New York Asian Film Festival Review: TWISTED JUSTICE Is Packing Heat

A Japanese crime saga that's stranger than fiction.

Japan is famous for its gangster-centric Yakuza genre, one of the nation's most unique cultural exports. Twisted Justice skews the genre formula, telling the tale of a corrupt police officer's rise to power and fall from grace. It contains elements of more recent Western crime dramas with darkly comic leanings, but the film remains a uniquely Japanese work, an emotionally charged and hilarious tale with a serving of stinging social commentary.

Twisted Justice is based on on the true story of what has been called the most famous police scandal in Japanese history. In 2003, Hokkaido police detective Yoshiaki Inaba was found guilty of possessing a gun and stimulants with intent to sell. During his trial, Inaba revealed that his superiors were complicit in a scheme to allow a huge shipment of narcotics into the country in order to achieve a follow-on gun smuggling interdiction. One of Inaba's superiors as well as a long time associate who ratted Inaba out both committed suicide shortly after the story broke. Inaba eventually wrote his autobiography Disgraceful Hokkaido Cop: Confessions of a Villainous Detective, in which he details the many illicit activities throughout his career and which serves as the source material for Twisted Justice's screenplay.

We meet the main character- renamed Moroboshi- as a fresh faced student in the late '70s. Despite his delinquent past, Moroboshi is recruited by the police who seek to bolster their status via his skill as a national champion Judoka. Encouraged by a star senior detective with criminal connections to find informants, Moroboshi tears through the town in a flurry of handshaking and skull stomping to make his presence known. The young detective gains clout after a high profile arrest, and the local Yakuza eventually oust their former police connection to make Moroboshi the new big cheese of the Susukino entertainment district.

Throughout the '80s and early '90s we see the rise of Moroboshi, an ace detective in the police station and a veritable mob boss on the streets. He establishes a small criminal cabal comprised of his "retired" Yakuza partner, a former junkie with big time aspirations, and an eccentric Pakistani immigrant with Russian smuggling connections. On the police side, he gets promoted to chief investigator for an anti-firearms unit. Thus his racket is solidified: Moroboshi's gang smuggles in guns that he in turn submits to the police as seized evidence. His superiors more than just turn a blind eye, they actively encourage the hustle as the volume of seized guns bolsters their quotas and makes them appear highly effective to the public and higher ups. But as with all crime stories of great success, Moroboshi and his crew eventually begin to crack under the pressure of higher demands, leading down a dark path of addiction, heartbreak, betrayal, and violence.

As far as Western counterparts and comparisons go, Twisted Justice most closely resembles the 2013 films Wolf Of Wall Street and Pain & Gain, both of which are also based on true stories of criminals and their downfalls. Director Kazuya Shiraishi infuses every scene with a pulsing energy shared by those films, reveling in the absurdity of reality and the naivety/arrogance of their lead characters. There are heaping portions of sex, drug use, and violence at play like any good crime story ought to have. At the same time, the links to Yakuza and cop dramas of yore are still evident and allow the movie to maintain its particular Japanese identity. A huge part of what makes it all work is the great performance by Go Ayano, who completely sells Moroboshi as a naive do-gooder, a hot shot veteran cop, a crumbling has-been, and a broken old man all in equally profound measure. Ayano successfully taps into a full range of emotions that also elicit an equal range of emotions from the audience. We root for him during a hilarious early scene in which he puts on an outlandish tough guy routine in front of a Yakuza boss, all the while literally shaking in his boots. Later on during his downfall, he confronts a former lover he had abandoned who has become addicted to the very same drugs being distributed by his crew. He engages her in a twisted love making/spouse abuse scene that you can't help but feel disgusted by. It's worth mentioning that some viewers may be put off by what might be seen as overt misogyny. While most of the sex is definitely on the tantalizing side, I do think that the film is self aware enough to show that the terrible actions of this increasingly terrible man are not to be celebrated.

Twisted Justice is so fast paced, exciting and engaging that I didn't even feel its substantial 135-minute run time. There is something to be said for an opening night movie festival atmosphere, but the film plays up to that environment in the best way rather than using it as a crutch, and the crowd reacted to it in kind. It served as a perfectly electrifying commencement for the 15th annual New York Asian Film Festival, but I have no qualms placing it as one of the top twenty films I've seen this year. I'm curious how the film's critical take on the Japanese police department and justice system will be received, though I think audiences there and the world over will find its themes to be universal and the excitement palpable. Twisted Justice is a fine addition to the crime saga genre, and I hope it will see wider audience distribution later this year.

You can check out Twisted Justice during its second screening at The New York Asian Film Festival, going on from June 22nd - July 09th 2016.The full schedule and details on all the movies can be found at the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.