Saturday, February 12, 2011

REVIEW: Box: The Hakamada Case

BOX 袴田事件 命とは (Box: Hakamada jiken - inochi towa )

Released: 2010

Banmei Takahashi

Masato Hagiwara
Hirofumi Arai
Renji Ishibashi
Takenori Murano

Running time: 117 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

In the early hours of June 30th, 1966 Fumio Hashiguchi, a miso manufacturing plant owner in Shimizu, Shizuoka, his wife and two teenage children were brutally stabbed to death in their home. The killer stole approximately ¥260,000 and then set Hashiguchi's house, with the family's corpses inside, on fire. The brutality of the murders shocked the people of Shimizu, as it did the people of Japan. Police immediately went to work to find the person behind these heinous acts, and in very short order they found him. On July 4th police arrested Iwao Hakamada, a 30-year-old ex-boxer and employee of the miso plant. Pajamas with a small blood stain were found in Hakamada's room in the miso plant's company dormitory. After nearly three weeks in police custody Hakamada confessed to the murders and after trial was found guilty and sentenced to death. A tragic story, no doubt, but what makes the Hakamada Incident, as it's known in japan, that much more tragic is that Hakamada is innocent of the crime, yet to this day he still sits on death row waiting for his sentence to be carried out. This fascinating and utterly frightening legal conundrum has now been brought to the screen by director Banmei Takahashi in the film "Box: The Hakamada Case".

The Hakamada Incident has stayed in the headlines and in the Japanese public consciousness for the past 45 years due to the efforts of one man, Norimichi Kumamoto. In 1966 Kumamoto acted as one of three presiding judges who ruled in Hakamada's trial, and it was Kumamoto who was the lone dissenter amongst the three officials and the man who eventually challenged the court ruling. Takahashi, takes us into the center of this legal nightmare through the eyes of Kumamoto, as portrayed by Masato Hagiwara. Kumamoto comes to learn of Hakamada's believed innocence after not only going over the 45 books of transcripts of Hakamada's interrogations by police, but also refuting evidence brought forward by the prosecution. We're shown through flashbacks how Hakamada (Hirofumi Arai) suffered through hours of grueling psychological and physical torture by police in order to force a confession from him. Kumamoto knows that Hakamada is innocent of murder, but even after Hakamada's blood stained pajamas come up as a dead end the police and prosecutors come forward with a new set of blood stained clothes. This a year after the initial investigation! Kumamoto does eveything he can, including running his own forensic experiments and eventually resigning as a court judge, in order to prove to the Japanese judicial system that Hakamada has been wrongfully convicted. He's still working on this today.

Takahashi, best known on these shores as the director of of the 2009 religious/ historical epic "Zen", starts his exploration of the Hakamada Incident with a very interesting true life fact - both Hakamada and Kumamoto were both born in 1936, only a short time apart. "Box" begins in 1936 and then through a black and white montage sequence chronicles Kumamoto's legal studies and Hakamada's boxing career. At one point the two men share sit side by side on board a train bound for Tokyo, never suspecting how their two lives will one day be intertwined. It's easy to see the route that Takahashi, who also wrote the screenplay for "Box" is taking. Had Kumamoto's life taken a different turn he could have landed on death row while Hakamada sat in the judge's chair. One short scene from the opening montage speaks more about the rest of the film than all the other real or imagined links between the film's two protagonists though. Takahashi shows us Kumamoto and Hakamada in their respective boyhood school days being instructed by their teachers to black out any offending Imperial propaganda form their textbooks with a brush and black ink. In effect the Japanese school system was forcing what the entire nation of Japan would do in the coming decades - deliberately burying the truth of Japan's war time past in order to create a new post-war identity for their country. It's exactly what occurs in Hakamada's trial two decades later - instead of seeking out the truth behind the murders police and prosecutors find Hakamada, an outsider in Shimizu and an easy scapegoat, and make this young man fit the crime. When it becomes obvious that if a bit of effort and proper examination of evidence will utterly destroy their case the police and the Japanese legal system (barring Kumamoto) decide to bury the truth. It's much easier that way. No one has to admit the terrible legal and moral errors that they made in sending an innocent man to death row.

We've seen films like "Box: The Hakamada Case" before - "Dead Man Walking", "I Just Didn't Do It" and "Vacation" all come to mind, and with legal underdog stories there's always a danger that things can go the route of chest-thumping melodrama. Takahashi avoids this by bringing together a truly impressive cast who bring Kumamoto's crusade for justice to the screen. Hirofumi Arai (Blue Spring, Neibhbor No. 13) downplays Hakamada, giving his character first a feeling of shock and disbelief, then resignation and finally harrowing grief. Meanwhile Renji Ishibashi (Audition) does a star turn as bureaucratic menace Tatematsu, the police detective who leads the investigation (and subsequent inquisition and torture) of Hakamada. Without performances like these "Box" wouldn't have be the film it is - a drama whose complexity is reflected in its deceptively simple title. Is "Box" a reference to Hakamada's earlier profession as a boxer? Is it the "Box" that Hakamada is imprisoned in? Or is it that fact that he's an innocent man forced to fit the mould of a murderer? It's all of the above in this satisfying film.

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