After the police begin investigating Tatsuya Ichihashi and his connection to the disappearance of a young woman, Ichihashi goes on the run when the police find her body at his apartment. With an entire country looking for him, Ichihashi does what he can to become someone else and to disappear.
It’s getting harder and harder to find movies that will actually stick with me. Don’t get me wrong, I watch a lot of great movies (thanks to Film Bizarro) but there aren’t many that stick with me for days, weeks or even months after watching them. Awhile back, I recorded a podcast episode for Asian Film Review where we covered films based on true crimes (you can check out that episode here) and one of those movies was “I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer”. It’s a movie that I find myself still thinking about because it was the first time I had watched a movie that has left me questioning my own morals. Not because of the movie’s subject but the actual movie itself and whether or not I can allow myself to enjoy it.
“I Am Ichihashi” is based on the Lindsay Hawker murder — a British teacher living in Japan who was raped and killed by Tatsuya Ichihashi. Or rather, it’s based on the book (“Until I Was Arrested”) written by Tatsuya himself about the 2 and half years he spent on the run after murdering Lindsay.
I won’t go into further detail than that since we all have Google — or whatever your preferred search engine is. The movie itself is about Tatsuya as he travels on foot across Japan, alluding police by maintaining a impoverished existence (sleeping in secluded areas, collecting cans for money, etc.). The isolated existence and relentless paranoia of being caught leaves him spiraling, mentally, out of control. And often wondering who he is due to constant struggle of attempting to be someone, anyone, other than Tatsuya Ichihashi.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert on the Lindsay Hawker case — I did a decent amount of research on the case trying to understand who these people were, the circumstances around the murder, and how Tatsuya was able to escape police custody for so long. Sadly, even though the case gained a lot of international attention, I don’t recall ever hearing about it myself at the time it was happening. Then again, I live in the U.S.; a country whose media never really concerns itself with anything that’s going on in the world unless it has some connection to us, but I digress.
I haven’t read Tatsuya’s book, “Until I Was Arrested”, either, and if I were given the opportunity to, I still wouldn’t because reading into the case, it’s very clear that real Tatsuya Ichihashi is a psychopath (although I admit, in the podcast, I incorrectly label him as a sociopath). He had clear intentions as to what he was going to do with Lindsay Hawker. There’s simply no question there. And he clearly wrote a memoir to feed his own narcissism, so I see no value in his book.
Tatsuya’s intentions and motivation is where “I Am Ichihashi” created a moral conflict for me as an audience member. Even though there is no doubt as to Tatsuya’s mental competence and intentions (in my opinion, at least), Dean Fujioka’s movie portrays Tatsuya as a frightened, confused young man who was caught up in a moment and doesn’t know what to do so he goes on the run. Ultimately the movie wants the audience to be sympathetic to this version of Tetsuya. Perhaps to the real Tetsuya as well (to a degree) because there is a pandering message at the end of the film asking us to learn, grown and move forward from this event.
The reason this portrayal of Tatsuya Ichihashi creates a moral conflict for me is because the movie is incredibly well made — I loved the technical achievement and the intelligence behind the production. Had “I Am Ichihashi” been a bad movie then I could have easily discarded it as exploitive trash from someone trying to capitalize on the case and the victim. Or if it was a complete work of fiction, then I could turn a blind eye to the questionable nature of being asked to be sympathetic towards a murderer. As it stands, “I Am Ichihashi” is an exploitive movie but one I admire for its technical quality and understanding of a movie’s capability, both as an art form and as a storytelling method. Deep down though, I feel like I cannot in good consciousness enjoy or like this movie because of its manipulative nature and because of the disrespect shown to the real life victim.
Obviously some questions do need to be asked, such as: If “I Am Ichihashi” is based on a book from Tatsuya’s own accounts, then is Dean Fujioka still under obligation to portray this person in a particular manner or does he need to simply translate the depiction from the book to the movie? In my honest opinion, yes, he still had an obligation because this movie simply did not need to be made. At the very least, made with a dishonest recreation of the events.
