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Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003

Putting the death penalty on trial

13 Kaidan

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Masahiko Nagasawa
Running time: 126 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Feb. 8

The death penalty has become a hot topic again, particularly in the United States, where DNA testing has freed dozens of death-row prisoners in recent years -- and called the entire system into question. In Japan the reaction to all this furor has been muted. One reason is that relatively few executions are conducted here -- only two in 2001. Another is the secrecy shrouding the death penalty, with executions announced only after the fact, even to the condemned prisoners' relatives.

News photo
Tsutomu Yamazaki and Takeshi Sorimachi in "13 Kaidan"

Nonetheless, Japanese audiences have flocked to Hollywood films with death-penalty themes, such as "Dead Man Walking" and "The Green Mile." Local producers have taken note -- and now we have "13 Kaidan (13 Steps)," which tells the story of two men who try to clear the name of a death-row prisoner, while wrestling with demons from their own pasts. Directed by Masahiko Nagasawa ("Koko ni Iru Koto," "Seoul") and based on an award-winning novel by Kazuaki Takano, "13 Kaidan" has the same mass-audience ambitions as its Hollywood models.

Its cast is headed by Takashi Sorimachi, the star of such hit TV dramas as "Beach Boys," "GTO" and "Doubles Score," and Tsutomu Yamazaki, a veteran who worked with Akira Kurosawa ("Tengoku to Jigoku") and Juzo Itami ("Ososhiki") -- but is better known to the younger generation for a popular series of beer commercials.

Japanese "problem" films tend toward the melodramatic -- and "13 Kaidan" is no exception. The big rage, revelation and reconciliation scenes pull out all the expected stops, as the music swells. Where the film differs from others of its ilk is its commendable -- and chilling -- insistence on realism. It leads us through every step of the execution process, from the last meal to the fatal drop, with an unblinking straightforwardness. It also clears away at least one myth -- that the condemned man must climb 13 steps to the scaffold. Instead, after he says his last words and is manacled and blindfolded, a folding screen is drawn back, revealing the rope. He is escorted a few paces, the rope is tightened around his neck and, at a signal, three warders press buttons to release the trap door -- with only one actually doing the job.

The whole process is designed to minimize trauma, for both the executed and the executioners. It is not, as the film shows, as successful in dealing with the inevitable failures of human judgment -- and changes in the human heart. In its own way, "13 Kaidan" is as eloquent a plea for a review of the death penalty as its Hollywood predecessors. But where they centered on the condemned prisoners and those around them, "13 Kaidan" devolves into a murder mystery, with the focus on the two principal investigators.

These are Jun'ichi Mikami (Sorimachi), a paroled prisoner with four months left on his sentence for manslaughter, and Masaji Nanjo (Yamazaki), a prison officer who is in charge of Jun'ichi's case. They have been approached by a lawyer (Tsurube Shofukutei) for a mysterious client with a request to investigate the case of a death-row prisoner named Kihara (Kankuro Kudo). There is a reward of 10 million yen each if they are successful.

While a paroled convict living in a quiet seaside town, Kihara was found unconscious after a motorbike accident -- and a couple serving as his parole officers were found dead in their nearby home. Accused of killing them and making his getaway, Kihara had no memory of the hours preceding the accident -- and thus no way of explaining his whereabouts at the time of the murder. Even so, he was sentenced to death and, after three years on death row, is nearing his execution date.

Nanjo and Jun'ichi have only three months to find the evidence that will exonerate him. It seems hopeless, until Kihara suddenly recalls climbing steps on the day of the murder. What, the investigators wonder, does he mean by "steps."

While scouring the countryside for these and other clues, Nanjo and Jun'ichi get to know each other -- and confront their own dark sides. Jun'ichi, a former resident of the town, goes to apologize to the father (Hisashi Igawa) of the man he accidentally killed in a fight at a disco. But though three years have passed, the father is still consumed with a rage that Jun'ichi cannot assuage.

Discouraged and doubting his own motives, Jun'ichi is about to resign from the case when Nanjo confesses that he is also a killer. Thirteen years before, he had sprung the fatal trap door on a prisoner (Hiroyuki Miyasako) who had converted to Christianity and thoroughly repented of his crime. Since then Nanjo has been wrestling with his conscience. Realizing that the investigation is the older man's act of expiation, Jun'ichi reconsiders -- and sees that, like Nanjo, he is working for something more than the reward.

After hitting one brick wall after another, the pair discover that the couple died with 100 million yen to their names. How did they accumulate this fortune on parole officers' salaries -- unless they somehow raised it from their richer parolees? Nanjo and Jun'ichi decide to follow the money.

Yamazaki and Sorimachi work surprisingly well together as two leads. Given Sorimachi's trendy drama resume, I was expecting the usual TV histrionics, but this former heartthrob gives a performance weighted with memory and regret. Yamazaki, who has committed cinematic excesses of his own, is also restrained as Nanjo, but his natural vitality compensates for and complements Sorimachi's inwardness. Unlike the heroes of many buddy movies, who sharply and comically contrast, their characters connect through a shared sensibility. Think the guards of "The Green Mile" -- but jumping through more plot hoops, with Sorimachi as the Japanese Tom Hanks.

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