A propulsive business thriller about a high-level banking scandal, “Jubaku — Spellbound” has everything going for it except characters to root for. Well-tooled pic performed nicely on home turf but looks to be a tough sell in the West, where the genre is nothing new. Top-flight cast, led by Koji Yakusho and veteran Tatsuya Nakadai, turn in boilerplate perfs, and there’s something a bit mechanical about the enterprise that makes viewer involvement difficult.
Based on a novel by Ryo Takasugi, film received a high profile release in Japan last fall, and, though it was not a runaway success, it came in a respectable sixth in the year’s local top 10. Biggest surprise on the credits is the name of the director, Masato Harada, known for offbeat, indie-flavored entries such as the road movie “Kamikaze Taxi” and the schoolgirl-hooker item “Bounce Ko Gals.”
But as Harada showed in his little seen Canadian sculls movie, “Rowing Through,” he’s also capable of turning in glossy slices of entertainment when necessary, and in “Jubaku — Spellbound” (the second word is simply a translation of the first) he’s clearly done his homework on the genre. Pic has all the required elements: a tough female TV reporter (Mayumi Wakamura) through whose lens the scandal initially unfolds; a host of rapidly drawn, quirky executive types; a rapid-fire structure, with sections captioned and dated in procedural style; a hero (Yakusho) whose wife (Jun Fubuki) and child become involved in the story’s third act; and a venerable power-player (Kurosawa vet Nakadai) who just happens to be the hero’s father-in-law.
As staff members of the Tokyo Public Prosecutor’s Office march into (the fictional) Asahi Central Bank at the start, investigating illegal payments to a corporate racketeer, the movie does convey some of the real shock of their action — unparalleled in Japanese financial history. But as senior management closes ranks, and codes of loyalty form an impregnable wall, the PPO is forced to ally itself with a small group of middle managers, led by Kitano (Yakusho) and Katayama (Kippei Shiina), who are trying to convince the bank’s board to ‘fess up and resign.
The picture builds up an intriguing patchwork of tensions between the various groups: the PPO investigators, led by a terrifyingly stone-faced woman in horn-rimmed specs (Masako Motai); the moral crusaders in middle management, led by a nervous but convinced Kitano; the aging Napoleons in upper management, not used to having their authority questioned; and the media, after a good story more than truth or justice.
Aside from Kitano, however, who springs to life more through Yakusho’s slightly tousled perf than anything in the dialogue, it’s difficult to get involved in the characters’ crises or dilemmas. One besuited exec gradually blends into another, and even Nakadai’s stubborn bank president is carved out of familiar movie cliches rather than given a human face. Harada relentlessly pushes the action forward like a steam train, with driving music on the soundtrack, plenty of heavily textured lensing and light play a la Ridley Scott, and swaths of suits coming and going in trailer-style editing. It all looks great; but where’s the heart and soul behind such cataclysmic events?