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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005

Shaking it up with the cops

Yogisha Muroi Shinji

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Ryoichi Kimizuka
Running time: 117 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Aug. 27
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The two "Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)" films and their two spinoffs, "Koshonin Mashita Masayoshi (Negotiator -- Mashita Masayoshi)" and "Yogisha Muroi Shinji (The Suspect -- Muroi Shinji)," might be called the Japanese film industry's answer to "Star Wars."

News photo
Sho Aikawa (center left) and Toshiro Yanagiba (center right) in "Yogisha Muroi Shinji" (c) 2005 FUJI TELEVISION ROBOT TOHO SKYPER! WT

The first three not only generated stratospheric box-office success -- raking in 17.35 billion, yen "OD2" is the most successful live-action Japanese film ever made -- but unfolded the sort of heavily populated, intricately detailed fictional worlds that otaku love to parse. All that's missing are the conventions with attendees dressed like the films' characters (though fans can buy oodles of "OD" gear, including replicas of the rumpled trench coat worn by Yuji Oda's detective hero, Aoshima).

Like the previous three installments, "Yogisha" is set in contemporary Tokyo, and is produced by Fuji TV, which made the 1997 TV series on which the "OD" films and their spinoffs are based. It also brings back familiar characters, though the most familiar, Aoshima, is conspicuous by his absence.

More than the previous films, however, "Yogisha" delves deeper into the inner workings of Japan's police bureaucracy, from the turf battles between the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and National Police Agency (NPA) to the Byzantine rules and procedures that, in the right legal hands, can make the search for justice resemble the wait for Godot.

This sort of complexity is seldom found in Hollywood cop dramas, which prefer on-the-street action to behind-closed-doors intrigue. The hero is Shinji Muroi (Toshiro Yanagiba), who also goes against the Hollywood genre grain. An MPD chief investigator, Muroi dresses in a standard-issue white shirt and black suit, is rarely seen with a slicked hair out of place and clenches his jaw far more often than he cracks a smile. He is a stoic, a stiff, an organization man to the bone.

One comparison is Jack Webb's Joe Friday on the "Dragnet" show, in both its early 1950s and mid-1960s incarnations. A classic American straight-arrow and man's man, LAPD detective Friday had little use for the Lala Land weirdos and degenerates he encountered in every episode, breaking down their alibis with a monotone rat-a-tat-tat of questions. The L.A. cops loved the show and the die-hard conservative Webb, giving "Dragnet" their full cooperation.

Friday, however, never found himself in Muroi's situation at the start of the film -- arrested for conspiring to use excessive force against a suspect in a murder case. The suspect, a young policemen, died trying to escape from his fellow cops, after being taken in for questioning regarding a fatal street stabbing. Sound complicated already?

Muroi, it turns out, is a pawn in a power struggle between elite bureaucrats in the MPD and NPA, with a top aide to the NPA minister, Shinjo (Toshio Kakei), pressuring him to drop the investigation. Also arrayed against him are the sharks of the Haijima Law Office, who are representing the mother of the deceased officer, but have their own murky agenda, and Kubozono (Shiro Sano), the affectless-but-relentless prosecutor who busted Muroi -- and who is determined to hold him to the letter of the law, no matter what the damage to Muroi's own investigation.

Muroi's lawyer, meanwhile, is a young woman named Obara (Rena Tanaka) who has never handled a case like this before -- and is left to her own devices by her grizzled boss (Akira Emoto). Muroi seems doomed and decides to resign.

He has allies, though, including non-elite cops, lead by fiery detective Kudo (Sho Aikawa), who feel that, if the police bureaucrats and lawyers want to quash the investigation, there must be something to it. When Muroi has a change of heart and charges back into the fray, they are there for him.

Much as in the previous series' films, solving the mystery becomes less important than winning the organizational battle. Muroi is not the good guy because he finds the real killer, but because he stands up for the beat cops who do the dirty work, even though he makes bureaucratic enemies who can end his brilliant career.

Director and scriptwriter Ryoichi Kimizuka has been involved with the series since its televised start and, together with uber-producer Chihiro Kameyama, has been instrumental in creating its world.

Though his directorial touch is heavier than that of Katsuyuki Motohiro, who helmed the first three "OD" films, Kimizuka knows this world inside out and makes the sharpest critique yet of its various corruptions.

At the same time, he glorifies Muroi and his various plain-folks allies to the point of caricature, while simplifying their struggle to the point of absurdity. The culmination is a big showdown scene in an abandoned church, with all the main players present, that resembles Jimmy Stewart's final peroration in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and is equally incredible.

Nonetheless, I felt a sneaking admiration for Muroi, played with pursed-lipped exactitude by Toshiro Yanagiba, just as I once did for Joe Friday, even though Joe was the sworn enemy of every long-hair on the planet, myself included.

Both are stand-up guys in a sit-down world, who do the right thing the right way, less by the book than by their own steady lights. Also, both are doggedly uncool, which makes them endearing, like the last living speakers of a dying language.

Will they and their kind ever go extinct? Somehow I doubt it. White shirts are forever.

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