Review: Kurosawa's SEVENTH CODE, More Complex And Thrilling Than It First Appears

Contributing Writer; Tokyo, Japan (@patrykczekaj)
Review: Kurosawa's SEVENTH CODE, More Complex And Thrilling Than It First Appears
Those expecting another genre bending, bone-chilling spectacle from J-horror master helmer Kurosawa Kiyoshi may be a little disappointed with his low-budget, brisk, slow-moving 2013 feature Seventh Code. Without explaining anything, Kurosawa throws the viewer into a story that at first seems unfamiliarly unambitious, not only because it lacks energy in almost every department, but also because it centers on a character who is painfully difficult to relate to.

Clocking it at barely one hour, Seventh Code would most likely be nothing more than a brisk and unremarkable Maeda Atsuko vehicle if not for the director's brilliant writing style based on stunningly convincing manipulative techniques. Despite an initial mixture of puzzlement and frustration, as the story progresses it becomes quite apparent that withholding information is actually the film's biggest asset, as it eventually allows for the much-needed twist to kick in properly and with enough conviction to turn a toneless romantic mystery into a compelling conspiracy-laden crime caper.

Shot entirely on location in Russia's own Vladivostok, Seventh Code marks Kurosawa's first venture outside Japan. The opening take sees a young Japanese girl (Maeda) holding a far-too-huge bag running after a car, evidently searching for someone she knows. It soon turns out that special someone is a handsome and tall man named Matsunaga (Suzuki Ryohei, the panty-masked superhero from Hentai Kamen). 

Sporting an expensive-looking suit, he seems less than excited about the encounter, but after a short conversation invites Akiko to a nearby café and there delivers the line that's perhaps the most crucial to understanding the gears of the film's narrative mechanisms: 'You don't randomly trust people you don't know.' Our biggest enemies are sometimes the people we least expect.

Five minutes in and it's brutally clear that Akiko is as naïve as she's clueless, what with the desperate attempt at finding true love in the arms of a man she'd met only once before. He leaves without a goodbye, but she stubbornly follows him again. This time the consequences of her silly behavior are quite severe: the girl gets kidnapped and dumped like trash somewhere along the coast by a bunch of Russian thugs. Left completely empty-handed, she finds shelter in a restaurant owned by a Japanese-born man (Yamamoto Hiroshi) and his Chinese employee (Aissy). And yes, after all that's happened she's still trying to get a hold of Matsunaga.

At this point in time one question pops into mind: could there be a hidden agenda behind her actions? Kurosawa constantly keeps the viewers guessing, and even the ability to read between the lines may be of little help in finding the correct answers before the film unexpectedly shifts its tone 180 degrees.

It's the naturalistic style of the film that remains unchanged throughout. Almost every frame hints at an impending tragedy. Most scenes take place during the day, but daylight is hardly a sign of tranquility. Surprisingly, minimal use of music helps create the mood, not the opposite. It's as if Kurosawa is trying to utilize certain elements of the horror genre within a very personal film that undoubtedly also deals with the theme of fear.

In Kurosawa's universe there are no real heroes, only characters who've been tainted by the darkness, fatalistic creatures caught up in a web of events beyond their understanding. They maneuver across shifting and uncertain terrain rather smoothly, but there's really nothing they can do to escape their fate. If Akiko shares something with characters from such masterpieces as Charisma or Cure, it's not the breakdown of morality needed to achieve a certain goal but mere acceptance of a fact that chasing such goal might have some serious repercussions.

Maeda Atsuko (the former leader of the megahit AKB48 girl group) should definitely be applauded for her decision to step down from her pop-music throne in order to pursue a different career, but until the previous year she's never showed anything that could immediately turn her into a promising star of Japanese cinema. However, both here and in Moratorium Tamako she gives distinctly satisfying performances, shamelessly showing that even a Kristen Stewart-like palette of emotions can be an advantage when it comes to certain type of roles. And although she wouldn't be able to carry this film on her own without the help of Kurosawa's meticulous direction, Maeda proves that she's now more than just a wannabe actress.

An exercise in experimental filmmaking, Seventh Code obviously plays with the idea of multiple personalities but abstains from meandering too much because it simply hasn't got enough space do so. Then again, the picture fills its running time with so much credible material that it feels larger than it really is.

Although the story's background is never explained and most of the important events happen off screen, the picture seems complete by the time the final credits start rolling. Compared to most of Kurosawa's earlier features Seventh Code might come across as rather slim and uneventful, but it's still a refreshingly vivid and perplexing film that occupies a special place in the director's oeuvre.

Seventh Code

  • Kiyoshi Kurosawa
  • Kiyoshi Kurosawa (screenplay)
  • Atsuko Maeda
  • Ryôhei Suzuki
  • Aissy
  • Hiroshi Yamamoto
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2013JapanKurosawa KiyoshiSeventh Codeセブンス・コードKiyoshi KurosawaAtsuko MaedaRyôhei SuzukiAissyHiroshi YamamotoThriller

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