To take that question even further, why did Dean Fujioka make this movie? Again, from my own admiration of the filmmaking quality, I would like to believe he wasn’t using a real life incident for his own personal gain. The more I think about the movie, the more I believe that it was in fact intended to garner attention for Fuijoka — positively or negatively . And in hindsight, “I Am Ichihashi” comes across like a vanity project; it’s not only written and directed by Fujioka, but he also acts in the movie as Tatsuya. Hell, he even performs a song during the end credits. Since the movie is about a person who lives in isolation while on the run, the entire movie is spent with Fuijoka — top to bottom, "I Am Ichihashi" is a showcase for Dean Fujioka. To be fair, the focus of the story is about an individual so, logically, the movie can only feature this one singular character. When a movie can only have a certain direction at which point can you still call it a vanity project?
Unfortunately, these are questions that cannot be answered but merely speculated upon. However, one element that is obvious with the film is the manipulation in how the Tatsuya character is portrayed and how you, the audience, receive information throughout the movie. As I said, there is a great deal of intelligence behind the production of “I Am Ichihashi” and that intelligence is used effectively in telling a story, but also to coerce your emotional investment. Granted, all movies do that, but the problem here is that this is depicting a real life tragedy and Fuijoka wants you to feel a certain way regarding Tatsuya.
To take a step back from criticizing Fujioka and his movie, I will talk about why I admire this movie. As I said, it’s intelligent and it knows how to tell story. A movie is constantly feeding you information — story, characters, locations, etc. It’s all information. Fuijoka uses everything at his disposal to tell a story, to give you this information, without ever going the simplistic route of having his character tell you how he feels or what he is experiencing. “I Am Ichihashi” is about the person traveling across Japan; it is not about what occurred before or after. Just this particular moment in time. So, in the beginning, only an abstract visual montage (that’s never graphic) sets up the murder and the inevitable police investigation that sparks Tatsuya to go on the run. Even if you know nothing about the case, these scenes do enough to tell you everything that you need to know about the story, while being able to jump right into focusing solely on the Tatsuya character.
With a movie that's about an individual — who keeps to himself and never interacts with anyone — how do you continue to relay information to the audience and develop the story? What can you do to keep the movie interesting and not have this performer simply existing in an environment, doing nothing more than emoting? Something that I've come to hate with movies any more is expository dialogue because I simply don't like having things explained to me. It's not engaging. For the most part it's unavoidable, sometimes it's laziness, but the worst is when it's a movie that's holding your hand and wanting to make sure everyone understands everything that's going on at all times. With "I Am Ichihashi" a radio becomes the "every-man" character and it works extraordinarily well. For one thing, it's easy enough to imagine this kind of character paying attention to the media for various reasons. Using the radio in such a way not only develops the details of the story but helps push things forward (Tatsuya knowing when to leave if there's news of people spotting him, or thinking they've seen him). In a way, it also brings to attention the problem everyone faces when it comes to our media and news outlets, and indirectly criticizing it.
What becomes particularly clever with this setup is that it also allows the movie to address inevitable questions from the audience. An issue regarding the real life case is how Tatsuya was able to afford plastic surgery while on the run. Everyone has their theories but there's no definitive answer. In the movie, regarding this situation, you hear people on the radio discussing this problem (how did he afford it, why were the doctors okay with it, etc.). To me, it shows that Dean Fujioka had the foresight to know where the unexplained events in the case would create confusion in the movie — had the movie not acknowledged the questionable nature of Tatsuya having plastic surgery, it would have been labeled as a plot hole. And you could call that hand holding, but it's more of a filmmaker knowing the audience or how an audience will perceive information.
So, the movie uses a radio as a way to deliver information and to bring the audience into the story, but now the question becomes how do you develop a character. Certainly you want an actor to inform a viewer through their performance and not just on dialogue, but as I said, someone doing nothing more than emoting is only going to be interesting for so long. The movie throws in a plot device that has a tendency to generate confusion in the beginning by having Tatsuya, who's still on the run, allow himself to be interviewed for television by a reporter. Obviously the idea of him being interviewed doesn't make sense and pulls you out of the movie as a result, but it's slowly revealed that the this is a situation that doesn't actually exist within the movie. Rather it becomes an abstract way of expressing how Tatsuya is dealing with his own conscience. And slowly the interviewer seeps into Tatsuya's reality; it's no longer an interview but a character in itself and a driving force because we start to see this manifestation showing up in the background of scenes.
