‘Don’t you understand what is to have a child taken from you? How could you be a policeman and not understand that?”

That’s a line from “Rokuyon” (“Six Four”) the latest addition to Japan’s host of films about kidnapping. “Six Four” is distinctive in the thriller subgenre, however, in that it had a budget to create a feature more than four hours long, which the distributors (Toho Cinema) have decided to break up into two parts. Part 1 opens this weekend, while Part 2 opens on June 11.

Written and directed by Toshihisa Zeze, “Six Four” is a faithful adaptation of novelist Hideo Yokoyama’s bestselling mystery, which was dramatized by NHK last year, which is why splitting the narrative into two parts may not be a ploy to keep viewers on tenterhooks for a month.

“My bet is that they wanted to squeeze every bit of juice from the cast, and to do that they needed much more time than the usual 90 minutes,” says freelance movie journalist Hiroki Mizusawa in a phone interview with The Japan Times. “Almost everyone worth watching in Japanese cinema is in it; there’s quite a crowd in there.”

The lineup of stars butting heads for screen time is considerable. There are 14 in the main cast, including Koichi Sato, Nana Eikura, Go Ayano, Eita, Tomokazu Miura and Masatoshi Nagase, all big names in TV and cinema. There were rumors that actors were chosen mostly for their ages — older, rather than younger — perhaps to generate what’s known in the Japanese media as the “Showa ambience,” a nostalgic atmosphere that references the Showa Era (1926-1989). The movie is, indeed, as much an ode to the era as it is a crime thriller. The case — a kidnapping of a young girl — occurs during the last week of Showa, between Jan 1 and 7 of 1989, which according to the Japanese calendar years was Showa 64 (hence the title).

At the end of that week Emperor Hirohito passed away, and with accession of Akihito Heisei began (we are now in the year Heisei 28), and one of the themes focused on by director Zeze is how completely different the two eras are. Showa is portrayed as gritty and redolent of Japan’s postwar adjustments and hardships. During the late ’80s, though Japan was in the heyday of its bubble economy, income inequality and poverty were still prevalent in many more rural prefectures outside Tokyo.

Heisei, in contrast, is marked by prosperity and defined by convenience and technology. The story glides back and forth between two times: Showa 64, when the girl was kidnapped for ransom, and Heisei 14 (2002), one year before the crime’s statute of limitations period ends.

Zeze never lets you forget the past, with lines like “We’ve got to drag the kidnapper back to the Showa Era’ and “Don’t you realize that the victim’s family is still stuck in Showa?”

Aside from appealing to certain generations, however, “Six Four” is an intriguing, though fictional, study of Japanese police and media politics when it comes to kidnapping cases. In the film it has been 14 years since the kidnapping, but the chief of PR for the National Police Agency, Mikami (Sato) is still haunted by the case and is pressured by the press to solve it before the killer escapes beyond the reach of the law. The upper echelons in the chain of command, however, have different views and Mikami is warned not to give the press any information — even if doing so would mean getting closer to finding the killer.

The original novel devotes a lot of ink to the process of police cover ups and possible conspiracy. Yokoyama used to be a reporter for a Gunma newspaper, and the fiction of “Six Four” is loosely based on an actual crime that occurred there in 1987, when a 5-year-old boy was kidnapped and held for ransom. The police set up a phone-trace at the boy’s home but inexplicably pulled out of the operation within a week. The boy was found dead, the perpetrator never caught and the whole incident is cited as Japan’s sole, unresolved kidnapping case since 1945.

Rumors of a possible police connection to that kidnapping were never suppressed, since in the last conversation the boy had with his father, he cheerfully said that he would be “going home soon, with a policeman.” In the movie, the father (Nagase) falls apart when his daughter is found dead, and he remains deeply suspicious of the police.

“Six Four” is bleak but falls short of duplicating the inherent shabbiness and stoic desperation of the late ’80s. And despite putting on their best Showa ambience, the cast appears too polished and wealthy, with the exception of Nagase, who delivers a powerful performance as a man who refuses to move on, held prisoner in the past by his own grief.

Movies about kidnapping have proven popular in Japan ever since Akira Kurosawa’s “Tengoku to Jigoku” (“High and Low”) was released in 1963. There have been many solid titles, most notably “Yukai Hodo (“To Trap a Kidnapper”) in 1982 and “Daiyukai (“Rainbow Kids”) in 1991. Kurosawa’s film, however, remains the gold standard, particularly because he told the press that he had been compelled to make the film as a way to protest the incredibly light prison sentences for kidnappers of minors (back then a sentence would be from 3 months to a maximum of 5 years). Cases of children being held for ransom soared in Tokyo after “High and Low” opened, and the government eventually changed the law. Kidnappers of minors now face considerably longer sentences, and according to the white paper on crime, 97 percent of the perpetrators are arrested.

Even if visually “Six Four” doesn’t convincingly portray the late ’80s, it does serve as a reminder that at that time and in the early 2000s there was a real need for change. In 2010, the statute of limitations for murder was abolished, and though it still exists for some cases of kidnapping (up to 30 years), if the victim is found dead, it no longer applied. Now, kidnappers that hold minors for ransom will face 20 years to a lifetime in prison, depending on the circumstances.

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