Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 17, 2007 6:59 pm 
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A 'Kafkaesque' experience with the Japanese court system

Starring Ryo Kase, the Japanese soldier boy of Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, this could be seen as a “defense procedural.” A young man going on job interviews gets his suit jacket caught in the door of a crowded Tokyo subway car and a 15-year-old girl accuses him of groping her under her skirt. He’s stopped, arrested, and charged with lewd conduct. At times I Just Didn’t Do It has all the subtlety and life of a high school instructional film. But as a courtroom drama it uses its painstaking thoroughness to construct a clear-cut indictment of the Japanese court system. The consensus seems to be that the system is efficient and most of the accused actually are guilty (how do we know that?). But the few who are innocent have a snowball’s chance in hell of being exonerated. It’s convictions that are valued, and only three in a hundred who plead innocent escape conviction. The police in this case have thrown together their case hastily because they can. The film focuses on the accused and his lawyers’ efforts during a series of ten public court sessions to put together something that will challenge the system and lead to the young defendant’s being cleared. They haven’t much to go on. Months later they finally locate a woman who had told the police the young man wasn’t guilty, and was only pulling at his caught jacket. But her testimony, so eagerly sought by the defense, hasn’t much effect.

At first Teppei (Kase) sees a public defender who (disillusioned, we learn later, by having just lost a case), councils him to plead guilty, pay a fine, and get on with his life. The cops also warn him that a trial will be prolonged and destructive and its outcome very dubious indeed. But Teppei is innocent and outraged and will hear nothing of this. So his mother goes looking for lawyers to defend him.

The procedures do seem “Kafkaesque,” as the film’s promotional literature suggests. When, half way through, a sympathetic judge is suddenly and arbitrarily replaced by an obviously mean one, the deck is so obviously stacked against the defendant that it’s hard to keep watching. Tappei has just been released to his family at that point, but it means nothing—only that the prosecution is done getting evidence against him, including a small handful of pornography from his apartment. It’s hard to say at some points which is more manipulative, the Japanese court system as described here, or Suo’s film.

Detail does build up effectively, however. Each cog in the system, from cellmates to cops to ex-girlfriend to sleazy sex-crime courtroom groupie, is clearly delineated and given his or her appropriate moment. The suspense is contrived, but it still works. What are we supposed to think? Maybe what matters is the response of the Japanese public. Some of I Just Didn’t Do It is universal. We know through recent DNA exonerations that a lot of innocents have been sent to death row in the US. But at times the film seems so specifically Japanese that it is remote to westerners. Masayuki Suo is known in this country for his 1996 film, Shall We Dance.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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