Dir: Masato Harada. Jap. 1999. 115 mins.
Prod cos: Kadokawa Shoten, Sankei Shimbun, Toei. Int'l sales: Toei (+81 3 3535 7621). Exec prods: Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, Tan Takaiwa, Shigeaki Hazama, Jun Sakagami. Prod: Masato Hara. Scr: Ryo Takasugi, Satoru Suzuki, Mugita Kinoshita. DoP: Yoshitaka Sakamoto. Prod des: Kyoko Heya. Ed: Akimasa Kawashima. Music: Masahiro Kawasaki. Main cast: Yakusho Koji, Tatsuya Nakadai, Miho Wada, Kenichi Endo.
Following the smash success last year of Bayside Shakedown comes Masato Harada's Jubaku (Spellbound), with a theme that is nothing less than the iron triangle of business, bureaucracy and underworld gangs which have dominated the history of postwar Japan. With a plot that reads like a newspaper investigative series, the film risks being flattened into the cinematic equivalent of good, grey journalese. However Harada has injected a visual dynamism and narrative pace that is very Hollywood, while respecting the integrity of a story that is, in its complexity and ambiguity, very Japanese. Also, while being unsparing and unsentimental in its portrayal of institutional crime and corruption, Jubaku presents a group portrait considerably more attractive that the usual image of Japanese businessmen as nerdy drones. At home, the film performed strongly, if not spectacularly. Abroad, after a popular screening in the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival, it may do for Japanese thrillers what Shall We Dance' did for comedies.
When a major bank is caught paying off a corporate extortionist, the media and prosecutors begin to dig, breaking open a money-and-favours scandal that threatens to rock the entire structure of business and government to its core. While the bank's top executives continue to vacillate, a quartet of middle-management reformers, led by straight-arrow Kitano (Koji Yakusho), decide to stage a boardroom coup and install a new, clean management team. With the aid of a hotshot news anchor (Miho Wada) and a hard-nosed prosecutor (Kenichi Endo), heads begin to roll. But the reformers hit a roadblock in the form of a crusty former chairman (Tatsuya Nakadai), who happens to be Kitano's father-in-law
Yakusho (Shall We Dance') turns in a solid performance as Kitano, whose innate integrity and stubborn determination shines through his Mr Average surface. In its willingness to honestly and thoroughly "break the spell" (jubaku o toku) concealing the rot at the heart of the Japanese miracle, Jubaku is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's 1960 classic The Bad Sleep Well. Hopefully the Japanese film industry doesn't need another four decades to make another film of similar excellence on the same theme.