtually all of the film is shot from that unusually low perspective, a position that feels particularly exposed and threatened in the serial murder/fugitive context that dominates the movie. Katô’s unusual framings, cutting off characters with the frame limits in unexpected ways, becomes more obviously artful with his frequent use of frames within frames, his heavy shadows, and his large portions of negative space, all of which create claustrophobic compositions that reflect the inevitable sense of doom that permeates the movie. Together, I, the Executioner seems to move the aesthetic seen in Cruel Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Fighting Tatsu, the Rickshaw Man, and By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him into near-giallo territory, merging sex, violence, and madness into something comparably nasty but still distinctly Japanese.
Tai Katô adapted I, the Executioner from a story by Tadashi Hiromi with Haruhiko Mimura and Yôji Yamada. Yamada is an MMC! favourite as the writer-director of many Tora-san films and I, the Executioner features Tora-san regulars Cheiko Bashô (as Haruko the noodle shop waitress), Hisao Dazai, and Gajiro Satoh. Makoto Satô’s murderer manages to be broodingly tough, sensitively anguished, or psychotically enraged as required. Seeing Satô dance cheek to cheek with one of his victims in a effort to bring her into his confidence – her face passionate and enthusiastic, his face pained and tormented – encapsulates the strange knot that defines the film’s central killer. I, the Executioner is Tai Katô’s masterpiece, a film deserving of a place in the Criterion Collection for its disturbed artistry, in the Arrow Video canon for its daring psychosis, or even in the new middle ground of the North American Arrow Academy imprint. And I, the Executioner is an excellent place to conclude this spotlight on Tai Katô, the finest film made by the best Japanese director you’ve probably never seen.
Credits: In addition to Tony Rayns’s review for Time Out, this post owes a debt to Allan Fish’s review at Wonders in the Dark. Allan passed away in 2016, but his wonderful writing on cinema can still be found at Wonders in the Dark. If you haven’t read Allan’s work yet, MMC! recommends catching up.