The press want 15-year-old Saori Funamura dead in “Nobody to Watch Over Me,” a hard-to-swallow social critique delivered in the guise of a taut protective-custody thriller, in which a veteran cop shelters a teenage girl from paparazzi intent on punishing her for a family member’s crime. Selected as Japan’s Oscar foreign-language submission, this gripping genre exercise from Ryoichi Kimizuka, with its in-your-face theatrics (seemingly ready-made for Western remake), is quite the departure from last year’s winning entry. Though too tame in the execution, this material shouldn’t be hard to market abroad.
Of particular interest is the pic’s culturally specific premise — namely, the Japanese notion that any time a young person commits a crime, the blame extends to his or her entire family. Combine that philosophy with Tokyo’s voracious press corps, and the pressure can be too much for many parents, who frequently take their own lives in shame. An onscreen explanation at the pic’s outset spells out how police are often assigned to the families of the accused in order to prevent such suicides.
Respected Japanese thesp Koichi Sato plays Katsuura, a weary police detective days away from a much-needed family vacation when his boss calls him in to guard young Saori (Mirai Shida), whose 18-year-old brother is accused of killing two schoolgirls. The assignment seems frivolous to a man accustomed to handling dangerous criminals, and yet, upon arriving at the poor girl’s house, he immediately understands the urgency.
Outside, a throng of rabid reporters have convened to demand apologies from the family, while in the living room, lawyers have drawn up a quickie divorce to throw the press off the scent (effectively forcing the husband to take his wife’s name). Saori is understandably overwhelmed by the frenzy, and Katsuura does his best to protect her even as the girl’s behavior becomes increasingly difficult to manage — a dynamic that calls for high-energy car chases and face-to-face confrontations with persistent reporters.
These scenes make for exciting cinema, and Kimizuka shoots everything with restless handheld cameras, reflecting both the disorienting atmosphere of the situation and the peekaboo voyeurism that surrounds such cases. Before long, however, auds are sure to realize no physical threat to the characters really exists. The narrative might have taken a more interesting overall shape had Kimizuka not been bound by his specific agenda. Instead, everything seems reduced to the most simplistic terms: The journalists are presented as villains, more shrewd and resourceful than the film’s cops, and a rapidly edited frenzy of computer screens indicates a vast network of malicious bloggers working against Katsuura.
Perhaps the pic’s most effective trick is the repeated use of the song “You Were There” by the Libera boys choir, an angel-voiced plea for protection that cuts through the visual frenzy to lend resonance to Katsuura and Saori’s bond. Shida’s performance is one of the film’s strongest aspects, a fine match for the veteran Sato, though director Kimizuka insists on using devices like the Libera song and a telling hand tremor to convey nuances these two actors are clearly capable of rendering in subtler ways.