The Thirteen Steps (2003)
Nicholas Driscoll
April 10, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

Being sick in Japan far, far from your family is not very fun, but at least it gives me yet another excuse to watch more Japanese movies. Thus, between munching innocuous victuals and popping vitamins, I sat and watched the suspense film The Thirteen Steps to relax. However, and what I didn't expect—this is not a relaxing movie. It may be relatively slow-paced and doesn't feature much for gunshots or action scenes, but here is a plot that slowly sinks into you, offering some of the fine and some of the arguably worst aspects of Japanese cinema today.

Mikami (played by Takashi Sorimachi, the dude who took the role of the eponymous Onizuka in the live-action adaptation of the manga, GTO) is a man riddled with guilt and self-hatred. After accidentally killing a man in a bar and then spending three years in sing-sing, he is reintroduced into a world and to a family that does not accept him. However, a man, Shoji Nango (Tsutomu Yamazaki, whom I have seen as the lead in the gentle comedy-drama Ososhiki from 1984) who works for the Tokyo Detention Center comes calling to ask him to help absolve a man from the murder of two old folks—a murder that took place ten years previous. Nango has mysterious motives, but Mikami, with nothing to lose and a lot of money to gain, accepts, not knowing the deception, intrigue, and emotional purging that will soon be coming his way.

The Thirteen Steps grips the viewer like a wrench and keeps the twists coming, leaving multiple, tantalizing questions hanging in the air at all times—at least until the end. It's a beautiful way to keep the viewer interested, and it also helps distract from the prolific illogical and impossible bits in the story. This story, however, was never trying to be realistic. This is more of a message movie, probing the depths of guilt about and atonement for taking the life of a fellow human being. The story is always grappling with those issues, and the characters are likable and acted well enough that it is easy to be right there with them. Yamazaki as Nango is gruff and deeply hurt, and it shows on his character. Sorimachi also displays Mikami's grievous self-hatred well, most effectively when he is not speaking as he hesitantly, self-deprecatingly moves through life. It's also good to see Rena Tanaka (Drugstore Girl, Nin X Nin: The Ninja Star Hattori) in a small part as Nango's daughter.

The story is, however, manipulative of the viewer as it reaches for and hammers home its message of the sanctity of human life. Japanese films, when they have a message to make, sometimes have a predictable way of getting the message across—that is, by coming right out and saying it in as direct a way as possible. This is one of those films, and it can be obnoxious. While I don't necessarily agree with all the views of the film, the storytelling was effective enough to move me to tears—which may have also had something to do with my headache… but I digress. I found myself embracing the story even through its flaws, and even despite the overly sentimental, far-too-nicely-packaged ending.

Music is usually dominated by slow, melodic piano and violin pieces that carry the viewer through the intense emotions of the film. Occasionally more driving themes are implemented during scenes of violence that kick the tension up a few notches. I have no complaints about it, really. It may not be extremely memorable, but it supports the film well.

The Thirteen Steps is not a great movie, and the implausibilities are numerous enough to distract the discerning viewer. For me, though, once again I was impressed by the Japanese suspense film. Recommended if you're a fan of the genre.