When her only relative, her elder brother is accused of robbing and murdering an old woman loan-shark, pretty, young Kiriko (Chieko Baisho) travels from her home in Kyushu to Tokyo to get Japan’s top lawyer to defend her brother. Unfortunately her naive idealism is shattered when the lawyer refuses to take the case based on her insufficient funds. What follows is a long determined revenge plot that sees the heroine become a Tokyo bar hostess and worse to punish the lawyer. The plot thickens with another murder mystery and a sleuthing reporter.
For whatever reason, Yoji Yamada has yet to really catch on with the arthouse crowd. I suppose the narrative of Japanese cinema tells us that this was the time period of “radical filmmakers” like Nagisa Oshima and Yoshishige Yoshida. I use the quotes somewhat sarcastically, because when it comes to aesthetic, Yamada is just as evolved as any of them. He hasn’t gotten a larger critical evaluation because it’s his content, which lacks the edge of filmmakers like Oshima and Yoshida. He makes, at the risk of using an already overused phrase, more of a “humanist” and a lot of dramatic works are grounded within the home life. This is not the case with Kiri no hata, a stylish thriller, that is a bit less sensitive (at least superficially) than Yamada’s more gentle work. It’s a perfect fit as his usual merits manage to stand point even within a genre piece.
Masao Yanagida is on trial for the murder of a loan shark, and the evidence is not in his favor. His sister, Kiriko Yanagida testifies on his behalf, but the fact that he owed the loan shark an enormous amount of money that he didn’t have is enough to send him away to prison. While there, he dies only a year into his sentence. Kiriko, obviously frustrated, finds a golden opportunity when the mistress of the lawyer who essentially put her brother to jail is seen at the scene of a different murder. Kiriko can now use the justice system to her advantage and perhaps avenge her brother’s death.
One of the problems with writing a plot synopsis comes when one can’t capture the same spirit with which the story itself unfolds. I would note that my description of the story is not at all like the way Yamada tells it. Instead, he takes a more elliptical approach, cutting in between the trail, the events leading up the murder, and the year following the trail. He does this all rather flawlessly, perhaps not with the dizzying Roeg-like precision of his contemporary, Yoshishige Yoshida, but in a more restrained way, which still manages to serves the film’s function as a genre piece. It’s hard to think that Yamada didn’t see Kurosawa’s High & Low before making this picture, while that one is ultimately more complicated and intricate, Yamada seems to move the pieces of his film around in the same way. The compositions are cut tightly in a way that evokes a similar tension.
This is still a film that represents Yamada’s work, even if it not representative of the genre he spent most of his time. His “humanist” streak still shines through, although one might argue that the film’s conclusion is a fairly cynical one. I don’t think the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Yamada’s portrait of Kiriko, played by Chieko Baisho, is so rich and complex that her final decision plays out not like Yamada and the film’s writers winking at the audience (like twists tend to do) but instead, like a radical and empowering decision by Kiriko.
Yamada’s position as a more conservative filmmaker (not ideologically, but in form) compared to the New Wave isn’t an inaccurate one. While all of his films are beautiful, they lack the formal playful of the ATG crowd. Instead, his aesthetic is more in service of the film’s other parts, which sounds like a way of saying he isn’t cinematic, but I hope to not be implying that. He’s extremely cinematic, and this film might boast his most “cinematic” scene. A wonderfully constructed, completely wordless sequence of Kiriko following a man around from a Ginza bar to his house. It has an Antonioni quality and actually anticipates Antonioni’s Blow-Up by being in the context of a suspense film. It’s one of Yamada’s best moments as a director in a career that is full of them.
— Cinema Talk.