Features | Order in the Court: The Films of Masayuki Suo

By Scott Foundas

When a programmer from a prestigious fall film festival confided to me that he had passed on Masayuki Suo’s I Just Didn’t Do It sight unseen after a buyer in Cannes forewarned him that the movie was “too Japanese” to appeal to international audiences, I was hardly surprised. After all, by mid-way through Cannes, Variety, in an otherwise positive review that compared Suo’s courtroom drama favourably to Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), had already issued a similar verdict: “The minutiae of Japanese legalities and film’s length [143 minutes] will make commercial prospects an open-and-shut case.” Those words no doubt also landed a particularly stinging blow on the ears of one Harvey Weinstein, who had pumped a powerhouse $10 million North American gross out of Suo’s 1996 Shall We Dance? (albeit in a re-edited, Miramax-ized version). Yet, if one’s cognitive abilities are in full working order, it becomes immediately apparent upon seeing I Just Didn’t Do It that the film’s fetishistic attention to the policies and procedures of the Japanese court system is precisely what gives it an added layer of perverse fascination if you happen to be watching it through foreign eyes.

No Western equivalent of the movie’s central dilemma springs immediately to mind, unless you think of the O.J. Simpson trial and then imagine that the Juice had been arrested not for murder but rather ill-advisedly groping his ex-wife’s ass. In the opening scenes, we see 26-year-old Kaneko Teppei (Letters from Iwo Jima star Kase Ryo) pondering whether or not to board a crowded subway train. At the last moment, he does, squeezing so tightly into the cramped car that physicists in the audience may feel compelled to question the conventional wisdom that two pieces of matter cannot occupy the same space at the same time. It is then that the offending incident occurs, or doesn’t, for it is a scene filmed by Suo with all the deliberate obfuscation of the “murder” in Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) and the toilet bowl in The Conversation (1974). All we know for certain is that, at some point during the brief journey, a 15-year-old schoolgirl standing next to Teppei shoots him a disconcerting glance, he apologizes, and when they arrive at their mutual destination she accuses him of having molested her.

Teppei is promptly arrested and whisked off to a police station where we witness a detective systematically breaking down another man accused of a similar crime until the suspect volunteers his shameful confession. This is, we gather, all in a day’s work, and in a judicial system that boasts of a greater than 99% conviction rate, few dare to protest their innocence. But as the film’s title suggests, Teppei insists on doing just that, and with a skilled advocate (Yakusho Koji) at his side, he embarks on an Odyssean voyage towards hoped-for acquittal. What follows is Law & Order by way of Kafka: more conflicting testimonies than the Warren Commission; elaborate re-enactments staged not for the jury (as there isn’t one), but for an unwaveringly poker-faced judge; and a steadfast defendant (played brilliantly by Kase) gradually worn down by the system, like granite by water.

Did Teppei really manhandle the alleged victim, or was he merely attempting to dislodge his jacket from the subway doors? If he was, as he claims, en route to a job interview, why was he boarding the train at a station halfway in-between his home and his destination in the first place? And whatever became of the eyewitness who corroborated Teppei’s innocence at the scene but disappeared before police could question her? I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that most of those questions remain unanswered at the end of the film, and that if Suo answered them, I Just Didn’t Do It would be a great deal less compelling for it. Like Suo’s three previous feature films (not including the hour-long “pink” movie Abnormal Family, made in 1983), it is less about an outcome than a process, for Suo’s Japan is a series of microcosms—a monastery, a wrestling pit, a dance studio, a courtroom—that hold within them some larger truth about Japanese national identity. What little has been written about I Just Didn’t Do It thus far has concentrated on what sets it apart from Suo’s earlier work—that it is less broadly comedic, that it represents a slight detour from audience-pleasing commercial entertainment towards a kind of socially conscious realism. All of which, it must be said, is true, and yet in nearly all other respects it is an entirely characteristic work. Indeed, if one subscribes to Renoir’s immortal dictum that each director makes only one film, then Suo’s is the story of a rag-tag group of characters united behind a common goal, usually having to do with some totemic Japanese sport, custom or institution, the progress towards which inevitably involves significant amounts of embarrassment and humiliation.

