The opening film of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival has two titles: Twisted Justice is the international one while the Japanese title literally translates as The Worst Bad Guys in Japan. Both are apt as we witness the career of a seriously corrupt and seriously dim cop that spans 26 years and covers many crime trends, which the central protagonist tries to exploit.
Twisted Justice is based on the 2011 non-fiction novel Hajisarashi Hotsukaidoukei Akutoku Keiji no Kokuhaku by Yoshiaki Inaba, a former detective who blew the whistle on his bosses for sanctioning criminal activities. The story begins with Yoichi Moroboshi (Gou Ayano) being recruited into the Mobile Investigation Division of the Hokkaido Police Department in 1979 purely on the basis of his judo skills. It is here that the tough but naïve young man gets his first taste of corruption when charismatic older detective Sadao Murai (Pierre Taki) spots his potential to be a “good detective” with Murai’s definition of this being breaking the rules to make arrests to boost his reputation. Murai takes Moroboshi to the local soap land and hostess bars where he showers him with women and money, then lets him know that further lucre and ladies are there for the taking if he is daring enough. Moroboshi gets involved with yakuza activities and, as he rises through the ranks, morphs into a violent, sex-crazed thug stalking the streets of Sapporo, acting little better than the criminals he polices, behaviour which the film revels in showing.
Audiences will witness the various definitions of being a “bad cop” from corrupt to just plain inept as somehow Moroboshi manages to be both. As a young cop, he kicks down doors without realising he needs arrest warrants and he has no qualms over using his judo skills to beat suspects up. As a corrupt veteran cop he does his bit to fight crime by flooding Japan with drugs and guns to sell while ensuring he lands a few arrests from his nefarious schemes to make himself and his department look good. At all times, he is pretty terrible at being a criminal cop. He breaks major laws to enforce minor ones, cannot manage money, and the concept of anonymity eludes him which results in risk-taking. Moroboshi even sends packages of illegal handguns he bought from yakuza directly to himself via a normal delivery service – complete with his name and job on the package. Every moment of crime is undercut by grim hilarity thanks to the arrogance and stupidity of characters. It’s astonishing that Moroboshi gets away with everything he does, especially his more hare-brained schemes, but his ability to pervert justice taps into a dark vein of commentary on individuality and society revealing that the source book and script are far more nuanced than the corrupt cop premise would suggest.
Moroboshi’s corruption is efficiently delivered in a linear fashion by tracking a career, which is defined by an interesting character quirk: absence. Moroboshi has an absence not just of common sense and morality but individuality and he loves to conform to whatever world he enters. The first time we see him he is in a judo uniform, one person amongst many, all of whom are following orders. As a police detective he sheepishly follows his partner and furiously takes notes from Murai on how to be corrupt. He soon acts and dresses like his mentor, speaks like a yakuza and learns how to commit crimes. Moroboshi prefers to perform a role rather than being genuine. As such, he comes across as an automaton, a conformist, an ideal worker for Japanese society, and so when Moroboshi encounters all sorts of corrupting forces from fellow cops to gangster’s molls like Yuki (Haruna Yabuki) and old-school yakuza Katsusuke Kuroiwa (Shido Nakamura) he learns from them and conforms to their values, mixing them with those of the world of policing.
Following orders and playing a well-defined role is something his superiors in the police want because they can mould him to their own ends, which are to bring in high profile arrests and the mantra they operate with is the ends justify the means. This results in the top brass being willing to sanction Moroboshi’s increasingly illegal activities in order to meet arrest quotas set out by the government and impress the media. Drugs hit the streets and guns fall into the hands of criminals and the police stand by, losing control of various situations as Moroboshi goes rogue. What starts as a standard issue tale of a corrupt cop becomes a wider expose of how the justice system can fall prey to corruption itself. Collectivism and submission to the group, not to mention the absence of individuality, makes man a mere cog in a machine, whether it is crime or justice. It is easy to find the two worlds merging when a person such as Moroboshi comes along.
If the script is fine in the way it details Moroboshi’s life, it fails in its treatment of its supporting characters, especially the females. Clearly taking cues from the time periods it is set in, women are regularly goosed, groped, and gazed at in everyday instances of sexism. This is never critiqued or counteracted; rather, it is revelled in as the leering camera aims for the breasts every time. Women and the victims of crime are given short shrift and are even forgotten about as the grandiose personality of Moroboshi is raised and torn down.
This is is a case of slow and steady as serious book with serious allegations of illegal activities is given the serious adaptation treatment. The aesthetic choices used by director Kazuya Shiraishi are unfussy and can be seen in his previous feature, The Devil’s Path (2013), which plodded along with its own true crime story of murder for insurance money. Whereas that film felt workmanlike in its execution, here the saga flows smoothly through time periods and viewers will never feel lost. Shiraishi uses few visual and aural flourishes, instead allowing lead actor Ayano the space to go into a darker role than you might be accustomed to seeing him in.
Moroboshi is a big character to play and he provides a wide range of emotions for Ayano to explore. From the early scenes of fresh-faced innocence through his growing arrogance to the drug-fuelled wild man he becomes at the end, it is an intense change but the more effective moments are when his character realises he is in over his head. It is on these occasions that we see the panicked expression that indicates the lizard part of his brain has registered threat. His ability to transform and flit back and forth between being dense and aware make this an absorbing performance that will take viewers on an intriguing journey through a real life case of police corruption.
Twisted Justice opens the New York Asian Film Festival on Wednesday June 22 at 7pm at the Walter Reade Theater. It will also be shown on Tuesday June 28 at 6pm at the same venue. Tickets can be purchased at the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.