Bluebeard in a spotless white room, the reader (Anna Nakagawa) is a cheerful, mad housewife: "I know how the story ends." Her husband (Koji Yakusho) is an exhausted detective negotiating a wave of grisly murders, seemingly unmotivated and unrelated except for the gory "X" carved into the victims’ necks. In the beginning, the man who bludgeoned a prostitute is found cowering in the air shaft, naked of body and mind; later, a tranquil snapshot of a two-story house is unsettled by the young teacher who jumps out the window after butchering his wife. "The devil made them do it is all I can guess," the psychiatrist (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) concludes. The conventional serial-killer metropolis is cluttered and excremental, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo is rarefied, serenely lit, full of vacant spaces. The clouds passing overhead give the beach scene half a dozen delicate lighting gradations as the shambling figure in long shot is revealed as an amnesic wanderer (Masato Hagiwara) with an insinuating request ("Tell me about yourself"). A police officer takes him in and passes him onto a physician, the cop emotionlessly shoots his partner and the doc performs impromptu autopsy on a public restroom floor. Hagiwara is a kind of Mabusean Holy Fool, using fire and water to plant murderous time bombs in the minds of those who meet him; his junkyard library includes Mesmer, ou l’Extase Magnétique, Yakusho tries to solve the case without letting the drifter infiltrate his consciousness. Kurosawa’s formal gambit is a veneer of detached passivity intermittently cracked by cuts to the mind’s eye, in which fragmented identity -- a faceless form in a yellowing document, a disembodied voice emanating from a recorder -- becomes the ultimate horror. The achievement is akin to Tourneur’s portrayal of spiritual death (I Walked with a Zombie), or Frost’s Desert Places ("I am too absent-spirited to count / The loneliness includes me unawares"). With Yoriko Douguchi, Yukijiro Hotaru, Denden, and Ren Osugi.
--- Fernando F. Croce