Director Masahiko Nagasawa adds his voice to the increasingly popular sub-genre of Japanese thrillers with "The Thirteen Steps," an often stylish -- but more often confusing -- entry.

Director Masahiko Nagasawa adds his voice to the increasingly popular sub-genre of Japanese thrillers with “The Thirteen Steps,” an often stylish — but more often confusing — entry. Pic may find a small arthouse following among Asian film devotees not concerned with plot coherence, but even its appeal to this largely youthful group will be compromised by the embarrassingly sentimental conclusion.

Film starts with a gallows’-eye view of an execution. As a voiceover presents some fairly standard notions about rehabilitation vs. capital punishment, we meet protagonist Nango (veteran star Tsutomu Yamazaki, best known in the U.S. as the lead in Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo”), a longtime prison guard at the Tokyo Detention Center. Nango is taking a working vacation, moonlighting as an investigator for attorney Sugiura (Tsurubei Shofukutei), hired by an unnamed client to dig up evidence exculpating condemned killer Toru Kihara (Kankuro Kudo). In a flashback, we see the story of Toru’s arrest 10 year’s earlier: he is found in an amnesiac daze after a car accident suspiciously close to the locale of a double murder. He also has a rap sheet as a thief.

Again in the present, Toru has remembered one additional image from immediately before the crash — a flight of 13 steps. This one detail has convinced someone to pay to reopen the investigation, even as the clock ticks closer to the date of his execution.

Nango insists on bringing along an assistant — Junichi Mikami (pop star Takashi Sorimachi), himself just released on parole after (accidentally?) killing another young man. We see his crime in yet another flashback, which is when things start to get confusing. Nango feels Junichi is basically a good kid and that working to save Toru’s life may help Junichi atone.

In what is initially presented as a curious coincidence, the investigation is centered in the same region where the family of Junichi’s victim lives. And Nango is shocked and dismayed when he learns his assistant, whom he has taken responsibility for, was in the vicinity at the time of the very murder they are investigating. It’s not so much Nagasawa’s use of flashbacks that confuses things, but rather some inconsistencies and contradictions that are hard to reconcile when, at the end, one tries to put together who knew what about who did what to whom. (Another problem: a piece of sophisticated laser imaging equipment that belongs to one character mysteriously and crucially turns up in the hands of another character without any explanation.)

This confusion may partly be the result of the film holding back a huge amount of backstory until the main narrative is essentially over. In what might well be the biggest serving of delayed exposition since the third act of Billy Wilder’s “Fedora,” we get a 10-minute flashback that finally explains all sorts of stuff that at least should have been hinted at earlier. This is followed by the implausible awakening of a comatose character, presented with a crescendo of melodramatic music, in a scene nauseatingly sugary even by the most mawkish Hollywood standards; among thriller fans, it is likely to provoke catcalls and laughter.

Technically, the film is nicely mounted, with snappy editing and a good use of unfamiliar Japanese locations. Sorimachi — receiving top billing despite a role smaller and less central than Yamazaki’s — gives an inexpressive performance, pouting and moping without variation. It is up to the always charismatic Yamazaki to carry the drama, and unsurprisingly he does so without breaking a sweat; his reliable talents– hewn over 40 years in pics from Kurosawa’s “High and Low” to Takashi Miike’s “The Guys From Paradise” — are almost enough to glide us past the film’s other weaknesses.

The Thirteen Steps

Japan

Production

A Pony Canyon release of a Fuji Television/Toho/Pony Canyon/Imagica production. (International sales: Pony Canyon, Tokyo.) Produced by Masaru Kakutani. Executive producer, Masaki Miyauchi. Directed by Masahiko Nagasawa. Screenplay, Tadashi Morishita, based on the novel by Kazuaki Takano.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Junichi Fujisawa; editor, Shuichi Kakesu; music, Nick Wood; art director, Fumio Ogawa; sound, Osamu Takizawa; associate producer, Hisao Masuda. Reviewed at USA Networks Screening Room, W. Hollywood, Jan. 13, 2003. (In Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema.) Running time: 122 MIN.

With

Junichi Mikami - Takashi Sorimachi Shoji Nango - Tsutomu Yamazaki Toru Kihara - Kankuro Kudo Sugiura - Tsurubei Shofukutei
With: Rena Tanaka, Ren Osugi, Tetsuya Bessho, Hisashi Igawa, Susumu Terashima, Renji Ishibashi, Yoichi Sai, Akiko Kiuchi, Shuji Otaki.
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