Saturday, July 10, 2010
Soredemo boku wa yattenai (I just didn't do it, Masuyuki Suo, 2006)
Law and ordered
Masayuki Suo's Soredemo boku wa yattenai (I just didn't do it, 2006) starts with the simplest of cases, a young man groping a girl in an overcrowded subway train. Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase) is accused of sexual harassment by a 15-year-old student; he's dragged off to the police station, where he's asked to just pay the fine. But he doesn't; he insists he is innocent, and that, from a very real and practical point of view, is his first big mistake.
It's amazing what a number, properly wielded, can do for a reputation. The Japanese legal system is proud of one particular number: 99.9 percent. That's the rate of guilty convictions they have won over the years, and it's an impressive figure any way you slice it--it implies that once a man is accused of a crime in Japan, 99.9 times out of a hundred there will be enough of a case, backed up by sufficient evidence, to prove that the defendant is guilty.
Akira Kurosawa showed us some of that ferocious law enforcer thoroughness in his crime drama High and Low (1963), when Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai, soft-spoken excellent as always) directs his army of detectives to catch a kidnapper and blackmailer. Kurosawa never does things by halves; the detectives throw themselves bodily into work--interviewing witnesses, examining super 8 film footage, visiting public phone booths from which the kidnapper may have peered up at his victim's house. Every sense is alert, every analytical technique primed for immediate implementation; Kurosawa so thoroughly ratchets up the tension in his search for the kidnapper that when someone looking out a window points out a damning plume of pink smoke--the only splash of color in this relentlessly black-and-white film--the moment feels electric, like a climactic release. The case has broken; the kidnapper (who has just burnt a crucial briefcase designed to emit the aforementioned colored smoke) will soon be arrested. At one point, Detective Tokura encourages his officers by saying they shouldn't settle for kidnapping when murder would be a better crime to pin on the man. It's an inspiring bit of motivational talk, only after watching Suo's film I can't help but feel that the remark has acquired a more sinister undertone.
Suo's would make an interesting companion piece to Kurosawa's thriller; both are procedurals, both record in excruciating depth of detail two opposing ends of the legal process--the former outlining the methods by which the police catch their quarry, the latter the methods by which the police and legal system draw, quarter, and hang the carcasses out to dry.
The process starts innocently enough: Teppei with some difficulty finds himself a defense lawyer in Arakawa (Koji Yakusho, the charming salaryman turned dancer in Suo's 1996 Shall We Dance?); Arakawa in turn educates Teppei on the intricacies of the system. Odd things start to happen: testimonies are altered, reports are either lost or declared nonexistent, specific questions are pointedly not asked. The judge is changed mid-trial, and the new judge is fond of denying the defense's line of questioning or declaring their evidence irrelevant in favor of the prosecution's.
At one point judge questions defendant. Suo shoots judge and Teppei head-on, then cuts between the two with increasing frequency as the judge proceeds to take Teppei's story apart. It's a marvelous (and blood-chillingly deft) performance, with the judge treating Teppei's testimony like a boiled crab--pulling the story open, using one detail as a pick to tease out every contradiction, every damning implication. By sequence's end Teppei looks angry and violated; the judge gazes down at him to give a polite smile (you can almost see the remains of his story, piled high and steaming, on a plate in front of him). The man has practically done the prosecutor's job for him, and Teppei looks that much closer to serving time.
Forget Rob Zombie; forget Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier--this is possibly the most harrowing film I've seen in recent years. Suo, who has always seemed satisfied to do crowd-pleasing (if skillfully made) comedies (the delightful Shiko funjatta (Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, 1992); the enchanting Shall we dansu? (Shall We Dance, 1996)), here applies his considerable comic skills to the dry, deadpan, and utterly persuasive depiction of the Japanese legal system's less salubrious side--turns out that 99.9% number doesn't mean all those people arrested are necessarily guilty, but that the entire system is geared and motivated and paid very well to maintain the 99.9% guilty rate. That means every one, from the arresting officers to the prison guards to the judges at the bench will suggest relentlessly but ever so politely to you to just cut out the bullshit and confess your crime.
What makes Suo's vision of hell (and it is in my book a veritable Hell on Earth) unique is how utterly neutral and unexciting it is. At moments of high drama he will bring the camera up close for emphasis, but those are the only times I've caught him doing anything overtly entertaining. Usually he seems content to simply state the facts, shooting defendant and the lawyers surrounding him full-on, under bright florescent lights, amidst modern plastic furniture. Teppei might well be an applicant for a job, or a new driver's license, or any number of activities and services that run on bureaucratic machinery. And yet Suo keeps us on tenterhooks; we wait with bated breath for the grindingly slow gears of the legal apparatus to turn, turn, turn, and we hope against hope that perhaps, maybe this time, Teppei just might be one of the lucky 0.1 percent of defendants who are, in the face of overwhelming evidence in support of his case, acquitted.
What gets me is that the system works, more or less; the Japanese people have not risen up in arms to protest the injustice inherent in their legal system, at least as suggested by this film. Someone once said that everyone gets the government they deserve, and apparently the Japanese feel this is basically the system they want, despite the occasional casualties; I don't see much sign of the status quo changing anytime soon.
Interesting to compare this to Filipino filmmaker Veronica Velasco's 2009 Last Supper No. 3. That film is also about a relatively minor offense blown up into a Sisyphean situation, with the defendant climbing an endless amount of stairs to face down an endless amount of paperwork, civil workers, court hearings. Velasco's film is more overtly comical and absurdist as befits the Filipino legal system, which is also overtly comic and absurd; Suo's film shows a system that makes all too much sense, a vastly efficient mechanism designed to grind down one's sense of innocence to a paltry 0.1 percent. Different hells for different people, I suppose.
I'd love to visit Japan again someday--it's a lovely country, as films and TV shows and my one visit years back suggest to me. But I would definitely think twice about the possibility of committing a crime--even by accident!--there.
First published in Businessworld, 7.2.10