Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review: Masayuki Suo's "I Just Didn't Do It"

I Just Didn't Do It (Soredemo boku wa yattenai). 2006.
Written and directed by Masayuki Suo. Produced by Shoji Masui. Cinematography by Naoki Kayano. Edited by Junichi Kikuchi. Music by Yoshikazu Suo. Production design by Kyoko Heya. Released by Toho Company.
Cast: Ryo Kase (Teppei Kaneko), Koji Yakusho (Masayoshi Arakawa), Asaka Seto (Riko Sudo), Masako Motai (Toyoko Kaneko), Kohji Yamamoto (Tatsuo Saito).

Perhaps it's way too early to start making a list for the best films of 2007, but one candidate has already presented itself, Masayuki Suo's extraordinary and chilling courtroom drama I Just Didn't Do It. Suo is best known in the West for Shall We Dance (1996), and in Japan as a director of light comedies. However, in his new film, Suo has emerged from an 11-year absence from filmmaking with this sobering and angry film. This film had its international premiere in New York on January 10 at Japan Society, with director Suo and actress Asaka Seto introducing the film. Based on a real courtroom case, Suo, with documentary-like meticulousness and dramatic intensity, has created a devastating critique of Japan's legal system.

The film centers around the phenomenon of men groping women on Japan's notoriously packed commuter trains. Teppei (Ryo Kase, from Letters from Iwo Jima), a young man on his way to an internship, makes what turns out to be the fatal error of trying to free his jacket from a closed train door, and consequently finds himself accused of groping a 15-year old girl.

Suo's depiction of the routine sloppiness of investigations and lack of concern for basic rights is laid out in revealing detail. The detectives who question him rewrite his statements and pressure him to sign them. Everyone, including the public defender he initially meets, tells him to confess quickly so he can be let off with a fine. "It's like a traffic ticket," one detective tells him. At every point, Teppei resolutely refuses to confess to something he didn't do, believing (naively, it turns out) that he will be vindicated in court if the facts are presented.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, it's not what you know but what you can prove, and this is relentlessly made clear in Suo's stark and riveting rendering of this case. Even a sympathetic judge and tenacious lawyers cannot protect Teppei from the legal noose that tightens inexorably around him.

Most of the film occurs in the courtroom, but Suo is extremely deft at maintaining a high level of dramatic intensity over its two and a half hour running time. The performances are excellent all around. Kase generates an incredible feeling of sympathy for his predicament with his controlled yet quite emotional portrayal. The characters of Teppei's lawyers, as played by Koji Yakusho and Asaka Seto, are well-drawn, and Yakusho's pragmatism and Seto's initial reluctance and suspicion come across particularly well.

Suo is as adept in visual terms as he is at narrative. Remarkably for a film mostly set in the courtroom, Suo lends varied visual textures to his depiction of the legal proceedings so that it never feels static, and we are always aware of what is at stake at each point. The film is appropriately outraged at the railroading of his protagonist, but it is never heavy-handed or overly agit-prop. There is also some sympathy and understanding for even the judges and prosecutors who are so eager to convict people quickly. There is much insight into how the Japanese legal system, as Suo sees it, is geared toward speedy convictions. Even more disturbing, there is little incentive to change this system, since it benefits both judges and lawyers. Judges are given promotions based on how quickly they can process cases and convict defendants, and lawyers cannot be blamed regardless of the outcome, since everything is so predetermined from the beginning.

Suo's film is a valuable reminder of how easily individual rights can be trampled by bureaucracy, judicial apathy, and collusion with state power, and not only in Japan. One needs only to look at the US and how terrorism suspects and so-called "enemy combatants" are routinely treated to know the truth of this.

I Just Didn't Do It will be released in Japan on January 20.

Official site (Japanese/English)
Mark Shilling (Japan Times) - site requires free registration
Christopher Campbell (The Reeler)

I Just Didn't Do It trailer:

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