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Friday, Jan. 5, 2007

'Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai'

Portrait of a dodgy legal system


Like many other foreigners here, I have had my brushes with the Japanese justice system, from ID checks by cops wanting to practice their English to one memorable appearance on a witness stand. I have also seen it in action as a moviegoer, from prison comedies (Yoichi Sai's "Keimusho no Naka [Doing Time]" being the funniest) to courtroom dramas (Yoshi-mitsu Morita's "39 Keiho Dai Sanjukyujo [Keiho]" being the most mind-twisting).

Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai Rating: (4 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Ryo Kase in "Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai" (C) 2006-2007 FUJI TELEVISION ALTAMIRA PICTURES TOHO

Director: Masayuki Suo
Running time: 143 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Jan. 20, 2007
[See Japan Times movie listing]

One lesson that I have learned from these experiences and observations is that the Japanese are a law-abiding people for a very good reason -- once the system here has you in its grips you are well and truly in the meat grinder. True, safeguards exist for the accused, who are entitled to a defense lawyer, but the legal scales are tipped in favor of the police and prosecution, who want to save face by convicting as many "criminals" as possible -- and nearly always succeed.

Meanwhile, before and during their trials, prisoners and their supporters are reminded, through a thousand rules, exactly who has the power and who has been stripped of every particle of individuality and will.

Masayuki Suo's new drama "Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai (Even So, I Didn't Do It)" drives these and other points home with an unrivaled forcefulness. Suo's first film in a decade -- his last was the 1996 hit comedy "Shall We Dance?" -- it is carefully researched. At the same time, Suo hasn't forgotten to tell a story that anyone can understand, about an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation that starts as a brief, apparently innocent, encounter with an anonymous person, but becomes an all-consuming descent into a legal hell.

To those who think of Suo only as an entertainer this may seen like a radical departure. But he has long been an explorer of Japanese society's more obscure, uncool corners, while his unheroic heroes struggle against not just their own weaknesses but social prejudice in films like "Fancy Dance" (1989), "Shiko Funjatta" (1992) and "Shall We Dance?" (1996). "Soredemo" is along these lines as well, but with a new turn toward serious social commentary and advocacy. If a film can change Japan's legal system, this is the one -- but don't hold your breath.

Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase), the unemployed hero of "Soredemo," is arrested for molesting a 15-year-old girl on a crowded commuter train. But after he is taken to the station office for questioning, together with the girl and a portly male passenger who helped apprehend him, an embarrassed young woman appears at the office door, mutters "he didn't do it" -- and vanishes into the crowd.

The detectives investigating his case, however, have nothing but contempt for Teppei's protestations of innocence. Locked away in a detention cell with hardened criminals, he begins to realize the seriousness of his predicament, but he rejects the advice of the cops and his court-appointed attorney to confess. Why should he, when he did nothing but try to loosen his coattail, caught in the train door? Yes, he may have brushed against the girl, but his right hand was nowhere near her body. Yet she continues to insist that he groped her with it. Who is right?

Teppei finally finds two lawyers willing to defend him -- the shrewd veteran Masayoshi Arakawa (Koji Yakusho) and his smart-but-green junior partner, Riko Sudo (Asaka Seto). At first reluctant to defend an accused molester, Sudo is persuaded by Arakawa's observation that Teppei may well be the victim of a legal miscarriage. But even with these two behind him, Teppei's chances of winning acquittal in a court trial are slim -- about 0.1 percent.

The rest of the film follows the usual pattern of a courtroom drama, but with an unusual devotion to detail, so much so that "Soredemo" serves as an excellent introduction to Japanese court procedure. The approach is not without its dryness, as one hearing follows the next, through a dense haze of legalese. But Suo uses it to demonstrate, with quietly devastating thoroughness, the system's rigidities and contradictions.

Supposedly dedicated to uncovering the truth, Teppei's trial, we see, begins with a presumption of guilt. In other words, the defense must not only introduce an element of doubt, but must completely overturn the prosecution's case. Also, instead of wooing a jury with the emotional appeals of Hollywood, the defense must persuade a judge. The first one they draw seems sympathetic, but he is replaced midway by a hard-case type -- and the odds of acquittal suddenly look longer.

The cast includes familiar faces from other Suo films, including Koji Yakusho, Hiromasa Taguchi and Naoto Takenaka of "Shall We Dance?" fame. Ryo Kase, who also stars in Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima," is outstanding as the mild-mannered but stubbornly determined Teppei, who simply can't understand why he should confess to a crime he didn't commit. An unlikely legal hero, he is also totally credible when he delivers the title line. Until the Japanese justice system can come up with an answer that makes human, as well as legal, sense, all of us, natives and outlanders alike, are its potential victims.

See related stories:
'I Just Didn't Do It' questions court system



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