When the appearance of the corpse of a former mobster in a classy residential district in Tokyo is followed a few days later by the murder of a Ministry of Justice official, there's seemingly nothing to link the two victims apart from a similar modus operandi: a gory 7"-long wound penetrating through the victims' left eye and exiting through the top of their heads.
Put-upon detective Aida (Nakai) is assigned to the first case, but his obstinate working methods are soon putting noses out of joint, especially when a rival homicide division is assigned to the case of the second murder. Meanwhile Hiroyuki (Hagiwara), a disturbed young man tormented by long-suppressed memories of his parents' suicide beneath a windswept mountain is released from his mental asylum and shacks up with his former nurse. But what is the significance of the acronym MARKS scribbled into the private diary of the troubled 27 year-old, and what is his link with the members of a mountaineering club and a murder committed by a group of student radicals before he was even born?
Based on a novel by Kaoru Takamura, Yoichi Sai's haunting mystery thriller is an opaque and perplexing piece. Initially masquerading as an apparently straightforward police procedural, MARKS soon adopts a more fragmentary approach to the narrative in a collage of seemingly unrelated plot strands that bely the linear expectations raised by its policier trimmings. In fact, the squabbling and infighting between the bureaucratic raincoated ranks of the Seventh Homicide Section, comprised of a host of familiar faces such as Susumu Terajima, provide some of the film's most telling (and amusing) moments, as the film is more concerned with mood and character than providing a convoluted "logical" solution to an otherwise straightforward murder mystery.
In attempting to find the murderer purely by inference from the limited clues provided, the steadfast Aida finds himself so far off the mark that it is only by a lucky coincidence that the case is finally tied up at the film's conclusion (albeit rather messily). Similarly, though the viewer is presented with information unavailable to the inspector, it is presented in such a scattershot fashion that whether he or she will be able to forge the connections to come out at the end any less confused than its protagonist is debatable.
Sai has to be admired for the way in which he conjures up a hauntingly austere atmosphere to suggest the existential void that lies at the heart of any obsessive quest for truth or self-knowledge. Hiroyuki's desire to return to the slopes of Mount Kitadake after years of being cooped away in a mental institution is paralleled with Aida's frustrated attempts at finding the link between the double murder, prompting the detective's oft-repeated line "It's one helluva job being a cop".
With this in mind, any criticism that the film lacks clarity is somewhat beside the point, though that said, it could certainly do with losing about 20 minutes from its running time, and peppered as it is with such unpalatable moments as the opening buggery scene and an unflinching depiction of an attempt to stall a corpse's potential dental identification by means of a climbing pick, it won't appeal to all tastes.
Director Yoichi Sai began his directorial career in 1983 with The Mosquito on the 10th Floor (Jyukkai No Mosukito), following it up with a string of hard-boiled crime movies throughout the following two decades. The former lighting assistant and long-term friend of Nagisa Oshima (Sai appears in the role of Kondo in the older director's recent Gohatto) is however best known for exploring his own Japanese-Korean roots in the much-acclaimed 1993 film All Under the Moon (Tsuki Wa Dotchi Ni Deteiru), a comedy drama featuring a Korean taxi-driver living in Japan which, in his BBC documentary 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, Oshima touted as one of the most significant Japanese films of the 90s.