For those who mark time in the West, 1989 was a common year, 365 days long. For Japan however, it was two years in one. The Japanese calendar is based on periods or eras, marked for every year of an emperor. 1989 was the year that Emperor Hirohito, the ruler that had seen the nation both into and out of the Second World War and beyond, died at the age of 87. He passed away on January 7, one week into the sixty-fourth year of his reign and was succeeded by his son Akihito and year one of the Heisei era. And so, Showa 64 is known by people old enough to remember as the year that was only one week long.
Six Four, directed by Toshihisa Zeze (Dogstar, Moon Child), is set initially in that week, where detectives from the Gunma Prefecture are trying to catch a kidnapper while the child’s father races from phone to phone all around the city, hauling millions of yen in ransom with him. Sadly, things don’t turn out well. Fourteen years then pass and one of the lead detectives on the case, Mikami (Koichi Satou, Unforgiven, When the Last Sword is Drawn) who is now working as head of Police Public Relations, is told that the Department will soon come under Tokyo command, and that as part of the upcoming PR and the fact that the statute of limitations (the period in which a crime can still be tried) is about to expire, the Commissioner would like to ‘revisit’ the old 64 case. To say you get the sense that this is just an exercise in lip-service is an understatement.
And to say that it rubs Mikami the wrong way almost immediately is definitely correct. Considering his private life also involves a missing child – his troubled teenage daughter who appears to have run away – it dredges up some strong emotions. While managing the shockingly aggressive Press Club over a different case and a nepotistic order for him to withhold details the press would like to publish, Mikami approaches the murdered child’s still grieving father (Masatoshi Nagase, The Hidden Blade) about the visit, and starts to realise that there is far more surrounding the case than he knew.
Which is where you begin to realise that what you’re not watching is a typical murder mystery. Certainly, catching the killer is still a feature, but this isn’t about Mikami’s genius detective skills versus the evil criminal mastermind. Instead, the two-part film (and the successful novel by Hideo Yokoyama it’s based on, which was also an NHK 5-part TV series in 2015) really examines the failings of the system within which the crime is investigated and the society within which it occurred. On the Showa side of the era divide, you have corruption, cover-ups and old guard attitudes which continue to linger in the senior members of the force as Mikami struggles to follow the untangling threads. On the Heisei side, however, you have the power of the press and the increasing pressure on institutions like law enforcement and government to be far more transparent than they’ve previously been. In short, this story is not so much about a murdered girl or a detective who can’t let go of an unsolved case as it is about the growing pains of progress, and how the people within the system are still flawed, feeling, imperfect beings – victims in their own way.
The talent cast in this 4-hour TBS production are some of the cream of the Japan’s acting crop and the mega-cast of Six Four are faces you will have seen on both big and small screens. It’s no surprise then that they bring to bear on this slightly convoluted political drama an impressive weight of experience. Both Satou and Nagase deliver excellent performances, but it’s honestly not like any of the other cast do anything less, and they’re far too numerous to name here. The only real criticism that you could have about this film in fact is that Japan in the late 80’s doesn’t really appear all that visually different to Japan in 2003. Whether that’s a misstep of the film’s Set Design and Wardrobe departments or more of a reflection on the social and cultural features that did and do exist in Japan today is difficult to say, but it helps to focus more on the attitudes and processes demonstrated as the story flips back and forth between 1989 and the ‘present’ day to give you that ‘sense of time and place’ than it is to wonder if that suit-tie combo really is 30 years ago.
Six Four isn’t the kind of period police drama you’d expect, and that’s a point in its favour. Sure, your standard killer thrillers are entertaining and very satisfying, but how many times has that been done? No, there’s something a lot more interesting going on here, which probably explains the run time. Anything less and it would have had to have been a standard catch-the-bad-guy narrative in order to remain coherent. Instead it’s a fascinating, frustrating negotiation through barriers of class and status, through traditions and conventions, through loss and grief and through the past as it affects the present and future.