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The Thirteen Steps
  |     review    |     availability     |

DVD (Japan)
Region 2 NTSC
Pony Canyon
2-Disc Set
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English Subtitles
Various extras

Japanese: 13 kaidan
Year: 2003
Director: Masahiko Nagasawa
Writer: Tadashi Morishita, Kazuaki Tadano (novel)
Cast: Takashi Sorimachi, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kankuro Kudo, Shofukutei Tsurubei, Rena Tanaka, Tetsuya Bessho, Susumu Terajimi
The Skinny: Interesting crime drama that occasionally packs a punch, but the ease with which the conflicts are resolved could tax even the most forgiving. Lots of exposition and too little actual emotion make this only a partly successful thriller. Played at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
by Kozo:
     Takashi Sorimachi (Fulltime Killer, GTO) is Junichi Mikami, a convicted killer who's morose and utterly quiet. Released after three years of model behavior, it's clear that he's a man carrying the weight of his deeds. Though his case was ruled as accidental manslaughter, it would seem that he seeks more than just his three years' penance.
     At least, that's the opinion of Shoji Nango (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a retiring prison guard who's been witness to Mikami's entire prison term. Nango feels that the two share a bond: both are trying to atone for killing another human being, inadverdantly or not. Nango was once the chief guard at a prison execution, and had the misfortune of being the guy to push the button on the unlucky inmate. That act has scarred Nango deeply, leaving his personal relationships with his wife and daughter in disarray. In hopes of healing whatever void exists within him, he takes on a curious job: to absolve Kihara (Kankuro Kudo), a death row inmate, of his crime, thus saving him from possible death. He invites Mikami to join him, hoping that the two can find some sort of atonement together.
     The themes thrown at the audience in The Thirteen Steps are so deeply humanistic as to be annoying. More than a few speeches are given on how nobody has the right to take another's life, and how the only possible way of atoning for such a crime is to live with it for the rest of your days. That message is a good one, and deeply felt, and the characters of Nango and Mikami bear it out quite well. Forgiving oneself and others is crux of The Thirteen Steps' buried emotions. There's lots of slow pans, static shots and still exposition from one character to another, each speaking from the depths of their heart and soul. While boredom is threatened, some moments (especially when delivered by Yamazaki, who gives a grave, grizzled performance) are riveting.
     Still, this is a thriller, so the film has to keep pace. Mikami and Nango's investigation seems straightforward at first, but coincidences and strange occurrences begin to pop up. The murder the two are investigating actually took place in the hometown of Sugiura, the man Mikami accidentally murdered. Nango and Mikami scour the countryside for "thirteen steps," which is the only clue given by the doomed Kihara, but that clue opens up doors for Mikami too. And what's behind the doors isn't necessarily good.
     Eventually, revelations are discovered, religious allusions are made, and some mega, mega coincidences show up to make the whole thing seem incredibly manufactured. Then, the film gets tied up in a knot so pretty that you could stick it on a box and call it gift-wrapping. That closure probably satisfied many a paying customer, but it actually does the film a disservice. The high-toned subjects that The Thirteen Steps explores are tinged with human darkness, and should be treated with more than lofty exposition and too-easy connections. Much of the plot is tied into inexplicable, passionate human emotions, but everything gets written off with philosophical thoughts that are deep in meaning, but also so compact that they could be used as material for a greeting card.
     This doesn't mean that the film is bad. Director Masahiko Nagasawa certainly paces the film effectively, and gets a fine performance out of Tsutomu Yamazaki. Takashi Sorimachi is decent too, but his strengths as a performer are ill-fitting to the character of Mikami. Sorimachi has shown great screen presence before, but he can't seem to bring any weight to Mikami's burdened conscience. Mikami carries deep passions, but they're hard to find beneath Sorimachi's often blank expressions.
     Ultimately, that same critique applies to the whole film. The Thirteen Steps has an involving plotline, which is more than enough to keep most people watching, but it ultimately doesn't stick to your gut as it should. There are some bursts of powerful emotion (one of Nango's memories is particularly vivid), but they're few and far between. Everything is too static and too contrived to be truly affecting, and even the "bad guys" are too easily redeemed. A story that flirts with such darkness needs more than lip service, but ultimately that's how it feels: like people talking and talking about things that should be felt. There is emotion buried in The Thirteen Steps, but it's hard to truly see it beneath the film's sterile veneer. (Kozo 2003)
 Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen