Japan, 2022, 99’, Japanese
Directed by: Anshul Chauhan
Screenplay: Rand Colter, Moteki Mina
Photography (color): Petter Moen Jensen
Editing: Anshul Chauhan
Music: Koda Yuma
Producers: Takahiro Yamashita, Moteki Mina, Anshul Chauhan
Cast: Matsuura Ryo, Kizu Toru, Shogen, Megumi
Date of First Release in Territory: March 18th, 2023
What is a “Japanese film” in this age of increasing diversity even in Japan, a country long proud of its cultural and racial homogeneity? That attitude also once extended to the Japanese film business, where non-Japanese were mostly relegated to bit roles, playing bad guys or comic relief.
Anshul Chauhan, who was born in India and came to Japan as animator in 2011, has been blowing past barriers to that business since he set up his own production company in 2016 with partner Moteki Mina and began directing award-winning films.
His third feature, December, marks a shift from his previous two, Bad Poetry Tokyo (2018) and Kontora (2019), which were uncompromisingly uncommercial. Not that Chauhan is now pandering to the box office, but he has attempted a genre – courtroom drama – more in the mainstream, with a story that delivers taut suspense and well-plotted twists.
It also addresses an issue – the sentencing of juvenile offenders to adult-length prison terms for serious offenses – that might seem too domestic for a non-native filmmaker. But working from a script by Rand Colter and Moteki, Chauhan handles it with assurance, while revealing the universality of his protagonists’ moral and spiritual dilemmas.
The story starts with the retrial of Fukuda Kana (Matsuura Ryo), a woman who, ten years ago as a seventeen-year-old, killed a classmate, Emi Higuchi, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Her lawyer, Sato (Kizu Toru), who is smart, passionate and slick, does not argue that she is innocent – Kana herself tells the judge she deserved the first-degree murder verdict – but claims the sentence was too harsh for an adolescent still capable of reform.
Emi’s alcoholic father, Katsu (the single-named Shogen), is enraged by the retrial, and burning to testify that his daughter’s killer ought to be put away for good. He at first finds common cause with her ex-wife Sumiko (the singled-named Megumi), who has since remarried, but is still pained by Emi’s death, and still half in love with Katsu.
Meanwhile, Kana wants her freedom, while wondering whether she deserves it, and resigning herself to the eternal enmity of her victim’s parents. What she doesn’t know is that Sumiko, more than her stubborn ex, wants to move on.
December differs from the usual Japanese courtroom drama, including Suo Masayuki’s 2006 I Just Didn’t Do It and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s 2017 The Third Murder, in that its verdict is not such a foregone conclusion: The conviction rate in Japanese criminal trials is notoriously 99 percent, but the outcome of the film’s retrial remains a compelling question mark almost to the climax.
And its characters are not so easy to read, even Shogen’s Katsu, a novelist whose life, as he keeps telling us, has been destroyed by the murder. While grimly downing glass after glass of booze in scene after scene, he is by no means two dimensional. When he is with Sumiko, we can still see glimmers of the shy charm that once attracted her. And as a novelist, if one who has not a written a word in seven years, he is a sensitive type, if prone to dangerous extremes.
More central to the film’s ultimate mystery, though, is Kana, who presents an enigmatic mask to the world, including the world of the courtroom. Yet in Matsuura Ryo’s restrained but powerful performance, we can also see, in disturbing and dreamlike flashbacks, the victimized and rage-filled girl she once was. Who is she now? Wisely and masterfully, December leaves the final answer up to you.
Born in north India in 1986, Anshul Chauhan began working as an animator in 2006 with Paprikaas Studios. In 2011, he moved to Tokyo to work for Polygon Pictures and in 2016 launched his independent studio Kowatanda Films. At Kowatanda he made three shorts as well as his 2018 feature debut Bad Poetry Tokyo, which was selected as Best Narrative Feature Film at Venice Film Week. His 2019 follow-up Kontora won several awards including the Grand Prix at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. His latest film, the courtroom drama December, premiered at the 2022 Busan Film Festival and opened in Japan in March, 2023.
2018 – Bad Poetry Tokyo
2019 – Kontora
2022 – December