Making its world premiere at the 11th Okinawa International Movie Festival in April, Erica 38 is a timely piece which addresses the phenomenon of scamming that has become more and more widespread in Japan. This is especially true of the story’s Thai connection, as only a few months ago dozens of Japanese men were arrested in Pattaya for carrying out extensive phone scams.
Erica 38 is a based-on-fact tale which follows small-time businesswoman, hostess and flimflam woman Satoko Watabe. It traces her movement from a pyramid scheme planner to big-time con artist and finally a fugitive in Thailand. The title comes from the fact that the woman changed her name to Erica in Southeast Asia and presented herself as 38 years old, despite the fact she was well into her sixties at the time.

The film is the brainchild of longtime producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama and has garnered much attention in Japan as it was a big news story when the actual Watabe was hunted down and arrested, some 10 years ago. The project also was blessed with the cooperation of late legendary film star Kiki Kirin, both as an actress and a producer.

Satoko (Miyoko Asada) is a bar hostess and small-time operator with a gift of being able to sweet talk people. She starts a pyramid scheme business selling vitamins and is doing alright. A rich woman notices her gift of the gab and she introduces Satoko to Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), a handsome and suave con man. This big-time operator sets up a scheme to bilk rich investors of huge amounts of money with phony schemes that do no actual business. As the yen starts pouring in, Satoko and Hirasawa live the high life and, swimming in champagne, become lovers. Naturally things will have to end as you can only trick people for so long. In addition, Satoko figures out Hirasawa has many other girlfriends, and is just using her for his scams, and occasional physical satisfaction. Devastated, she embezzles all the schemes’ money, thought (in reality) to be about 8 million dollars, and flees to Thailand. There she lives a life of luxury, taking a 20-something Thai lover and buying a mansion in the countryside. The Japanese police track her down, some claim with the help of her in-house boy toy. When they arrest her, the salacious details of a 60-plus Japanese woman who absconded with millions, passed herself off as 38 and took Thai lovers thrills the public.

Director Yuichi Hibi has a deft touch, building Satoko’s character from a charismatic woman with questionable honesty to a full-on, ruthless con artist and cold-hearted embezzler. In flashback he shows Satoko’s hardscrabble childhood with an abusive father and cowed mother, attempting to earn the audience’s sympathy despite her actions. As in all grand tragedies, the protagonist Satoko is not a bad person, just flawed — and gifted with a silver tongue that allows her to access riches and young men. Salacious, thrilling and compelling, Asada’s tour-de-force performance adds power to this crackling story. 103 min

Opens on June 7
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