She was a lot like the Bernie Madoff of Japan, but maybe slightly more human—or not. She could sell a Ponzi scheme as well as anyone, but no amount of money will heal her daddy issues. The con artist’s life unfolds in a not wholly unsympathetic manner during the course of Yuichi Hibi’s Erica 38, which screens as part of the 2020 Boston Festival of Films from Japan.
Her real name is Satoko Watabe. Erica is the alias she used while laying low in Thailand (where the fifty-something convincingly claimed to be thirty-eight). The flashback structure reveals right from the start, Thailand will arrest Watabe and extradite her back to Japan, but she maintains her distinguished bearing, even behind bars. She is a swindler, but you know what? She has dignity.
Frankly, it is debatable whether Watabe really chose this path for herself. She was recruited by more experienced grifters at key junctures, but there is no question she took to the flim-flam business. For a while, she and Ikuo Hirasawa make quite the illicit team, both at business banquets and in the bedroom. However, it is inevitable that one of them will eventually betray the other.
Erica 38 has a slick, detached docudrama look that gives it a pronounced 1970s vibe (even though the events depicted occurred much later), somewhat like Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine or Thierry de Peretti’s A Violent Life. In fact, the film is ostensibly told through the lens of a documentary filmmaker following Watabe’s trail, in the tradition of William Alland in Citizen Kane
Yet, what really makes it feel real is Miyoko Asada’s remarkably natural, completely unaffected, and confidently reserved performance. It is open to debate whether she is a passive accomplice who just got carried away with her criminal milieu or a stone cold sociopath. She also subtly conveys her lingering resentment for her father and her loyalty towards her aging mother, briefly but memorably played by the late great Kirin Kiki, making her final screen appearance as well as her very first outing as a producer.
Hibi’s year-spanning, border-crossing narrative is a real bunco epic, but watching it almost feels voyeuristic. It is quite a dynamic piece of filmmaking that takes us to a surprisingly ironic place. You also have to give Hibi credit for satisfyingly building the film around a fifty-something femme fatale protagonist, obviously with Asada’s considerable help. Highly recommended, Erica 38 screens again tomorrow (2/16) as part of the Boston Festival of Films from Japan.