Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Review of Confessions of a Dog (Takahashi, 2009)

Confessions of a Dog (2009)
Directed by Gen Takahashi
Starring: Shun Sugata, Harumi Inoue, Jun’ichi Kawamoto, Kunihiko Ida
Grade: B -

The DVD cover of "Confessions of a Dog" is emblazoned with the words, “banned in Japan,” a false claim which nevertheless mirrors the film’s struggle for justice. The political motivation behind Director Gen Takahashi’s barely-allegorical story of corruption within the Japanese police force is evident in this brazen marketing ploy, and certainly in its scathing depiction of bureaucracy. This three-hour-plus indictment of a state’s entire justice system spans several years, and is based upon the investigative work of Yu Terasawa, a journalist who has since campaigned against pro-police propaganda and for amendment to the way that the service is overseen.

The themes of the film are mainly chronicled through Takeda (Sugata), who begins as a lowly neighbourhood officer and eventually rises to a powerful Detective position in the force, with the help of a tyrannical Chief Inspector. Despite some early scepticism Takeda becomes a mentee of the Inspector and heavily involved in his questionable mode of operation, which entails of physical intimidation, bribes, and appeasing gangsters who serve him best. He also adopts the untouchable attitude which many of the officers in the film demonstrate, an arrogance that extends to bully-tactics, drugs, infidelity, and a general distancing of his familial relationships, content to ply his wife and child with corrupt money instead of giving them emotional affection.

Increasingly frustrated with the police’s conditional attitude towards crime, renegade Kusama (Kawamoto) seeks to uncover their ways and expose them publicly, first happening upon a photo which demonstrates their laissez-faire attitude towards drugs, and then filming a fake gun-siege designed to enhance the force’s reputation. He and photographer Chiyoko attempt to use Chiyoko’s links with a prominent newspaper to force the issue into the public sphere, but later resort to more desperate measures in the heart of the city’s criminal underworld.

As a social commentary Confessions is incredibly single-minded in its view of the Japanese police, setting up situations designed to flaunt their exploitation of power. In the first scene, a young cop collars a teenage girl for not being at college, in the hopes of eventually seducing her, only to be prevented from doing so by an aghast Takeda. The scene is repeated later in a different form, as an inebriated citizen is cruelly cajoled into sub-consciously committing a crime he ordinarily wouldn’t. They are juxtaposed as the first scene of two acts, as the film is split either side of an invisible intermission that simply reads “Five years later.”

Even if the flash-forward narrative device reads as a mechanism of stretching the story to create a bigger, somewhat falsified level of scope, the decision to make the second half of the film feel more of a product of the first is definitely a wise one. There’s an element of Godfather-style ethics to Confessions; that protecting the brethren of policemen, judges, and officials will allow this breed of law enforcement to be preserved. Takahashi’s success comes from emulating that film’s insight into mafia reverence of trust, and the volatile barriers between inclusivity and exclusivity that are bound by psychological impulse. In the end, however, the film has more in common with Lumet’s Serpico in the way that Takeda ultimately suffers for realising the extent of damage his profession is having on his city’s infrastructure - just as Al Pacino’s cop did in the 1973 classic. Visually the film also bears more Lumet traits, assuredly dense without being so off-putting, and visually thoughtful in its confined, dour depiction of seedy illegality. Its final, arresting scene captures this influence more than any other, capping its assessment of the devolved nature of state protection with a harrowingly regressive image of a man’s final fall from grace.

The main issue with Confessions is that it reiterates this point without altering the dynamic between the characters, so we don’t necessarily see things shifting for ourselves – just a “before” and “after”. It consistently spurns opportunities to create new dilemmas for its characters, or chart their descent into profligates in fresher terms. We aren’t encouraged enough to delve deeper into the lives of college dropouts burgeoning into power, or explore their moral consciences — and even when we are, a particularly severe act of violence by previously naïve local beat cop Kunii comes as such a radical about-turn that it is difficult to take seriously. The instantaneous indoctrination of these men expose the too-freely-integrated motivations of the project, crudely manifested in some of its characterisation. It reads as much too eager to initiate a rebel-rousing rally cry, intent on making us sit up and listen by focusing predominantly on indefensible action and general injustice.

Kusama’s strand of the narrative is easier to digest, and his relationship with Chiyoko gets much more convincing in the film’s second half. Ironically, Confessions succeeds more in its portrayal of outsiders to the police force than the members of this insular racket, considerably less definite about these people and therefore less preachy or overwrought. The film owes a great deal of its intermittent success as an internal affairs drama to Shun Sugata, particularly compelling scenery-chewer Takeda in the second half of the film, and without being as cartoonish an orchestrator of villainy as his Inspector predecessor.

"Confessions of a Dog" is a mammoth, meaty slice of crime drama, which is too long for what it essentially contributes. It bears a vehemently sure sense of direction that carries it through its sketchier moments, but requires more intrigue, variation, and a bigger network of characters to truly make the most of the running time. Projects like this are probably reserved for the term “ambitious failure” but as long as people see it, one doubts Takahashi will care. The primary purpose of Confessions is to educate, and it definitely does that.

"Confessions of a Dog" is being screened at the ICA Cinema in London on Wednesday 16th February, and is released on DVD on March 14.

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