Director Keishi Otomo, whose brilliant Rurouni Kenshin trilogy was probably one of the best anime/manga adaptations to hit our screens in the last decade, exhibits an equal amount of mastery over thriller genre mise-en-scène in his latest film Top Secret: Murder in Mind, but it seems in this case he perhaps needed a better screenplay writer. Or maybe Japanese action cinema just has to more seriously consider spanning manga/anime adaptations across more than one movie as a default setting, just to fit comfortably everything in.
Genius detective Aoki (Masaki Okada) is a detective trying to solve murders and getting nowhere when he’s head-hunted (on the basis that he’s a genius) by Dept. 9, who are also investigating murders through science. Basically, they’re using nanites of some kind injected into a freshly dead brain combined with electrical impulses to render an actual image of a person’s memories. Which then have to be interpreted by a live person’s brain (I think?) so they can be recorded for evidence – or at least so the story can feature a couple of excellent “what’s real and what’s a dream” sequences that nicely blur the narrative lines.
And all ethical questions regarding this premise aside, of course it’s not just a matter of plugging in and then catching the bad guy, as we soon discover when the department is forced to prove itself through scanning the brain of an executed criminal. Except, whoops, he didn’t do it and was in fact covering for the real killer, his crazy sexed-up supervillain daughter. Cue an ‘off the record’ investigation where Aoki, his equally frustrated cop buddy (Nao Omori), and Dept. 9 are always just a little too late to stop the bodies dropping (haha sometimes literally) and where they start to realise yet another killer who’s actually been dead for ages is in fact orchestrating it all from beyond the grave. Maybe.
Which is where, I think, the story loses the plot a little, because Aoki and his desperate need to solve the case (because he will never solve the case surrounding his own tragedy) ought to be the main narrative focus of this movie, but that in fact shifts to his boss, the self-contained, strangely luminous Maki (Tôma Ikuta) whose, you guessed it, tragic past means his own secrets are tangled tightly with the main plotline.
The performances make up the majority of the reason you’re able to stay engaged with what is otherwise a slightly disjointed and illogical (or maybe just far too accelerated) story. The very popular Okada does a good job as the co-protagonist, but Ikuta does tend to completely steal the show with his surprisingly compelling screen presence. The talented Chiaki Kuriyama as the resident coroner/brain surgeon is criminally underutilised and veteran Japanese actor Omori gets given a good, meaty role that he doesn’t really have time to make nearly enough out of. Lisa Oda as the sweet innocent psychopathic killer Kinuko turns a very good performance also, under similarly difficult circumstances considering she’s basically reduced to a serial-killer cliché.
The cinematography and musical score too are good, if sometimes given to heavy-handedness just so you don’t forget you’re really watching a super-sciencey Silence of the Lambs. The film even makes some kind of subtle inferences about the potential effects of unmoderated exposure to screen violence, confronting us with first person experiences of both victims and perpetrators. Watching, we may not go insane like the previous Dept. 9 staff did, but if we find it disturbing being face to face with someone while hammer blows start turning them into a bloody mess while they make horrible sounds, well, we’re supposed to be disturbed. Violence is horrifying. We tend to forget that sitting in movie after movie where people die spectacularly and often, while we watch in nice, safe third-person view.
Disappointingly, this message isn’t pushed nearly as strongly as it perhaps should have been. A more focused screenplay would have narrowed the narrative tension to a knife edge and made this one of the best films of the year, but the conflicting elements divide viewer attention a little too much, resulting in something that has all the makings of a killer thriller, but in the end only makes a bit of a mess.