(Ed: some might consider the following review to have some small spoilers. If you’re worried about that, go and catch it at the Japanese Film Festival and then come back and read our review!)
The mundane routine of actual police work has never been something that takes front and centre stage on our screens. From the days of the gumshoe detective, to the Lethal Weapons, to Miami Vice and NYPDCSINCIS, being a detective and hunting killers is exciting, dangerous, and dramatic!
Except in Japan? Based on a book, the most recent in the highly successful, 3-decade long Detective Kaga novel series by popular author Keigo Higashino, The Crimes that Bind manages to capture this plodding doggedness that yes, does in fact solve most cases, and it’s by no means any less interesting than your typical All American Cop running the bad guys down and exchanging gunfire. Unfortunately what lets this film down is the opposite – too many instead of not enough points of focus.
The distinctive and quite capable Hiroshi Abe (After the Storm, Thermae Romae) plays Higashino’s go-to genius detective, Kaga. However, his apparent vocation is not where our story starts. For those (like me in fact) not familiar with the series’ character, the story actually begins with no indication that Kaga is in fact a policeman at all. Instead, he’s merely someone receiving some news – that his estranged mother has died. Having been abandoned by her as a child for reasons unknown, Kaga understandably has mixed feelings about this, but what exactly does this have to do with crime, I can hear you ask?
Skip forward half a decade or so, and a completely different character – a young detective by the name of Matsumiya (Junpeu Mizobata) – is investigating a completely unrelated murder. Clearly, he’s the Genius Kid Cop Misunderstood By His Older Less Clever Peers, but if this is his case and his movie, why is Abe on the poster? The mystery thickens.
Little do those of us who didn’t do the pre-reading know, Matsumiya is related to Kaga, whose own beat is the Nihonbashi precinct, and of course turns to him for advice when his leads quickly run out. He has instinct but he’s missing some pretty big pieces. Fortuitously, he says the one thing to Kaga that manages to connect Kaga’s past, his mother, and this current murder case, and Kaga promptly transfers himself to Matsumiya’s district to help. As events unfold and connections become more numerous, we probably expect this is going to follow along the same venerated narrative lines as all good murder thrillers. But alas. This film could have gone there, particularly with the introduction of the most likely suspect, successful but remote theatre director Hiromi Asai, played with poise, mystery and just the right amount of understated psychopathic potential by Nanako Matsushima (Ring, Shield of Straw). Instead it becomes a confusion of flashbacks, investigative montages, and emotional exposition, where Kaga makes some pretty wild and unsupported conclusive leaps (seemingly in order to move the narrative along) and almost all of Asai’s value as a truly chilling adversary to our clever detective is ignored in favour of some heavy-handed justifications for why people become the way they are.
Not only that, but the music. No, I’m not sure I can even describe it but “aggressively melodramatic” might come close. Truly, it couldn’t have been more apparent that now was when you needed to cry if it held up a sign with instructions, the result of which was the audience actually tittering out a laugh in what should have been the most emotionally devastating and psychologically chilling scene in the film.
It’s such wasted potential, the fallout of what seems to be a terminal case of confused purpose. Yes, the Detective Kaga series is known for its emotionally engaging storylines and you do get a sense of that, particularly out of Abe’s performance. His comic timing is as usual excellent, and when he’s not chewing scenery he has a subtle and deft touch that makes you really feel. You can see his conflict, his compassion. In some ways, it’s like solving crime isn’t just a job, it’s an act of mercy.
Kaga is famous for seeing the humanity in the perpetrators even while he works to bring justice for the victims’ sakes, but this film would have been far more effective if it had remembered that this is cinema, not literature and not television. There’s a limited amount of time a film has to tell its tale, and sadly The Crimes That Bind ultimately becomes a victim of its own attempt to be all things – too many things – to all people – thriller, drama, light-hearted comedy, personable slice of life but still loyal to the novels/TV shows. In the end, the murders might have been solved, but audiences may still walk away asking themselves how.