This film deals with death penalty. Nevertheless, death penalty is not its main theme. The hero is a prison officer working in a detention center that holds prisoners on a death row.
A death row prisoner, Kaneda, is interned in a detention center where a veteran officer, Hirai, is working. The film starts with a scene that collects the sending of the documents, signed by the Minister of Justice to the prison, ordering the execution of Kaneda.
Hirai had remained single till his middle age, but following the advice of his elder sister agrees to an arranged marriage with Mika, a single mother. But, on the occasion of the funeral of his mother that had passed away, Hirai uses all his paid holidays and is not able to go for a honeymoon. Unlikely enough, it was the time when the prison officers were told of Kaneda's execution. On the other hand, if an officer applies for the job of holding the body of the death row when is hanged down, he is allowed to receive a one-week vacation. The prison authorities get irritated at Hirai because of his desire to get a job, everybody dislikes, due to his willingness to have a week vacation as his wedding is approaching. His work companions look also at him with suspicion.
On one hand, Hirai spends calmly his time drawing the pictures he liked often troubled by visions of his victims. An officer, informed of the execution of Kaneda, brought to his solitary cell a Radio cassette so that he could listen to music. Kaneda suspects that his execution is near and starts to behave so violently that he is interned in a disciplinary cell. Finally, Kaneda recovers his calm and Hirai brings him back to his former solitary cell. As a token of gratitude Kaneda gives him one of his drawings. It was a small gift for Hirai's wedding.
The day of the execution came. Kaneda listened to the last sermon of the Protestant Minister and after drinking a glass of water was blindfolded. Gently they placed a rope around his neck. Finally, they opened up the floor and an officer, age forty, that tried to hold the falling body of Kaneda sprung to a side with his limbs sank from under him. Hirai was able to hold the body of Kaneda whose death was certified.
Next day the wedding ceremony and party took place, but the prison officers invited did not touched the meat at the party, most probably under the influence of the execution of the day before. Hirai departed for the honeymoon in a hot springs resort, together with Mika and her child but, because of all kinds of remembrances of the past execution feels like vomiting during the whole journey. On one hand, the son of Mika cannot forgive him in his heart. All three continue the journey holding different thoughts.
The original is based on a short novel of Yoshimura Akira and makes an account of the honeymoon with a psychological description of it. In contrast, the film records the death in a row, the daily life of Kaneda and the job of the prison officials, but depicts in a special manner the preparations of the executions at the detention center, presenting very realistic images of the execution. In fact, watching the movie provoked in me a very vivid experience, so much that it took time till I could control my sentiments.
The fact that Sakamoto Toshio was invited as an adviser created such a real situation. From his former position as a prison officer he wrote a book on executions and expressed openly his personal views. Thinking about the different opinions concerning capital death, the responses are somehow abstract, but the remarks of Mr. Sakamoto who had been at the site of the executions bring a lot of weight even for the activists of the abolition of capital death.
In spite of this and as I wrote at the beginning, this film is not calling for the abolition of death penalty. Rather, it shows the attitudes of first class characters, like Kobayashi Kaoru, playing the role of the officer Hirai, Nishijima Hidetoshi as Kaneda, the death in a row, Osugi Ren as the prison superiors, etc. Kadoi Hajime, the director of the film, affirms "it is not possible to simply question the pros and cons of an authoritative system...nevertheless, one cannot evade the issue and, no matter the pain it brings, one must continue living in the middle of suffering."
What about ourselves? Are we in a position of "not evading the issue, and, no matter the pain it brings, do we continue living in the middle of suffering," distancing ourselves from the present authoritative system? Or, pretending to be considered an essayist, do we make easy public statements on the pros and cons of death penalty?
[Shibata Yukinori, Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo]