Japanese murder mysteries, whether on the big or small screen, are typically puzzles, with the characters serving as pieces whose deaths mean little more than Col. Mustard’s in the board game Clue. The detective may be eccentric, hard-boiled or a combination of both, but he does not usually show emotion over an untimely demise — beyond an unshakable determination to find the perpetrator.
One glaring exception is “Rinjo: Gekijoban (The Last Answer),” a floridly melodramatic, if thematically original, mystery based on a popular TV Asahi drama in turn inspired by Hideo Yokoyama’s best-selling novel series. The hero is one Yoshio Kuraishi (Masaaki Uchino), a police coroner who, with his artfully tousled hair, stylishly casual duds and chiseled good looks, could have stepped out of a men’s fashion spread (though in reality he may have just rolled out of bed).
But this macho fantasy figure, who is as out of place in the black-suited, conformist Japanese police force as Lady Gaga at a Muslim Brotherhood rally, happens to be good at his job, especially at unearthing the causes of murder.
What truly sets Kuraishi apart, however, is his attitude. A grieving widower — his wife was murdered by a mad killer — Kuraishi sees his mission as not only finding justice for the dead, but, as he puts it, “listening to their voices.” That is, understanding their pain so he can calm their troubled spirits. He is, however, no Haley Joel “The Sixth Sense” Osment: He connects to the departed with his heart, not his psychic powers.
The plot gets rolling when Kuraishi is called in to investigate the closely spaced murders of a psychiatrist and a lawyer who helped a disturbed mass murderer (Tasuku Emoto) escape the noose. When Kuraishi shows that both killings were the work of one person, his superiors immediately suspect that a revenge-seeking survivor of the murderer’s victims did the deed, but Kuraishi is not so sure. Finding proof that the killer tampered with the bodies to fool the cops about their times of death, he tells his superiors no amateur could have pulled off such a ruse. But they are anxious to arrest a suspect — evidence be damned.
This story of an independently-thinking individual versus a close-minded organization is all too familiar from the “Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)” series and many other cop films and dramas. Also, most of the cast and staff on “Rinjo,” including director Hajime Hashimoto, worked on the TV Asahi series — and have made this feature as a big, climactic TV episode, packed with characters and shtick that fans of the show know and love, but that may puzzle newcomers.
Given that the police procedural is one genre that TV can do rather well — ask any diehard fan of “CSI” or “Law & Order” — this is not necessarily a slam; and “Rinjo” is stylistically one of the better local examples, with its rattling pace and air of gritty authenticity.
Playing its hero, Uchino exudes a shambling, skewed charisma as both a rebel impatient with organizational protocol and a loner set apart from the general run of humanity by his grief. Jeff Bridges (or rather a younger, buffer version) should play him in the Hollywood remake.
The supporting cast ranges from Yasunori Danda, slitheringly outstanding as a police commissioner who is Kuraishi’s oily, sneering nemesis, to Mayumi Wakamura, annoyingly hyper as a mourning mother out for payback. The biggest name is veteran Kyozo Nagatsuka, who plays Kuraishi’s professor mentor with a fine gentlemanly duplicity.
The ending, with its lengthy explanation of the over-stuffed plot and its predictably twisty last-minute heroics, is par for the local genre course, though Kuraishi never becomes just another cop closing a case. Instead he is a rumpled bodhisattva, longing to join his wife in whatever lies beyond, but lingering in this corrupt world out of compassion for both the unjustly dead and the oblivious living who know love’s joy, but not yet life’s terrible fragility.