“Director’s jail” is Hollywood-ese for the limbo in which film directors find themselves after a flop or two. Movie reviewers have their own versions of this, though they tend to be more tolerant of their favorite directors than are Hollywood producers, whose own necks are on the line when a film tanks at the box office.
I sentenced Shunya Ito to my own director’s jail after he made “Pride” (1998), a feature-length paean to the “goodness” and “greatness” of Hideki Tojo, Japan’s wartime leader. The real-life fallout from the actions of Tojo and his government, including millions of dead Asians, was either air-brushed away — or justified.
But Ito also made three episodes of the “Sasori” women-in-prison series in the early 1970s that are rightly revered by fans of Japanese exploitation films. So I left open the option for parole.
His new crime thriller “Lost Crime — Senko (Lost Crime — Flash) is his first feature since “Pride.” The antiquity of some of its cop-on-a-mission tropes made me wonder at times what decade it was made in, but it’s also intense, propulsive and unapologetically hard-boiled.
At the same time, its two cop heroes are surprisingly emotional. They not only get teary-eyed — frequently before an explosion of righteous rage — but grieve, lament and otherwise show they have feeling hearts, and not just iron fists. The contrast with a film like Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage,” which is all macho posturing, could not be sharper.
The script is inspired by a 1968 incident in which a lone robber, posing as a motorcycle cop, stole ¥300 million from bank workers transporting a factory payroll.
This heist, the biggest in Japanese history, resulted in a massive police investigation, but no convictions.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||118 minutes|
|Opens||Opens July 3, 2010|
The story, however, starts with the discovery of a dead man in the Sumida River. The police form an investigative unit, including the soon-to-retire detective Takiguchi (Eiji Okuda) and the hot-blooded rookie Katagiri (Dai Watanabe).
When these two are paired and Takiguchi promptly launches his own investigation in blithe indifference to protocol, Katagiri is shocked. He gets another jolt when Takiguchi tells him the deceased was a suspect in the ¥300 million robbery. He shows Katagiri his own thick stack of files on the case, including photos of other suspects.
Not long after, a freelance journalist named Miyamoto (Shinji Takeda) warns Katagiri that he and Takiguchi are asking for trouble by pursuing the robbery angle. Police in the higher echelons, he says, want to let sleeping dogs lie.
He offers to form an alliance with them, while advising Katagiri to do something about his live-in girlfriend Taeko (Yukie Kawamura) before his enemies find out she was once a massage- parlor worker.
Seeing his budding career going up in smoke, Katagiri starts to panic. What, he asks Takiguchi later, is the real story behind the robbery case? Why is it still so radioactive four decades on?
The film’s true focus is not the puzzle, but rather the conflict between Katagiri and Takiguchi, who is as dogged and incorruptible as they come, and certain parties that fear institutional embarrassment if the truth comes out.
This kind of story is hardly new, but Eiji Okuda plays Takiguchi with a scruffy, weary-but-forceful authority, similar to many other outsider characters he has depicted over a long career. What would in other actors seem like schtick borrowed from Peter “Columbo” Falk are totally Okuda — or rather Okuda-as-Takiguchi.
When Takiguchi cries tears of grief over his dead wife, hugging a cushion she once used, there is no sense of an actor emoting. Instead there is a man in pain to his raw, wounded core.
This is not your usual grizzled-old-cop performance.
As his partner Katagiri, Dai Watanabe is a throw-back: boyishly handsome, but also punkishly rough around the edges, as though he’s knocked around and mixed it up a bit. Think a young Yujiro Ishihara — though Yu-chan would have never played a boyfriend to an ex-whore. Bunta Sugawara, in his Toei tough-guy years, may be a better comparison (minus the boyishly handsome part).
“Lost Crime” has bigger ambitions than the standard Japanese cop thriller. It not only tells the story of the rookie and veteran teaming up for the latter’s last big case, but also of a turbulent era whose impact, from its political violence to its crimes, is still felt today.
Born in 1936, Ito witnessed this era first hand, but his treatment of it and its aftermath is passing odd. How does the former fiery student radical played by Rina Katase end up as the proprietor of a ritzy hostess club, wearing dowager evening gowns and noodling away at classical music warhorses on a grand piano? No telling, really.
But Ito has also given us Okuda at his beatific best. Jailer, unlock that cell.