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Monday, February 22, 2010


PIFF 2010 website

Nobody to Watch Over Me (Japan; dir. Ryoichi Kimizuka)

Ryôichi Kimizuka's film Nobody to Watch Over Me starts with a fascinating cultural premise. In Japan, when someone has committed a terrible crime, their family is often considered as responsible for it as the perpetrator, and police officers are regularly assigned to watch the grieving relatives to keep them from committing suicide as a result of the shame.

Saori's life is turned upside down when her brother is arrested for killing two elementary school girls. The teenager, played by Mirai Shida, suddenly finds herself the subject of media scrutiny, and she is assigned a bodyguard, Detective Takumi Katsuura (Kôichi Satô), to keep her out of harm's way until she can tell police what happened. Saori may have been the only one to see her brother on the day the deed was done.

Things grow more complicated, though, when facts about Katsuura's past come to light. Three years ago, while trailing a drug addict, the tweaker stabbed a four-year-old boy. A reporter with an axe to grind paints Katsuura as indicative of a police force that cares more for the criminals than it does their victims. Katsuura has had the shakes ever since, blaming himself despite faulty procedure being the true culprit, and the psychological fallout has nearly destroyed his family. Protecting Saori may prevent him from taking advantage of the last chance he has to save his marriage, and the girl resents him for being there anyway.

The idea that a family would be held accountable for what one member has done is fascinating, and it's pretty easy to sympathize with poor Saori. Kimizuka and co-writer Satoshi Suzuki are offering a new twist on the old plot of one lone cop protecting one innocent witness, plugging the detective and a girl into a system that quickly overtakes both of them. Governmental policies, a ravenous media, and an angry public quickly dismantle any chance at escape they have. Each step of the way, there are new obstacles, and when internet gawkers get involved, the situation grows even more dangerous. Though most of the dramatic tension is more interpersonal than violent, we do get a pretty exciting car chase (with heartthrob Ryuhei Matsuda at the wheel) and Katsuura literally shows how far he'll go to shield his subject by taking a beating for her. The parallels to his old case are impossible to avoid, and in helping the girl come to grips with what has happened to her, he has to face up to what happened to him.

Kimizuka and cameraman Naoki Kayano shot Nobody to Watch Over Me in a slick, pseudo-documentary style. It has the kind of loose and sometimes shaky camerawork you might see on a show like Homicide: Life on the Street, but lit with neon. The acting is largely low-key enough to match. Satô and Matsuda indulge in a little buddy-cop banter, but when Satô is alone with Mirai Shida, he dials it down. Both offer poignant performances, even though Satô's shaky hand at times looks like he is literally at war with the material's inherent melodrama. It's one of a few aspects that are overplayed, and Nobody to Watch Over Me could have benefitted from a more cynical editor. Its overwrought theme song and the hyper graphics of the internet mobilization are jarring in what is otherwise a pretty down-to-earth film. The ending is also a little too conveniently tied together, but not necessarily out of line with more typical films of this kind.

Nobody to Watch Over Me asks us to stop and think about responsibility. Who is to blame for bad acts? What kind of atonement is really satisfying? Most of all, do our reactions make us any better or worse than what we are reacting against? Despite its minor flaws, Nobody to Watch Over Me is effective in this because it is also effective as drama. It was Japan's official entry into the Oscar pool this year, and though it's not even close to the best foeign film of the year, it's certainly better than last year's winner, Departures, and it's too bad that it's probably not going to get the same amount of attention.

Nobody to Watch Over Me plays on 2/24 and 2/27.

Current Soundtrack: Pulp, "Forever in My Dreams;" various artists, Dream Babes, vol. 1: Am I Dreaming?

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All text (c) 2010 Jamie S. Rich

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