Director Keishi Otomo is perhaps best known in the West as the director of the acclaimed Rurouni Kenshin trilogy (2012-2014), but while I enjoyed the majority of that saga (the end was quite anti-climactic in my opinion), his stand-alone works have been quite disappointing. The Vulture (2009) was a sloppily extended TV episode, with all the trimmings, while the sci-fi thriller Platinum Data (2013) had a laughable story and inconsistent performances. So, when I heard that Otomo was doing another sci-fi thriller, I was hesitant. But the intriguing premise and the capable cast were too good to pass up. Will it be possible for The Top Secret: Murder in Mind upend my low expectations?
Ikko Aoki (Masaki Okada) is a young, talented, rookie crime investigator who is recognized for his skills by the distant and cold Tsuyoshi Maki (Toma Ikuta), the head of Department Nine, a special unit of the Metropolitan Police. What makes the department special is its use of nanotechnology, monitored and implemented by Yukio Miyoshi (Chiaki Kuriyama), to extract memories from the dead. Never as clear-cut as it is claimed to be, it has complications like the strong psychological harm inflicted on those who undergo the procedure as well as \ ethical issues. Aoki’s first case is to probe into the mind of a man who murdered his entire family. The memories of the man could hold the key to the location of his missing daughter who was absent from the murders but what Aoki discovers is that something more sinister and more evil is out there.
The Top Secret: Murder in Mind, while interesting at times, is unfortunately another disappointing film for Otomo. It certainly looks great and Otomo makes the most out of the allocated budget: the cinematography and music score give the film a haunting vibe which ensures that all bets are off with regards to the fates of the characters. Also effective and surprising is Otomo’s lack of restraint towards the execution of violence. The first-person POV’s that the film utilizes are really effective as they allows the audience to understand the high stakes of the plot as well as giving them a strong sense of foreboding.
The actors try their best with their characters and some of them do quite well. Okada is quite good as Aoki, conveying the naivety and commitment of his character convincingly. Ikuta steals the show, continuing his hot streak after Brain Man (2013), The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (2014), and Prophecy (2015). He manages to exude a magnetic yet imposing presence despite his laughable make-up. Nao Omori of Ichi the Killer (2001) fame has a role as the down-on-his-luck cop but the film does not give him enough to do. Meanwhile, Lily Franky does well in a small role as a depraved psychiatrist while Tori Matsuzaka pops up for a striking and integral cameo.
As in Otomo’s previous films, the female roles usually get the short end of the stick and unfortunately, that trend continues. The extremely talented Kuriyama is utterly wasted as the brain surgeon/former love interest to one of the characters. Lisa Oda’s performance is wildly inconsistent as she appears to be restrained by the clichéd role she inhabits; as well as her unrefined acting chops. She has a solid presence and improves over the course of the film, but some of her line deliveries are annoyingly petulant at times when they should have more oomph.
But what really lets the film down is the storytelling and the script. Mixing too many plotlines (and not well, I might add), The Top Secret: Murder in Mind ends up being a bit of a mess. The main plot, which is solving the case of the missing daughter/the murders is often interrupted (when it should be smoothly integrated) by another plotline concerning Maki’s tortured past, which involves a dead partner and survivor’s guilt.
It also doesn’t help that it develops potentially compelling themes, like the effects of exposure to on-screen violence and the blurred line between imagination and reality, but ends up discarding them without further insight, which is quite strange considering the film’s extended running time. Even some of the motivations of the characters are thrown to the wayside soon after they are mentioned (like Aoki’s reason for taking the case).
With its interesting premise, high production values, and nice touches from the director, The Top Secret: Murder in Mind could have been a great thriller. But the unfocused script, an over-extended running time, and inconsistent characterizations drag it down to the point that it becomes yet another missed opportunity for Otomo.
The Top Secret: Murder in Mind is showing as part of Japanese Film Festival Australia which runs from October 14 to December 4. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.