There is always some kind of pleasure to be taken from following criminals as they rise through the underworld only to be inevitably struck down by a combination of hubris and carelessness. It’s often doubly cathartic to see people who can finesse their way around the legal system, succeed, and then receive their comeuppance in quick succession; it is a classic film formula that can be traced back to the days of Rocky Sullivan and Tony Camonte.
Seemingly joining their ranks in a more white-collar turn is Sakoto Watabe (Miyoko Asada), a notorious Japanese con artist who fleeced millions from unsuspecting victims through a combination of pyramid, financing and investment schemes over several decades. While certifiably one of the nation’s worst white-collar criminals, her story’s treatment in the bland, monotonous Erica 38 paints her as a figure who is, disappointingly, lacking any depth or complexity to her actions.
Essentially Watabe was a snake oil saleswoman whose wolfish sales tactics and ability to up-sell naïve targets on irresponsible investments allowed her to build a small fortune by the time she turned 60. Beginning with her arrest and extradition from Thailand, the film is retold from her guileless entry into the world of financial fraud to her ascension through a shady investment firm, where she was operating an international pyramid scheme and living lavishly all while doing it.
Although it’s a generous comparison, Erica 38 also elects a Citizen Kane recall structure, wherein — assembled along with these pivotal moments from Watabe’s creation of her criminal empire and its deconstruction — there are interviews with her victims and colleagues that aim to offer insights into the enigmatic figure at the center of this strange odyssey. The technique is admirable, but, due to the disjointed nature of the narrative’s arrangement and the streamlined manner in which her criminal activity is simplified, Watabe remains somewhat of an unknowable figure.
Although in her performance as Asada is certainly embodying the role of an aging huckster who is drunk off both on the prospect of manipulation and illicit prosperity, the script is internally confused on what her character is meant to represent. It may be that Erica 38 is asserting that Watabe, as a newly senior citizen with a history of being taken advantage of in her personal life, is merely just indulging in her last chance to enjoy life to its fullest, and, due to her history, has no qualms about who she steps on to make that reality.
That would be simple enough if the film didn’t fail to coerce you into having sympathy for her character, whose “tragic” backstory and humanizing moments are unceremoniously chopped into a dry, tedious melange of scenes explaining (poorly I might add) how she got away with it all for so long. First and foremost, the problem of Yuichi Hiba’s debut is its assemblage, which needlessly tangles what is in essence a very straightforward rise-and-fall story.
Second of all is the problem of the overall design of Erica 38. I suppose the horrible beige tint that permeates this film is meant to convey a sense of nostalgia for previous decades, as this is ostensibly a period piece, but the overall effect makes this one of the drabbest looking crime stories ever filmed. The film gives off an acute staleness, from the overexposed lighting treatment to the tedious discussions of the minutiae of scamming someone. Irrevocably rough around the edges and doing stylistically nothing to hold your attention, Erica 38 is the cinematic equivalent of white noise just washing over you as you try to piece the details back together.
Credit where credit is due: a film led by an aging actress is definitely rare nowadays, and Miyoko Asada would be the primary reason to watch Erica 38’s insipidness from the beginning to its predictable, lackluster end. When a featureless look is coupled with an equally featureless story, however, even the best Dame actress of England couldn’t move me to get invested.