“I Just Didn’t Do It” a brutal analysis of Japan’s judicial system

“This is not a comedy,” director Masayuki Suo warned the audience before the world premiere of his new film at the Japan Society in New York. “I Just Didn’t Do It,” his long-awaited follow-up to the 1996 feature “Shall We Dance,” is a very different kind of film from the light fare that Suo’s audiences are used to.

“I Just Didn’t Do It” is a tense courtroom drama based on an actual case that Suo read about in a newspaper article four years ago. This case involves the phenomenon of “groping,” where male passengers would molest female passengers on Japan’s extremely crowded commuter trains. According to Suo, this practice is “very popular” and a rampant problem. “It happens every day all over Japan,” Suo said. It is notoriously difficult to prove these cases, since there is usually no physical evidence.

Suo noted that about 10 years ago, there was a movement on the part of law enforcement to aggressively bring these cases in front of courts for convictions. However, since there was often no evidence, most cases were decided solely on the victims’ testimony. In the particular case that sparked Suo’s interest, the defendant was prosecuted and convicted, but after an extremely long process, the verdict was eventually reversed on appeal.

“I Just Didn’t Do It” is a stark, documentary-like, thorough analysis of the pitfalls and myriad flaws of Japan’s judicial apparatus. While riding the train, the central character, Teppei (Ryo Kase, from “Letters from Iwo Jima”), gets his jacket caught in the door, and after trying to free himself, is arrested at the next station, accused of molesting a 15-year-old girl. Teppei is then plunged into a Kafkaesque, nightmarish journey through Japan’s justice system, in which it is assumed from the beginning that he is guilty. Everyone attempts to cajole and threaten him into confessing to his nonexistent crime, which he resolutely refuses to do. As a result, he is systematically stripped of his freedom and dignity, forced to spend long periods in a jail cell, and dragged through a painfully slow and punitive trial process.

While researching the film, Suo learned firsthand what “groping” cases were really like, and he was rather shocked at what he learned. “I found that criminal case trials were rough and mishandled in many ways,” Suo said. Suo’s film exposes many problems of the Japanese trial system, from the coercive interrogation techniques of the police and the routine sloppiness of their investigations, to the courts’ eagerness to race through proceedings and achieve speedy convictions. The odds are overwhelmingly against anyone with the misfortune to get caught up in the court system; in groping cases, the acquittal rate is a mere 3 percent. In Suo’s words, the film that resulted from his intensive research “reflects my anger toward the results of the cases.”

The film is rather lengthy, about two and a half hours, but this serves to enhance the power of Suo’s depiction of the events and the drawn-out nature of the numerous hearings. Suo examines each facet and shows how defendants are quickly rushed through the system. Judges are promoted not by being fair, but by how many convictions they tally. Police and prosecutors employ tactics such as conveniently misplacing documents essential to the defense’s case. Teppei comes to learn, as related in his voiceover at the film’s conclusion, “A law court is not where truth is revealed.”

All of the actors are quite superb and appealingly natural in their performances. Kase’s riveting performance as the accused immediately wins our empathy for his pain and confusion. Koji Yakusho (“Shall We Dance,” “Cure,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”) as the senior attorney representing Teppei is typically fine, effectively conveying the mixture of passionate advocacy and world-weary pragmatism felt by a lawyer who’s seen it all. Asaka Seto’s initial revulsion and reluctance to represent her client, as well as her awakening to the power of the forces arrayed against them, is portrayed with remarkable complexity. Although she confessed to having “mixed feelings” about the subject matter when she first read the script, she changed her mind after going to courts and observing trials as part of her research. She said she “saw the issues that are facing us, and it was really real” to her.

“I Just Didn’t Do It” is a sobering and quite angry film that shows just how easily state power can overwhelm any notion of basic human rights and decency. Even a cursory look at current headlines shows that this situation is by no means peculiar to Japan; the experience of so-called “enemy combatants” in the U.S. greatly attests to this. Suo’s film as of this writing does not yet have an American distributor, but hopefully this will be rectified soon, since it is essential viewing not only for professionals interested in these issues, but for regular viewers who enjoy powerful, socially-committed cinema.

Note: You can purchase this film, listed as “Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai,” at Yesasia.com. Also, the film is scheduled to screen at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, which takes place Sept. 28-Oct. 14.