Based on a famous actual case, Banmei Takahashi’s fervently committed fiction feature takes up the cause of a man named Hakamada, detained on death row for 40 years because his persecutors and the system itself consistently refused to admit they were mistaken. Running parallel to Hakamada’s story is the saga of Kumamoto, the judge who reluctantly signed Hakamada’s death sentence and then dedicated his entire existence to trying to save him. Pic savvily stirs up audience outrage, building slowly and inexorably to its unacceptable conclusion, but distrib chances outside Japan (other than court-themed TV) appear iffy.
The judge and the condemned man were born the same year, and Takahashi crosscuts symmetrically between the two men’s lives from their childhoods, even imagining their paths crossing as unsuspecting seatmates on a train. The taciturn Hakamada (Hirofumi Arai) applies himself to boxing, with disappointing results, finally settling for a job in a miso factory, while exemplary student Kumamoto (Masato Hagiwara) rises to judicial prominence.
In 1966, the miso factory owner, his wife and two children are robbed and killed, their house set aflame; suspicion falls on Hakamada, a serviceable scapegoat as the factory’s only outsider. From then on, all forces conspire to turn supposition into fact, and helmer Takahashi visualizes various hypothetical versions of the murders as the cops apply pressure to Hakamada. After weeks of interrogation, he finally confesses, only to retract his confession at the trial.
Quiet scenes of Kumamoto poring over the transcripts, adding up the incredible number of hours that Hakamada was subjected to intensive questioning, alternate with violent moments of police brutality against the hapless suspect. Kumamoto resorts to anything short of public resignation to convince fellow judges of the hollowness and blatant inconsistencies of the prosecution’s case, but they steer clear of such politically unpopular stances. Kumamoto must content himself with a strongly stated minority opinion within the death sentence he is constrained to deliver.
Up to this point, nothing in Takahashi’s courtroom pic would register as alien to Western auds. But where a Hollywood film (such as Clint Eastwood’s “True Crime”) might present Kumamoto’s efforts to exonerate Hakamada as a heroic, obsessive crusade, Takahashi’s very Japanese approach involves hysteria, suicide attempts and abrupt, self-sacrificial insistence on divorce. The fact that Hakamada’s ordeal proved instrumental in changing Japan’s judicial system doesn’t dispel the irony of the pic’s denouement.
Journeyman pic profits greatly from its true story, Takahashi’s somewhat unimaginative restaging of events never venturing into self-conscious “Thin Blue Line” territory. Tech credits, including grim lensing by horror specialist Junichiro Hayashi (“The Ring,” “Dark Water”), are likewise stolidly straightforward.