The feature film debut from Kazuya Murayama, Torao, is something one can’t predict or even get a hint of when it first unravels its characters. The writer-director loads the movie with several underlying themes and subtexts, creating a nuanced character study. He blends the elements of a classic police procedural story with hints of human nature and psychological drama to give an interesting and intriguing experience through cinema.
Kayako (Sakiko Katô) is a young university student who wishes to write a thesis for her Geography major on an endangered plant species, Meta Sequoias. When she realizes that the research on the topic serves no purpose, she gets involved in an unsolved murder case wherein the said plant was critical evidence. In her search to find the truth behind the three-decades-old mystery, she unites with a former detective who worked on the case named Torao (Torao Nishimura). What follows is Kayako’s efforts to unravel the truth, sinking into the case with an increased agitation to find the culprit, as Torao unwittingly assists her in understanding the significance of her work.
Murayama brings a certain degree of preeminence to Torao, disguising his themes, which delve into human nature and psychology within a classic whodunnit framework. Inspired by a real-life incident, the filmmaker has written the script without many of the twists and turns we’re accustomed to finding in murder mysteries. Instead, he focuses on exploring his characters’ state of mind and thought-process as their arcs progress. The director keeps his characters’ motives and their intellectual and emotional journey a mystery, leaving it up for interpretation at the end. A clear hint of inspiration taken from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon can be noticed when Murayama plays with the audience and teases them to figure out the story’s purpose while leaving very little breadcrumbs to follow.
“…Kayako’s efforts to unravel the truth, sinking into the case with an increased agitation to find the culprit…”
Murayama and cinematographer Evgeny Suzuki (to whom the film is dedicated) experiment quite a bit with camera angles and movement. The shots more than often go back and forth between extreme close-ups and medium, while transitioning cuts to focus on props such as a notebook Kayako carries during the investigation. The director is displaying his skills and ability with visual media, creating some wonderful imagery. This mostly works but sometimes becomes distracting, as it can undercut the tension or emotionality of a scene here and there.
Despite a few minor flaws, Torao still works thanks to the contrast of two investigative minds, one a veteran retired officer, the other a twenty-year-old kid who unknowingly gets intrigued by the case. While Torao brings merit and maturity to their work on the case, we see an emotional imbalance in Kayako arising from her inability to figure out the truth. And when her feelings collide with the mystery at the climax, the audience will be left awestruck as they figure out the movie was never a procedural drama alone.
Torao Nimishura isn’t a conventional actor but a real-life detective from the force. His lack of experience in the industry is often visible in scenes that require an emotional outburst. On the other hand, Katô shows credibility in her work and holds the storyline well. Plus, she and Nimishura share decent chemistry.
The rationale of placing Meta Sequoias within the central theme brings a metaphorical touch to the screenplay, creating an impactful and intriguing story. The fact that Murayama managed to get a non-actor to take on a lead role in his debut film alone and execute it fairly well makes Torao a worthy recommendation. Moreover, while he wrote and directed the movie, Murayama also produced it. What he has accomplished with such limited resources is remarkable. Taking high roads through its underlying, contrasting themes, the drama serves as a thesis on humanity disguised as a detective thriller.
"…something one can't predict..."