I managed to see one of the two movies I wrote about in my other blog. In particular, I saw the first one. I didn’t get to see the second one because I had underdressed for the day and it was very chilly in the theatre. I was shivering and shivering so I decided to head home and get warmed up. Apparently the Princess Cinema’s heater doesn’t work so well. Duly noted.

Here’s the summary of the film as I reproduced it for The Japanese Learner:

A young man, Teppei Kaneko, has been accused of groping a woman on a crowded train in Tokyo.  He is arrested and forced to sign a false confession.  If he chooses to fight the charges, he will be held for three weeks just for the investigation. If he is prosecuted, the case will take up to a year in court. An indictment of Japan’s troublingly labyrinthine legal system, in which defendants are often coerced into signing confessions and criminal cases go on for years, this film was Japan’s official 2007 submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards.

The story itself is, as I expected, a social commentary on Japan’s criminal justice system. The film starts with a scene of an older salaryman getting caught red-handed groping on a different train. The victim manages to grab his hand by the wrist and holds onto him firmly, confirming his guilt for the audience. He is brought to the police station where he is very aggressively questioned and then has a large, clear adhesive strip placed over his hand. The police claim that with this they might find fibers from the victim’s underwear which would be decisive evidence. At this point the salaryman prostrates himself and begs for forgiveness.

At around the same time, in a different place, Teppei is shuffling through his rucksack looking for something. Not finding it and hearing the chime of the train doors about to close, he rushes to get onto the train and is pushed in by a station worker. His jacket becomes caught in the door and he tries to free it using his right hand; his left hand is carrying his rucksack. Partly by the sway of the train and partly by the person to his left, he’s pushed into a woman on his right, who gives him a dirty look. He apologizes to her and glances at his jacket to indicate what he’s trying to do. Later, just before the train doors open at his station, the meek voice of a school girl pleads “stop that.” After he has exited the train, she grabs onto his sleeve and accuses him of groping her. Another man corroborates the story as a station guard takes everyone to the office to discuss the matter and calls in the authorities.

Teppei denies the allegations quite strongly as the police attempt to coerce a confession out of him and he initally calls for the “public defender”, a lawyer who offers his services pro bono to clients who have never before needed a defense attorney. The lawyer very strongly suggests a plea bargain but Teppei refuses to confess to a crime that he didn’t commit, even if doing so would be easier in the short run.

“I Just Didn’t Do It” is one of the most subtly powerful films I’ve seen in a long time. The actor who plays Teppei does an excellent job of portraying the desperation and determination of a man fighting to prove his innocence. Even in scenes that might appear to be incidental, like being shuffled between one place and another for questioning, Teppei’s face shows an indignant expression. While the transitions are subtle, there is a great deal of emotional range in the character.

The film makes some interesting points about the legal system. During a cross-examination the defense asks a detective called as a witness if he has ever successfully obtained evidence of a groping crime by using the aforementioned large, clear adhesive tape. He admits that he has not, which is an implicit admission that the whole thing is just for show, another tactic to coerce confessions out of the not-necessarily-guilty.

The man who is shown begging for forgiveness at the beginning of the film is released within hours after agreeing to pay a summary fine, while Teppei engages in a legal battle that spans over a year with twelve public hearings. A couple of characters (including Teppei himself) comment on this point, that the real gropers are confessing, paying a summary fine, and going free again. Groping cases are presented as a critical weakness of the justice system, a peculiar scenario in which the innocent face (much) greater or equal punishment as the guilty.

And the last point that the film drives is that judges have some very good reasons to be very, very careful about every acquittal. If the state presses charges and the defendant is found to be innocent, this means that the prosecution (including the police) did not properly investigate the case and they would lose face. At one point during Teppei’s trial, the case is actually handed over to another judge. To push the point further, the new judge appears very agreeable to the prosecution; a few times when the defense raises an objection or asks for a piece of evidence, the prosecution claims that they don’t see why it’s necessary and the judge immediately agrees and denies the request (even when the request/objection seemed very reasonable).

If you’re interested in knowing how the trial ultimately turned out, I highly recommend you see the film. It is excellently executed, intelligent, and intensely engrossing.