Internet video, dating websites, boyfriends, parents. All part of modern life? Well, yes, for Yoshino, a twenty-something insurance saleswoman, who doesn’t live at home but resides in the company dorms. She dines out regularly with her friends but she also hooks up with men she has met via an online dating service. One evening she breaks her date with quiet construction worker Yuichi in favour of trendy student Masuo. Bad move, because later that night she is killed and her body discarded on the remote Mitsue pass. Both men become suspects in the murder case and end up on the run. Yuichi later forms a relationship with meek clothing saleswoman Mitsuyo and the pair fall in love. But with the police hot on their heels, can the relationship even get started, let alone develop into something more permanent?

As would probably be expected the dramatic construction of Villain, despite or indeed because of its title, is centred around determining who the villain or villains actually are, the drive of the narrative constantly seeking to give us clues, then shatter our perceptions. Good people can do bad things, horrid people may (or may not) be innocent – who should we sympathise with? But Villain also contains many aspects of social drama that takes it beyond the realm of the simple thriller. It also has a plethora of subsidiary characters who help the viewer understand better the relationships between the main protagonists. These would normally be reduced to secondary assimilation but in fact are remarkably well rounded – these include Yoshino’s grieving parents as well as Yuichi’s stoic grandmother. This then, as well as being a murder mystery, becomes a character study and commentary on society, culture, age, generation gaps and gender. This is a film where understanding of the characters and the way that they interact, not only with each other but also the narrative, is instrumental to understanding the film.

The title then is more of a thematic and philosophical question than a clear indication of a titular character, and this is the film’s real strength – depicting cultural and emotional themes within the context of a most heinous crime. Villain is based upon the best selling novel by Suichi Yoshida (who also wrote the screenplay), which has (necessarily) a different structure to the film. The book reads more as a whodunnit, with twists and turns constantly defying expectations as to who the murderer actually is with each subsequent chapter. It is difficult to reproduce this effect with the medium of film, but the movie does retain the strong sense of characterisation which constantly seeks to twist our opinions of the protagonists’ feelings and motives. Viewed simply as a thriller, the film is a gripping ride, but its rich characterisation and cultural commentary produce a far more rounded whole. With great scripting, excellent performances and a soundtrack by Ghibli favourite Joe Hisaishi, Villain makes for compelling viewing.