When you’re in Japan, resist any urge to break the law. Seriously. 99.9% of cases that go to trial, the engrossing, excruciating "I Just Didn’t Do It" informs us, end in a conviction. The country’s legal system is heavily focused on pleading guilty; ‘fess up and you’ll get off relatively lightly for trespasses like groping someone on a crowded train. Insist on your innocence, and you’re headed for a labyrinthine court procedure in which you scarcely stand a chance. That’s what happens to Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase), a droopy 26-year-old accused of getting handsy with a schoolgirl on his way to a job interview. Before he can quite comprehend what’s happening, he’s whisked away to a holding room in the train station and then to jail, where it takes a fellow inmate to inform him that he has the right to a lawyer (who suggests he cop a plea) and a phone call. From there unfolds a nightmare of unreasonable interrogations and hearings and months of imprisonment.
This is much heavier stuff than can be found in the last film from director Masayuki Suo, 1996’s cutesy, popular heart-warmer "Shall We Dance?" The two films do share an equable appraisal of Japan’s societal problems, which in "I Just Didn’t Do It" mostly come through in the instant, uncharitable assumptions different characters make about Teppei, a freeter drifting through life without much direction or prospects for employment. Suo’s critique of the Japanese legal system is devastating, though he refuses to single out any one group for blame. Judges are overworked and subject to impossible standards, lawyers must fight a hopeless fight, and there are plenty of victims deserving of justice â€” the schoolgirl making the accusation, for one, had been molested before on trains and likely was on the occasion she implicated Teppei, having simply been mistaken about who her attacker was. These facts don’t lessen the film’s solid sense of outrage, which ends up being, at 143 minutes long, a little exhausting. Suo wants change, and "I Just Didn’t Do It" can delve into the didactic, particularly during expository dinners with the lawyers Teppei’s mother finds for him, the studious Sudo (Asaka Seto) and saintly Arakawa (Koji Yakusho). Still, it’s a fascinating, provoking glimpse into a Kafkaesque system we were complete unaware of. Our blood boiled, and for once, a jury of our peers seemed appealing.
"I Just Didn’t Do It" screens October 9 at 6pm and October 10 at 8:45pm at Frederick P. Rose Hall. It currently has no US distribution.