Of course, the same could be said of the Police Academy series or any of those inspirational underdog stories in which unlikely iconoclasts manage to beat the system without actually joining it. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the log lines of Suo’s films read like Adam Sandler movies waiting to happen: A punk rock star must become a Buddhist monk in order to inherit his father’s temple (1989’s Fancy Dance); a preening college jock is blackmailed by a professor into joining the university’s deplorably bad sumo wrestling team (1992’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t); a reserved businessman moonlights as a ballroom dancer and ends up vying for a contest title (1996’s Shall We Dance?). But beneath those high-concept exteriors, these are all witty, revealing, and deeply nationalistic parables of life in a society predicated on conformity and submission, which helps to explain why, on the one occasion when Suo was remade in the US—the deplorable Richard Gere-J. Lo cover version of Shall We Dance? (2004)almost everything meaningful about the original film was lost in translation. How, after all, could one ever find an American context for the endemic shame Suo’s characters feel at daring to enjoy themselves, or their fear (in what might be considered a prequel of sorts to I Just Didn’t Do It) of potentially placing one’s hand improperly on one’s partner?

As if to prove that he was less interested in specific stories and characters than in social currents and the peril by which one swims against them, Suo’s first two features—Fancy Dance and Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t—told effectively the exact same story with nearly the exact same actors playing variations on the exact same roles. Both feature the boyishly handsome leading man Motoki Masahiro as a vain, overly cocky hedonist who is unwittingly thrown into an environment that thrives on rigorous self-discipline and punishment. In Fancy Dance, that means a gauntlet of floor scrubbings, toilet cleanings, sitting meditations, and nightly canings with a bamboo pole. In Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t, it’s the familiar regiment of training exercises and implacable coaches, all while suffering the physical embarrassment of the sumos’ diaper-like “mawashi” uniforms. In each case, Motoki’s character is surrounded by a group of equally ill-suited journeymen, including an overweight lummox (played both times by Taguchi Hiromasa) with zero self-confidence, and an androgynous younger brother (played in Fancy Dance by Ken Osawa and in Sumo by Takari Masaaki) who eventually becomes a pin-up of sorts for hordes of screaming teenage-girl fans. (Another important member of the Suo stock company, though permitted to play a slightly greater variety of roles, is the superb sad-sack Takenaka Naoto—a sort of Japanese Oscar Levant—who appears in Fancy Dance as a conniving elder monk, and in Sumo as a skilled competitor bedeviled by nerve-driven diarrhea.)

Both films—commercial hits for Suo at the domestic box office—are conceived in slapstick terms, with more than enough fat jokes, fart jokes, and humiliations in front of the fairer sex to go around. But like the late Itami Juzo (who Suo documented on the sets of A Taxing Woman and its sequel), Suo uses “low” comedy to proffer a subversive critique of Japanese society’s conformist façade, whether it’s giving us gaseous monks who frequent strip clubs and horde sweets in their spartan quarters, or a sumo championship bout hinged on a Yentl-like act of deception. Routinely, Suo’s characters must bend or break “the rules” in order to preserve the supposedly seamless integrity of the institution at hand. That is even true of Shall We Dance? in which it is only by arousing his wife’s suspicions of infidelity that the main character emerges with a stronger, healthier marriage. Yet, even when Suo’s films end with ostensible triumph over intimidating odds, we’re left to contemplate whether the characters have really managed to maintain their individuality, or if the system has ever so slightly recalibrated itself to absorb them into it. Thus Fancy Dance climaxes with Motoki’s character opting to stay on in the monastery past his minimum one year of service, while Sumo ends with a similarly uncharacteristic act of willful submission. And while there are no bamboo poles per se in I Just Didn’t Do It, it can be argued that, before the verdict is ever read, Teppei has had every ounce of fight beaten out of him.

In interviews, Suo is described as taciturn and shy, and from looking at his movies it could be said that he is the sort of director who disappears into his work. Abnormal Family is said to be a kind of homage to Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), and the influence of the old master looms large over Suo’s subsequent films too. Fancy Dance is shot full-frame, with tatami-mat angles and a reticence towards moving the camera—or moving outside of the monastery—except when absolutely necessary. Sumo, Shall We Dance?, and I Just Didn’t Do It similarly favour fixed frames and locations, in the last case turning a familiar courtroom set into a kind of absurdist crucible, wherein the walls seem to be slowly encroaching on Teppei with each successive hearing. Some reports to the contrary, Suo’s latest is often sly and funny, but in a subtler, more under-the-skin way than its predecessors. Yet there’s no mistaking Teppei’s impassioned intoning of the title line for anything other than a soul-shattering cry for help—a signal flare shot up over a lonely sea. Where does an enterprising subversive like Suo turn his attention next? The Yakuza, dare I suggest?

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