Sex in films is an odd thing. Personally, it bothers me. I tend to look away from the screen while sex scenes are playing, at least in part because they rarely have any narrative significance. There’s sex because sex sells (not to me, but whatever). And even if a sex scene is important to a film’s plot, it’s often made far more graphic than it needs to be.
For the first two-thirds of The Ravine of Goodbye, I was thinking about how irritating all of the sex scenes were. Why should I care that this married couple has sex? More importantly, why should I be watching it? It didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than general audience titillation.
And then it hit me. I realized why the sex was there and why it had to be the way it was. And honestly, I was kind of in awe.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
The Ravine of Goodbye (Sayonara Keikoku | さよなら渓谷)
Director: Tatsushi Omori
The Ravine of Goodbye uses the death of a child as a MacGuffin. I’ve written about the abuse/death of children before, but I’ve never seen a film that has so blatantly trivialized a young boy’s murder. “Trivialize” is probably the wrong word, but early in the film it seems as though this child’s death will be the driving narrative force, but it’s not. The killer was the young boy’s mother and the next door neighbor of the protagonists: Shunsuke Ozaki (Shima Onishi) and his wife Kanako (Yoko Maki). Investigators believe that Ozaki was involved with his neighbor and convinced her that the child was in the way, so they want him to fall with his supposed lover.
But Ozaki has a secret: in high school, he took part in the gangrape of a fellow student. And it’s amazing what that simple revelation does to a character. He’s a rapist, a gang-rapist no less, and that means he’s a bad guy who deserves to rot in prison for the death of his neighbor’s child, whether he had anything to do with it or not. At least, that’s the initial reaction.
There’s another plot involving journalists trying to uncover the truth about the case and about Ozaki in particular. The primary journalist, Watanabe (Nao Omori), doesn’t believe that Ozaki had anything to do with it, so he wants to figure out both what Ozaki’s story is and also why his wife (who seems to be pretty happy with him) would turn him over to the police.
I’m still not sure that the film justified Watanabe’s existence (something I’ll get into later), but he is the catalyst for one of the film’s more interesting conversations. After learning about Ozaki’s secret, he is willing to give a rapist the benefit of the doubt (she did go with them willingly, after all), but his colleague refuses to accept that and is clearly offended by his remarks (for what it’s worth, I was too). And she totally shuts him down; the rest of the conversation is essentially just her explaining exactly what happened to the victim after the rape, and it’s terrible. Her life completely fell apart, and it was because an incident that wasn’t her fault. The conversation felt like a statement directed at any audience member who might try to blame the victim for her predicament or say that “It’s more complicated than just victim and rapist.” It seemed like the screenwriter attacking people who might feel that way, and I thought that would be the end of it. Point made, let’s move on.
Boy, was I wrong.
Once the other revelations start rolling in, it turns out that this discussion is the thematic focal point of the film. It is more complicated than just victim and rapist. What Ozaki did is disgusting and reprehensible, but what if he has spent the rest of his life atoning for his sin? Would people even know? What if that atonement was hidden from the public eye? Making the claim that Ozaki is a sick, irredeemable person is all well and good, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Saying that his victim was just a victim unable to fend for herself is equally reductive.
I imagine that this film won’t play well with the hardcore feminist crowd, but its attempts to portray the complexities of reality are laudible. I don’t know if there are real people in situations like Ozaki’s, but if they are then they deserve a modicum of respect for what they’re trying to do. Ozaki’s a good guy who did a terrible thing that will haunt him for the rest of his life. He’s been branded by a criminal record and he will never live it down. But it’s not that simple.
Unfortunately, the journalists take the spotlight from time to time, and there’s no reason for them to. All of the flashbacks could just as easily have just been character memories rather than stories, and the focus on Watanabe’s own relationship doesn’t add anything to the narrative. Watanabe is as much a protagonist of this film as either Ozaki or Kanako, and that was a mistake. It should have just been about Ozaki and Kanako and their absolutely fascinating relationship. And it truly is fascinating. It’s one of the most interesting relationships I’ve seen on screen in years. The dynamic between the two of them, where their relationship came from and where it’s going, all of that is so unique and compelling that nothing else really could have compared. Maybe the journalists need to be there to coax the revelations from the characters, but if the film went in a more introspective direction it could have all come out regardless. Even if Watanabe does have to be there, he doesn’t need to be a protagonist.
But even if it tries to do too much, The Ravine of Goodbye is still extremely successful in its portrayal of complexity. It’s a potentially controversial film that could be the catalyst for a lot of interesting discussions. More likely, it will lead to a lot of people yelling and arguing over something they simply didn’t put the effort into understanding.
Oh the irony.