Once a maker of Hollywood-style sci-fi (“Gunhed,” 1989) and noir (“Painted Desert,” 1993), Masato Harada has become a director of films about fact-based, character-testing group missions, be it police routing radicals from a Karuizawa villa (“The Choice of Hercules,” 2002) or samurai fighting the biggest battle in Japanese history (“Sekigahara,” 2017).

These films are fast-paced, densely plotted odes to the Japanese organization man (and, peripherally, woman), with everyone from the rank-and-filers to the leaders being dedicated, tough-minded pros. The lazy, paper-shuffling salaryman of comedy (and reality) is nowhere in sight.

Based on Shusuke Shizukui’s best-selling novel, Harada’s “Killing for the Prosecution” is the latest in this jut-jawed, high-tension line. Its Tokyo public prosecutors and cops are hard-shell types supremely good at what they do (if constantly butting heads while they do it). The best of the best is Takeshi Mogami (Takuya Kimura), a veteran prosecutor who is a hero to his juniors, including the baby-faced, idealistic Keiichiro Okino (Kazunari Ninomiya).

Killing for the Prosecution (Kensatsugawa no Zainin)
Run Time 123 mins.
Opens AUG. 24

The film begins as a standard crime procedural. An elderly couple is knifed to death. The husband was a regular at the race track who loaned large sums to gambling buddies. Suspicion falls on one of them, Shigeo Matsukura (Yoshi Sakou). Lanky, wild-haired and neurotically jittery, Matsukura was a prime suspect in the murder of a teenage girl 23 years earlier, but the statute of limitations expired before prosecutors could bring him to trial. Mogami gives Okino the unenviable task of extracting a confession from Matsukura, who loudly protests his innocence.

Then we learn that Mogami had a personal connection to the dead girl, making his pursuit of Matsukura less like a crusade in the cause of justice, more like a cooked-up vendetta. To muddy the waters further, another more likely suspect in the murder of the couple appears. Will Mogami do the legally correct thing and set Matsukura free — or illegally extract his revenge?

Harada, who also wrote the script, makes high moral drama from this question, as well as an overwrought thriller with about as much real-life credibility as a “Mission: Impossible” episode. Meanwhile, he stirs in distracting subplots, including the undercover investigation of an intrepid woman reporter (Yuriko Yoshitaka) posing as a prosecutor, and Mogami’s behind-the-scenes efforts to help a former college friend (Takehiro Hira), now a rising politician in the grip of a scandal.

This heavy information load is typical for Harada: He is not one for pauses to observe the scenery; instead his characters deliver reams of background information at a brisk and, at times, overwhelming clip. Meanwhile, the sort of subtle character strokes found in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s similarly themed “The Third Murder” (2017) are thin on the ground. And under-developed plot threads lead to over-art-directed scenes that seem to belong in another movie, such as a lavish funeral featuring bizarrely made-up and costumed female dancers who resemble sinister angels of death.

But Mogami and Okino also wrestle stubbornly with knotty quandaries that admit of no easy solutions. By breaking the rules you can get righteous payback, but is it truly justice? And in freeing a killer you may be following the letter of the law, but can you live with yourself? No wonder that, in this extremely talky movie, the most eloquent line is a primal scream.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.