'The Crimes That Bind' ('Inori no Maku ga Oriru Toki'): Film Review

Something for the small screen.

Hiroshi Abe and Nanako Matushima star in the adaptation of the final installment of Japanese novelist Keigo Higashino's Detective Kaga series.

It's not often that a hard-boiled cop describes himself as a "mama's boy," but tall, dark, handsome detective Kyoichiro Kaga gets to call himself that multiple times — and it speaks volumes about the film he's in. Nominally a whodunit revolving around an unsolved murder, The Crimes That Bind is, at its core, a sentimental drama in which both lawman and suspect struggle to untangle love-hate relationships with their parents.

The Crimes That Bind is based on the latest installment in Keigo Higashino's very popular line of novels. While revolving around an eccentric detective's case-breaking prowess as he moves through various police precincts in Japan, the so-called Police Detective Kaga series, which began in 1982, has always been as much about the social circumstances shaping the minds of murderers as the murders themselves, but this latest entry differs from the rest because of its attempt to weave the detective's own back story into the mystery.

Billed as the grand finale of the Kaga series, the current tale concludes a long-running literary saga of ten novels spanning the past three decades. The books have generated adaptations aplenty down the years. The Crimes That Bind concludes a franchise backed by the Japanese TV station Tokyo Broadcasting Service, with Hiroshi Abe (Thermae Romae, After the Storm) having already played the detective in a hit small-screen series in 2010, two TV movies and a feature film (Wings of the Kirin, 2011).

Also starring Japanese soap opera royalty Nanako Matsuhima (Ring, Shield of Straw), The Crimes That Bind is clearly intended to end the Kaga juggernaut with a bang. And so far, it has: it grossed $13 million during its five-week domestic run in January and February, and remains the country’s second biggest locally-produced live-action release in 2018, trailing the teen-oriented manga adaptation Chihayarafuru: Musubi.

While Japanese audiences might warm to The Crimes That Bind's visual similarities with the very popular TV series, international viewers may balk at its markedly small-screen aesthetics. This is only the second feature film from director Katsuo Fukuzawa in his 20-year-plus career in TV. Apart from the occasional visual flourish, he saddles the film with on-screen expositional texts, talky melodrama and a sentimental score. It looks mainly earmarked for limited play in regional markets attuned to Higashino, Abe and Matsushima; it opened in Hong Kong on May 25, and will be released in Taiwan later this year.

Just like all the other detective Kaga stories, everything begins with a dead body. This time round, however, Kaga arrives on the scene not to investigate but to mourn, as the deceased is his own mother. In this prologue set in 2001, her life is accounted for: she arrived in the small city of Shiga alone, started working in a hostess club while living by herself in a small apartment. She declined to tell anyone her background, and her only contact outside work was with a mysterious lover.

Cut to 2017, with the police looking into the discovery of the body of Michiko Oshitani, a nondescript woman from Shiga, in a deserted house in Tokyo. Assigned to the case, the young detective Matsumiya (Junpei Mizobata, reprising his role in the TV series) struggles for leads. Kaga comes into play when he learns of Matsumiya's discovery of a calendar at the crime scene, bearing words and handwriting eerily similar to one he found in his dead mother's apartment.

Kaga soon corners Hiromi Asai (Matsushima), an aloof theater director of elegant manners, who was the last person to have seen Oshitani alive. Digging deeper into the case, the detective soon uncovers both Asai's complicated personal history and his own (or, actually, his mother's) role in the woman's tumultuous past.

To his credit, director Fukuzawa and his screenwriter Lee Jeong-mi have retained the sound, structured storytelling which made the novels such engaging reading in the first place. While Abe reprises his Kaga with relative ease, the star of the show is Matsushima with her turn as someone struggling to contain a tortured soul beneath a haughty veneer. Her best moment comes during Asai's tense verbal standoff with Kaga in her apartment, as she teeters on the brink of implosion in the face of the detective's pointed questions.

That scene is also the most visually interesting of the film, as the two characters spar while surrounded by walls adorned with vast, darkly hued patterns: For a moment, the pair seem to have been transported to another ethereal realm, a battle of wits unfurling in the infernal underworld. If only The Crimes That Bind contained more of such audacious leaps into the surreal. As it stands, the film offers above-average small-screen entertainment but falls short of becoming a full-fledged cinematic experience.

Production companies: 'The Crimes That Bind' Film Production Committee
Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Nanako Matsushima, Junpei Mizobata, Rena Tanaka
Director: Katsuo Fukuzawa
Screenwriter: Lee Jeong-mi, based on a novel by Keigo Higashino
Producers: Hideonori Iyota, Kazufumi Fujii, Ryutaro Kawashima, Hiroyuk Tsuyuzaki
Executive producers: Shun Nasuda, Takashi Hirano
Director of photography: Masahiro Suda
Production designer: Takanori Oonishi
Music: Yuuko Kanno
Editing: Masahashi Asahara
Sales: TBS Global Business Department
In Japanese
119 minutes