The Japanese legal system comes under intense scrutiny in I Just Didn’t Do It, writer/director Masayuki Suo’s follow-up to his popular 1996 film Shall We Dance?. This is not to say that Suo’s is a withering gaze; if anything, his reliance on slow zooms and tracking shots, constantly moving along more or less parallel lines, is revelatory of a more probing and generous eye.
The comparisons between I Just Didn’t Do It and Kafka feel all wrong because Suo isn’t out to lose his protagonist, Teppei Kaneko (Ryô Kase), among the surreal detritus of a corrupt bureaucracy. From the start, the film is more concerned with the shifting positions of power around Kaneko—no matter his placement in a given scene, Kaneko’s connection to (as opposed to his alienation from) other characters and narrative events is always strongly emphasized.
The brief vignette that opens I Just Didn’t Do It is Kaneko’s crisis in miniature: a Japanese businessman is arrested after feeling up a young schoolgirl on a crowded subway train. The businessman quickly admits to the crime and is let off with little more than a fine. Accused of similar misconduct, Kaneko protests his innocence, and so is incarcerated and interrogated for weeks on end. Suo follows the subsequent events—from the search for representation to the reading of the trial verdict—with a slow-build fidelity, introducing various peripheral characters such as Kaneko’s mother Toyoko (Masako Motai) and his head lawyer Arakawa (Kôji Yakusho) to counterbalance the central predicament. (Kaneko differs from Kafka’s Josef K. in the sense that he is but one part of this flawed mass organism, not mere slave to, nor victim of its whims and grotesqueries.)
The film’s best scene occurs midway through when Kaneko’s accuser has her day in court. Since she is young and reportedly traumatized by the experience, the girl is shielded from Kaneko by free-standing screens. At first she is only a soft-spoken voice, concealed from all but the judge and counselors’ vantage points. Though the dialogue is familiar to anyone with a knowledge of courtroom melodramas, the tension increases because of Suo’s masterful staging of the events (he cuts around the barriers rhythmically, and only reveals the girl to the camera when an attorney brings her a photo of Kaneko to identify). Such subtle visual aptitude, along with a wisely sparing use of incidental music, are what raises I Just Didn’t Do It above the level of procedural. It’s a tragic tale of a society at large, one so obsessed with the micromanagement and/or eradication of vague behaviors that it frequently loses its ability to mete out proper and considered justice. That the film’s actions are couched in a familiar and fascinating vein of Japanese politeness only makes its defiant closing passages (as much an appeal to a higher power as to a mortal one) that much more powerful.
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.