The Thirteen Steps (Japanese)

“The Thirteen Steps” is only a pretty good murder mystery, but it’s an excellent portrait of life and death, of the choices that lead to one or the other.

It is also that rare film that values human life and dares to promote such old-fashioned ideas as taking responsibility for your actions. In it, we meet several people who have had varying degrees of responsibility for the deaths of others. Toru Kihara (Kankuro Kudo) is on death row, though he swears he is innocent and cannot even remember the night in question. An unknown benefactor has hired aging prison guard Nango (Tsutomu Yamazaki) to search for the real killer; Nango takes on as his assistant Junichi (Takasha Sorimachi), a young man recently released after a three-year sentence for manslaughter.

Junichi accidentally killed a man in a fight in a night club, though the accidental nature of the death has been questioned by the victim’s father (Hisashi Ikawa). Now he is adrift, seeking redemption and to find his place in the world. Accidental or not, the fact remains that he was responsible for another man’s death.

Nango, the fatherly man who becomes his guide, has issues to resolve, too. A large part of his job at the prison involves taking part in executions. Prisoners lose their names and are reduced to numbers. And then they are put to death. Nango has seen too much of it.

If the film occasionally comes on too strong with its anti-death penalty message, it’s forgiveable because of the genuine humanity it infuses the message with. When Nango — played with superlative dignity and wisdom by veteran Japanese actor Tsutomu Yamazaki — says, “Dying settles nothing. Living is the only way we have to settle anything,” he’s talking about everyone, not just condemned prisoners.

Like many of its American counterparts, “The Thirteen Steps” relies too much on coincidence and on people’s accurate memories of 10-year-old details. Yet it seems querulous to focus on that when the film has bigger things in mind than merely telling a mystery story. The acting is strong and the sentiments are powerful. It’s a fine film.

A- (2 hrs., 2 min.; PG-13, some blood, some brief violent images; in Japanese with English subtitles.)