Full disclosure time. I was prepared to dislike "Nobody To Watch Over Me" on principle because I was disappointed that it was chosen over "Fish Story" to represent Japan at this year's Academy Awards. "Why is Japan playing it safe?" I wondered. "Don't follow the unexpected success of 'Departures' with some boring police procedural!" Well, like most prejudices formed of nothing, my opinion of Ryoichi Kimizuka’s film was misguided to say the least. I was completely disarmed by "Nobody"--it's gripping throughout it's nearly 2-hour running time, an excellent movie that succeeds as thriller, gut-wrenching human drama and character study.
"Nobody" begins with what is essentially a music video. The first 3 1/2 minutes are a flurry of storytelling bravura depicting two contrasting scenes: the police arresting an 18-yr-old suspect in a brutal double child murder, and the killer's sister--15-yr-old Saori, played with remarkable depth by Mirai Shida--enjoying herself at high school. These scenes are silent except for the soundtrack, a haunting ballad that stands in stark contrast to the j-pop syrup common to so many Japanese films. In that 210 seconds a family is destroyed, their lives forever altered before a word of dialogue is spoken. The music stops, the title is shown, and then the story's other principal, shaggy haired Detective Katsuura (Koichi Sato) is introduced. At first, Katsuura comes on like any TV cop. He's your standard street-smart, disheveled, weary detective, forced into an unfamiliar duty: protecting the sister of a murderer. He learns why this is necessary as the viewer does, as he arrives onto the killer's family's street and is greeted by dozens of paparazzi. TV crews, photographers and other media types are hoping to get a glimpse into the life of the killer, so the stunned family is trapped in their home. The police must protect them from media scrutiny and possible attacks, and also try to get whatever information they can about the killer, their oldest child. Katsuura is assigned to protect Saori, which amounts to being her bodyguard as she's essentially hunted, first through Tokyo then to a seaside bed and breakfast, by a media hungry for any news on the case and an outraged public who blames the entire family for the tragedy. In micro terms, the film is about how these individual lives are changed by an unthinkable act; On a macro scale, it asks basic questions about victimhood in an immediate-gratification society that, once outraged, demands retribution by any means possible.
Kimizuka is best known for writing the hit series of "Bayside Shakedown" films, but nothing there hints at the calm assurance with which he tells this story. He channels Paul Greengrass for a good part of the film, using handheld camera, unconventional shots and lightning edits to create emotional unease and a sense of the roller coaster speed at which these people's lives are derailed by the events of the story. Unlike many thrillers, "Nobody" does not overuse any one of these storytelling tropes. Kimizuka seems to know when to pull back and allow his characters, and by extension the audience, time to breathe. Also unlike most thrillers, he doesn't take any shortcuts with characterization, and he trusts the actors in a number of quiet, intense scenes that in lesser hands could have easily slipped into melodrama. Before seeing the film I was surprised to see big names like Kimura Yoshino and Ryuhei Matsuda in minor supporting roles, but after the fact I can understand why these actors--usually headliners--would sign on. The script is a model of economy; There are no clichés here, and the story doesn't follow an expected arc. Characters which seem familiar and stale on paper (the detective's wise-ass partner, the concerned psychologist treating the detective for on-the-job stress) defy easy stereotypes and seem remarkably human, and every member of the cast pulls his weight. Both Shida and Sato are a good bet to run away with acting prizes at every Japanese awards show. Sato is already well known for his roles in films like "The Magic Hour" and "A Cheerful Gang Turns The Earth", and he's never been better. And Mirai Shida is even better here than she was in Yoji Yamada's "Kabei (Our Mother)". In a year which introduced the world to Sakura Ando, I can't believe there's another young Japanese actress with the ability to do so little, yet convey so much. She's a major talent.
2009 has been full of exceptional Japanese films. "Fish Story" and "Love Exposure" are certainly more flamboyant and "Rookies" and "20th Century Boys" may be the box-office draws, but "Nobody To Watch Over Me" is as well-crafted a film as I've seen in ages. "Departures" surprised everyone last year, reminding Academy voters that Japanese film can be unexpectedly moving without being maudlin or moribund and showing general audiences that the land of the rising sun is home to more than genre-ghetto action and gore. If those same Oscar voters give "Nobody" half a chance, it will be nominated. It hits all the necessary beats to satisfy a broad audience, but does so in unexpected and satisfying ways.