Keishi Ohtomo is quickly establishing himself as one of the top commercial directors in Japan. While his previous films weren't exactly masterpiece material, they clearly hinted at Ohtomo's knack for handling bigger budgets. I started Himitsu: The Top Secret [The Top Secret: Murder in Mind] with that in mind and was pleasantly surprised by the progress Ohtomo has made since his debut. While still very much a commercially oriented film, Murder in Mind is a real blast from start to finish.
The crime investigation thriller is actually a very popular genre niche in Japan, but few of them manage to make it across the border. It's not that difficult to see why. A lot of these films are simple extensions of existing TV series and require at least some knowledge of the former entries in the franchise. Not only that, budgets tend be low, actors aren't cinema-grade and these films are often very narrative-driven. It's not exactly what overseas fans tend to look for when submerging themselves in Japanese cinema. Murder in Mind is a welcome exception.
One of the things that makes the film stand out is a small but defining sci-fi component. The core idea that investigators have access to technology that allows them to dig into (dead) people's memories may not be very novel (every other Black Mirror episode was about brain hacking in some form or another), but Ohtomo puts some nice twists on it and acutally manages to incorporate it without going full tech doom. Even though it's just a minor plot trigger, it's nice to see someone at least put some thought into the implications of the tech.
Section 9 (always the cool section for some reason) is an unofficial agency that uses scientific breakthroughs to extract the memories from human brains, post-mortem. While the images themselves can't be used as evidence, they do give the detectives a good nudge in the right direction. When S9 receive the remains of a man who killed his entire family, their investigation reveals quite a different story. It's the start of a tricky investigation that will determine the future of Section 9.
Visually Ohtomo finds a very nice balance between commercial expectations and personal experimentation. The memory retrieval scenes in particular are a welcome opportunity to crank up the visual intensity and really stand out in a positive way. But the rest of the film too looks neatly finished, with lots of attention for framing, composition, lighting and color. It may be not as stylized or outlandish as more author-driven cinema, but there are plenty of memorable shots and some very trippy scenes.
The same goes for the soundtrack. While pretty predictable in style and timing, the actual music is a step up from regular soundtracks and Ohtomo isn't shy to give it a prominent place in his film. It shows that you don't even have to be very different or surprising to have an above par soundtrack, you just have to use your music consciously and purposefully. This is of course related to the fact that most film soundtracks are boring, forgettable and underused affairs, still kudos to Ohtomo for making a difference.
Acting-wise Murder in Mind is also a clear step up from similar films. Toma Ikuta and Nao Ohmori are pretty decent leads, while Chiaki Kuriyama and Lily Franky pull their weight in smaller, secondary roles. It's Lisa Oda who impresses the most though, delivering a character that is equally mysterious as it is devious. Films like these always benefit from a strong bad guy(girl in this case) and with her performance she is able to lift the film to a higher level.
The broad lines of Murder in Mind are still those of a run of the mill blockbuster film. Emotions are far from subtle, the film is pretty plot-centric with some expected twists showing up along the way and it all builds up to an epic yet predictable finale. Ohtomo's merit is that he knows to cover up it quite well, both stylistically as well as thematically. He never gets too lazy or too disinterested and always manages to spice things up the moment it threatens to fall apart. That keeps the film going, even though it's a whopping 150 minutes long.
The Top Secret: Murder in Mind is by far one of the better Japanese investigation thrillers, then again the competition isn't all that stiff. It is however more proof that Keishi Ohtomo is quickly working himself up to become of one Japan's biggest directors. Maybe not on an international level, as his film are often inwards-facing blockbusters, but the man knows how to handle a budget and how to work around the limitations of commercial cinema. The result is a damn slick, sexy and entertaining film, sporting great visuals, a strong soundtrack and a solid cast while being edgy and challenging enough to stand out from the crowd.