Takashi Sorimachi plays Junichi Mikami, a somber young man finishing a three-year prison sentence for a bar fight that resulted in manslaughter. Shortly before the end of his term, he is released on parole at the behest of prison official Shoji Nango (played by wizened screen icon Tsutomu Yamazaki). Nango wants Mikami's help in a private investigation commissioned by an enigmatic client. Their mission: to clear a convicted murderer slated to hang in three months. It is a chance for both men to unburden themselves of their guilt—Mikami for the bar killing, Nango for taking part in prison executions—and the investigation increasingly turns into a journey of atonement.
As the case unfolds, clues lead the pair to Zoganji, an abandoned mountain temple near the scene of the murder under investigation. This is where the film's different strands come together. In addition to evidence revealing the real killer's identity, the temple houses an icon of the fearsome Buddhist deity Acala, who "cuts away human weakness," punishing and redeeming at the same time. Fittingly, it is at Zoganji that Nango, addressing the murderer, delivers the film's message: "Dying settles nothing. Living is the only way we have to settle anything. That's how we atone."
In its depiction of Nango, The Thirteen Steps resembles Akira Kurosawa's 1952 classic Ikiru, which tells the story of a cancer-stricken bureaucrat who tries to redeem his stuck-in-the-mud existence by building a neighborhood playground. Like Ikiru's Kanji Watanabe, Nango is in a race against time to make amends for a lifetime of dutiful work by which he now feels poisoned. But compared to Kurosawa's characters, these protagonists are less deftly rendered. Nango's fanatical devotion to the case makes him the personification of a guilty conscience rather than a flesh and blood character. And it's often hard to tell if Mikami is thoughtful, traumatized or just plain dumb—Sorimachi portrays him with a zombie-like flatness.
Despite such faults, The Thirteen Steps—one of two Japanese films screened at this year's Sundance Festival—is smart and stylish. It shows that mainstream Japanese moviemakers respect their viewers enough to ask them to think. Which is nothing to feel ashamed or guilty about.