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Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2002

A simple life in the big house

Keimusho no Naka

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Director: Yoichi Sai
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

We live in overstimulated times. Sometimes we need to step back from the e-mail, cable TV and the rest of the media stream that flows ceaselessly over every waking hour and realize how different existence can be without it. It's not easy for the more connected among us, for whom gadgetry has become an extension of self -- my keitai is me! -- but it can be done. There are still mountaintops and islands out there where one can find peace, quiet and not a single Internet provider.

News photo
(From left) Teruyuki Kagawa, Toshifumi Muramatsu, Yutaka Matsushige, Tomoro Taguchi and Tsutomu Yamazaki in Yoichi Sai's "Keimusho no Naka"

But after semipermanently leaving the modern world behind, one still has to fill the hours, not to mention put food on the table. For every self-sufficient Robinson Crusoe, many more would find the tranquillity maddening, the freedom overwhelming. They crave community, structure, security and all the rest of it. What is the solution? A monastic order? A mental institution? Or, as Yoichi Sai's new film suggests, prison?

Based on a comic by former prisoner Kazu'ichi Hanawa, "Keimusho no Naka (In Prison)" presents prison as, if not a paradise, an excellent place for relearning to appreciate the little things amid well-ordered surroundings, while not sweating the small stuff, like a roof and three squares meals. The tone, as might be expected, is gently ironic, but the film's underlying message is sincere. Want inner serenity? Check into the Gray Bar Hotel.

This message is counter to everything Hollywood has taught us about prison, going back to the 1930s Warner exposes of Big House life, starring Wallace Beery and James Cagney. And not only Hollywood; in his 1999 novel "A Man in Full" Tom Wolfe presents life in a California prison as a Dante-esque hell. The prisoner protagonist spends his nights listening to the ravings of the demented and depraved, and his days struggling to survive in a society of human wolves, with the ultimate trauma -- gang rape -- an ever-present threat.

In Japan, as Sai makes clear in scene after wryly funny scene, they do things differently. The Hokkaido prison where the hero, the elderly-but-still-spry Hanawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is sent for a three-year stretch is organized and operated along lines derived from the old Imperial Army. The guards never beat or otherwise abuse the prisoners, but they constantly order them about, with curt, shouted commands. The prisoners march or jog in formation everywhere and are forever falling in line, either standing or in seiza (i.e., kneeling in the formal Japanese style). Every minute is accounted for, every act is circumscribed by a myriad rules, each one of which must be obeyed to the letter.

If a prisoner carving wooden tissue boxes in a workshop wants to take a toilet break, he must first raise his hand, be acknowledged by the guard, step up and state his request, receive the appropriate tag, hang it over the toilet door (thus notifying the world whether he is doing No. 1 or No. 2), complete his business and return the tag, with the appropriate bow and thanks. No variation is tolerated in this minutely choreographed drama, one of dozens that play out in the course of a day.

The prisoners, in short, are deprived of every speck of autonomy, if not human dignity, and are treated more like unruly boys than men who have committed crimes. This is the sort of feudalistic, paternalistic mentality that half a century of democratization was supposed to change -- but in Sai's prison it thrives, as though the clock had permanently stopped in 1942.

Hanawa, his four cellmates (Teruyuki Kagawa, Tomoro Taguchi, Yutaka Matsushige, Toshifumi Muramatsu), and the other cons not only get with this program, but internalize it to an absurd degree. They follow their rigid routine without major complaint, while delighting in the smallest privileges. The prospect of osechi ryori (traditional New Year's food) prompts one prisoner (Houka Kinoshita) to deliver a rapturous monologue on the delights awaiting them, accompanied by mouth-watering shots that would not be out of place on a cooking show. Treated to a movie, a can of Coke and boxes of cookies for "good behavior," one of Hanawa's cellmates (Taguchi) is transported to con heaven, reveling in each crunch and sip as he watches the show ("Kids Return" by Sai pal Takeshi Kitano).

There is no story as such, just the unfolding of prison routine, in incident after deftly pointed incident, to ever more amusing effect. But though nothing much happens, save for Hanawa's brief stretch in solitary for a minor violation of the rules, many things are revealed. One is that, for all the fussing and shouting, the regime is generally humane: The food is plentiful and healthy, if plain, the prisoners live in clean, if Spartan, quarters and the various jobs, games and diversions keep them productively and, for the most part, happily occupied. Far from being an indictment of the Japanese prison system, the film is a backhanded love letter.

This is because Sai closely followed Hanawa's manga, without its obsessively detailed descriptions of prison life, while faithfully reflecting Hanawa's own fascination with the penal system. Like his onscreen hero, Hanawa was arrested for altering model guns to make them more like the real thing but, as the program notes explain, as a first-time offender, he probably could have won a suspended sentence. Instead, he opted to serve his three-year stretch -- and gather the material that later became "Keimusho no Naka."

Sai, whose previous films include the comedies "Tsuki wa Dotchi ni Deteriru (All Under the Moon)" and "Inu Hashiru (Dog Race)," may gloss over some of the system's darker realities, but he captures the way prison life strips away superficialties for the hero and, in a fundamental way, makes the world new again.

As played by Yamazaki, in a uncharacteristically quiet and uncluttered performance, Hanawa is less an actor in the small dramas of prison life than a close observer. Forced to live like a 13-year-old on an old-fashioned school excursion, he comes to think and feel like one. Though approaching his dotage, he finds himself thrilled to the core of his being by the spectacle of falling snow. In a culture jaded with electronic sensation, this moment has the force of revelation -- and is the ultimate luxury.

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