How you tell your story is just as important as what story you're telling and the lateral thinking behind the production of "I Am Ichihashi" is where my admiration comes from. Why I desperately want to like it. It knows how to use visuals to dispense different parts of the story — most other movies would have had the character expressing himself through narration. Here, they found a way to create a physical representation of a character's conscience and how to use it to push the character and the story forward. For me, I just don't see many movies that understand the concept of VISUAL storytelling.
This is a movie that makes me want to like it for the intelligence behind the production. That same intelligence is used in the worst ways possible and is the same reason I don't like the movie, and even find it disgusting to a certain degree. The movie deliberately withholds information to try persuade you into feeling sympathetic towards Tatsuya. The most notable piece is that Tatsuya raping Lindsay is never mentioned throughout the movie until the very end. Again, this is someone who understands the mindset of the audience and knows that we could be more forgiving towards an accidental murder, as strange of a concept as that is. However, an audience would not forgive nor would it be empathetic towards a main character who raped then murdered a woman. In the context of the real life case, it's clear that the real Tatsuya's had planned to sexually assault this young woman — whether or not he had intended to kill her is up for debate.
It's easy enough to see the intentions behind this decision because, by the time the rape is finally mentioned in the end, you will have already developed a certain emotional connection with the character. And because you already have this established relationship with the movie and the character, you are less likely to disconnect knowing the real motivations — that this woman was killed (strangled) in order to keep her quiet while she was being raped.
It's the same with the opening. While on a technical level, it is commendable that it told this part of the story with a visual montage in order for us to jump directly into the real focus of the movie. It’s still impossible to look past that it willingly ignores the fact that before Tatsuya went on the run, he had her body buried in sand and soil in a bath tub for a week. Tatsuya was also attempting to turn her body into compost as he was buying chemicals to help decompose her body, which is what lead to the police investigating him in the first place (the chemicals he was buying sent up a red flag).
And I understand that you cannot go over everything or that somethings have to change when your creating a film adaptation of a real life event. These are not small details to overlook though; they are key components in the case and the lack of acknowledgment or mention highlights the intended manipulative nature of the movie. It makes the movie distasteful and seems disrespectful on the part of those who were involved in the project. It's also offensive to me, as a viewer, because it feels like the movie believes that it can dupe me into buying this portrayal of this person and these events.
Then again, you look at something like "Making a Murderer" — a documentary that willingly withheld information (and made no attempt to hide this) in order to satisfy its own manipulative and deceitful narrative. Yet, people still believed it. To a point that those who watched it, and bought into the narrative, felt just in harassing city officials in the town who didn't even have anything to do with the case. Then again, that could speak more about the mindset of Americans than anything else, but I digress.
In hindsight, when I started writing this review I thought it would help me in finally having a clear idea of how I feel about the movie and those who made it. However, I still find myself unsure of how I should respond towards certain aspects. I still think this was morally reprehensible on Dean Fujioka's part, but it's also unfair of me, in regards to my earlier speculation, that this was a vanity project for him. To a degree, it is, but the environment in which movies are made is never simple. While "I Am Ichihashi" is an independent project there's still some money behind it. Perhaps, somewhere, what this film was originally intended to be and what it became are two different things — it could have been the same story but a producer along the way dictated that it needed to be based on a true event in order for the movie to be sold. Maybe it was the only way to get a project going for Fujioka. Or, he made "I Am Ichihashi" so he could have the chance to make another movie down the line. Does that make it okay? Of course not. And I might just be looking for excuses to justify the movie and my own admiration I have for its technical achievements. Again, the problem comes back to only being able to speculate as to why this movie was made.
As far the movie itself goes, I can still judge "I Am Ichihashi" for what it is, and that's exploitation. Pure and simple. It is possible to respect the technical success of the movie and I would even go so far as to recommend it for people who are looking to study film. If anything, it serves as an excellent piece if you want to understand that there are different ways of how you can feed your audience information without being so simple and blatant. I would not recommend "I Am Ichihashi" as a movie to watch for entertainment or for anything other than studying because it wants and tries to manipulate the audience for unnecessary reasons. It's because of that manipulation and general lack of respect shown towards those who were affected by this tragedy is why I consider it exploitation. And that reason is also why I morally cannot respect it or those involved in the making of this film.