A death row guard is rewarded with a much-needed week's holiday for helping execute an inmate he's fond of.

The gnawing effects of penal punishment and the death penalty on the condemned and prison guards alike are powerfully portrayed in Hajime Kadoi’s confident and subtle second feature, “Vacation.” The crackerjack premise of famed Japanese author Akira Yoshimura’s short story, adapted by screenwriter Dai Sako, involves a death row guard being rewarded with a much-needed week’s holiday for helping execute an inmate he’s fond of. A pleasant B.O. surprise hit in Japan last summer, pic appears positioned for a fine prestige fest run, with limited offshore vid and tube sales most likely.

The late Yoshimura made his last notable cinematic impact with his novel “Yami ni hirameku,” which was adapted by Shohei Imamura for his Palme d’Or-winning “The Eel.” “Vacation” and “The Eel” share a fascination with the personal effects and costs of crime, punishment and incarceration. In contrast to Imamura’s jaunty, sometimes raucous treatment in “Eel,” Kadoi (“The Dark Corners of the Shelves”) applies a subdued hand throughout “Vacation,” gradually building to a strong emotional crescendo across two hours’ playing time.

Paired story tracks are laid in the opening section: On one runs a train carrying Toru (Kaoru Kobayashi), Mika (Nene Ohtsuka) and little boy Tatsuya (Shusei Uto) to a vacation spot; on the other is a high-security prison where Toru works as a death-row guard alongside a motley set of colleagues, including rookie Otsuka (Shuji Kashiwabara), soon-to-retire Sakamoto (Shun Sugata) and chippy vet Mishima (busy thesp Ren Ohsugi).

Kadoi and editor Naoki Kaneko carefully cut between the story strands, holding back any clues as to when they’re taking place. Gradually, it becomes apparent that vacationers Mika and Toru are a fairly new couple, friendly but oddly cool toward each other, and that 6-year-old Tatsuya isn’t entirely sure he wants Toru in his life.

In the prison scenes, Toru is a calming influence on condemned man Kaneda (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Hiroyuki Okimura’s precise lensing and Chiharu Hashimoto’s color-coded but highly realist production design portray Kandea’s existence as profoundly isolated, yet pristine: all whites and pastels, soft light and a nearly Zen-like state of silence. The guards’ ritual-like deference to the prisoner proves critical to the drama’s construction as the days tick closer to Kaneda’s execution.

With the precision of gears falling into place, Toru has to weigh the offer of serving as Kaneda’s “crutch” (accompanying him to his hanging and holding the corpse) in exchange for a weeklong vacation. The ensuing vacation onscreen shows Toru absorbing the impact of Kaneda’s death while struggling to become a real father to Tatsuya and a worthy husband to Mika.

Narrative richness grows considerably by the reel, all the more impressive for the film’s low-key tone. Kadoi has fine collaborators in this tonal choice: Kobayashi’s calm performance is revealed as superb in retrospect, and Ohtsuka creates a beautiful portrait in patience and well-earned love.

Although audience expectations of another “Eel” are entirely off base, this, plus the quiet film’s tendency to take its own time, will pose commercial problems. As with the superb and also patiently told expose of the Japanese judicial process, “I Just Didn’t Do It,” the very qualities that make “Vacation” notable may prove its biggest problem in reaching offshore markets.

Vacation

Japan

Production

A Little Bird release of a Yamanashi Broadcasting System/Little Bird production. (International sales: Eleven Arts, Santa Monica, Calif.) Produced by Kazuhiro Koike. Executive producer, Ei-ichi Noguchi. Directed by Hajime Kadoi. Screenplay, Dai Sako, based on the story by Akira Yoshimura.

Crew

Camera (color), Hiroyuki Okimura; editor, Naoki Kaneko; music, Teruyuki Nobuchika; production designer, Chiharu Hashimoto; sound (DTS), Kazuo Numata. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, Jan. 23, 2009. (Also in Toronto, Dubai, Adelaide, Buenos Aires film festivals.) Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Kaoru Kobayashi, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Nene Ohtsuka, Shuji Kashiwabara, Ren Ohsugi, Shun Sugata, Shusei Uto.

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