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March 12, 2013

Death Penalty.com / Death Penalty.com: A New Beginning

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Ryota Sakamaki - 2011
TLA Releasing/Danger After Dark Region 1 DVD

I recall one time reading a typical curmudgeonly piece by Herman G. Weinberg, complaining about the apparent decline in Japanese cinema. Where once was Street of Shame was now Street of Joy. Since that time, Seijun Suzuki has become almost as revered as Kenji Mizoguchi.

I don't mean to be obtuse, but sometimes one has to recognize that some films are going to be meaningful to a certain generation or culture. And sometimes the filmmakers are exactly aspiring to make an artistic statement, but simply a statement, to "their" audience. And as someone not part of that audience, I can choose to rant and rave that the current state of cinema, or I can try to figure out what's important here, and why such films might be worth investigating.

What these two films tap into is a sense of hopelessness in Japanese young people. Simultaneously, there is also a disproportionate sense of self when one wants to kill someone else for what many might find trivial reasons. And the idea of getting away with murder has always had some universal appeal. The second film strives to be taken seriously as the game playing is set up as a misguided way for students to take revenge on those who bullied them in the past.

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The first film has a interesting premise, with a young man, Ryuta,joining an online group of disgruntled people all in disguise, all using pseudonyms, committing murder for each other. Things get out of hand when Ryuta, known to the group only as "R", has been designated as the next victim by another group member, and is essentially appointed to murder himself. While one might be sympathetic to someone wanting to murder a boss or former spouse, you have to wonder about a girl who seeks revenge over a thoughtlessly destroyed stuffed animal.

Some of the seriousness is undercut in the second film, in which some video programmers get together purportedly to test out a new game version of Death Penalty.com. One of the characters, a young man, wants to kill a young woman, some kind of internet celebrity. The woman in question seems to take on virginal young men for sexual pleasure, with absolutely no interest in anything more than serial single dates. Another guy blames his failure at exam time on another student who played his music too loud. Are Japanese guys that emotionally fragile?

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Ryota Sakamaki keeps most of the brutality off screen, although we do see the victims after the mayhem has been committed. Because of the ages of most of the characters and the relatively restrained violence, I have to assume that these films were made primarily for an audience of older teens and younger adults. Setting aside the internet game premise, Sakamaki appears to be addressing the same kind of themes done better in films like Sion Sono's Himizu or Tetsuya Nakashima's Confessions. Sakamaki's films may be more accessible for a certain audience, and for that reason, I have given these films some consideration.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 12, 2013 02:25 PM