This Lunar New Year, I present a Lunar New Year Miracle…from a country that no longer celebrates it at this time.
So, if the title of the movie has not driven you off yet, here is your warning that this movie is…difficult.
The film starts out as if it is going to be a polemical documentary, calling out the majority of Japanese who oppose the abolition of Capital Punishment by asking them (twice) if they have seen an execution. During the next six minutes, the voice of the director (who is never heard from after this) shows the viewer around an execution chamber. Eventually the chamber is occupied by several men, including a 22-year-old man who is being sent to his death. He struggles a bit, but the guard manage to get the noose around his neck. The trapdoor is opened and the man falls through.
Twenty minutes later, the doctor goes once again to check the man’s vital signs. Amazingly, he is still alive, though unconscious. Few people make it past fifteen minutes. Suddenly, the previously efficient professionals become dumbfounded by this anomaly. The doctor is astonished. The public prosecutor refuses to do anything but bear witness. The prison employees don’t know what to do. They check the rope and conclude that the problem was not on their end. The chaplain insists that the execution has gone through, even if the man is technically still alive. Against all logic, he should be right. The execution was not botched; the man simply did not die.
Against the wishes of the chaplain, it is decided that they must execute the man again. However, they are not allowed to execute an unconscious man. The doctor did not bring the proper equipment to revive the convict, since he came only to confirm death and not to preserve life. Eventually, the convict does regain consciousness, but he appears to have lost almost all of his memories. The only thing that he remembers is that he knows the education officer. The doctor concludes that the convict has amnesia and the others, for the most part, appear to go along with this.
There may be some places in the world where a criminal being mentally unfit or unable to remember committing a crime does not preclude being executed, but it is a problem here. The convict, In-re R, has to understand why he is being executed and why it is justified. He has to state his own guilt. Unfortunately, R seems to have no concept of any concept. He does not even know his own name. He is calm and distant; not like a smug sociopath, but like a nearly complete blank slate. He is confused, but not really bothered by his confusion, which only makes the others more frustrated. There is some question as to whether he is faking, but not much. Besides, unless they can prove that he is faking, they cannot simply move forward.
The chaplain continues to insist that R’s soul has already departed during the execution, so that the man who inhabits R’s cannot be held responsible. Yet, he is overruled by pretty much everyone else. It is decided that they must jog the convict’s memory. They try to remind him of his execution, but he doesn’t respond. They try to remind him of his breakfast that morning, but he responds only with an irrelevant question. Then they read the court documents about his crimes of rape and murder, but he responds again with an irrelevant question.
Eventually, the education officer leads the others to haphazardly reenact the brutal acts of rape and murder of two girls that R committed when he was 18-years-old. Unfortunately, R initially does not respond to the reenactments and when he does respond, it is with confusion over the accusations that he is R, the one who had committed the crimes. He does not even know why the other men keep saying R.
The education officer has to explain to R that R is his name…at least it is his Korean name. His Japanese name is Shimizu, but his Korean name of R means that he is ethnically Korean. Personally, I have never heard of R being a Korean name, but whatever. R does not understand what a Korean is, so the education officer struggles to explain the idea of Japan, Korea, and the peoples of both nations. Despite being born in Japan, R’s Korean parentage makes him Korean and he is a registered citizen of South Korea. The education officer gives up, stating simply that R is Korean and Koreans are inferior. It would have been much easier to explain their differences, he complains, had R been Black.
When the education officer tries to bring things back to the subject of the crime, R asks what rape is and why one would want to do that. A flustered education officer gives probably the most callously goofy motivation for rape and then sighs that he had not felt that way for a long time. He tries explaining the concept of carnal desire to R, when it is permitted and when it is not. He then muses that perhaps the person who gives into such forbidden carnal desires becomes a criminal. He then theorizes that R did not have anyone to teach him right from wrong when he was growing up, despite having a large family. When R asks what a family is, the education officer decides to reenact R’s family life. Almost all of the workers take part, playing R, his parents, and his siblings. Obviously tainted with a healthy dose of ethnic prejudice, the reenactment shows R’s family to be poor, crude, drunken, dysfunctional, and miserable. The education officer says that R was very bright for a Korean. He went to work during the day and went to school at night. He read great books and hoped to read more. The education officer says that he could have gone to university and maybe even become a civil servant.
By this point, R seems to understand that the crimes were bad, but he does not seem to understand that he is the one who had committed them. He still does not understand that he is R, and he does not want to die. The education officer screams at R, reminding him that he had phoned the police and the press to say that his murders were fine art. This seems to turn R around a bit. He is still not convinced that he is R, the man from a poor Korean family who had raped and murdered two girls. But maybe he may discover who he is if he takes part in the reenactments.
And this is where the movie starts to get strange.
The 1960s were a time of socio-political upheaval in many parts of the world, including Japan. A lot of movies being made in the latter half of the decade were softcore porn and political polemics. Death By Hanging falls squarely in the second category. There is nothing here meant to titillate. In fact, the movie’s style, which starts out as mockumentary, descends almost immediately into farce, and then takes a turn for the semi-surreal, is meant to keep the audience at an emotional distance. There is little attempt to establish realism, and there are certain points in the movie where both real-world logic and internal logic are deliberately ignored. It does not pull on the heartstrings, but provoke thematically and confront intellectually. Many articles refer to this movie as Brechtian, after Marxist playwright Bertold Brecht. This certainly has a style.
I cannot say that I am particularly fond with this style. This movie is by Nagisa Oshima, the same guy behind Japanese Summer – Double Suicide, which I talked about last November. As with that movie, I liked this movie because was funny. There is quite a bit of…well, gallows humor, particularly during the first two thirds. That I could laugh at it instead of just squint and scratch my head helped to smooth out some of the frustrating choices and its approach to the rather disturbing subject matter.
Yeah, this movie’s attitude towards rape (and murder) may be callously dismissive, even for a male-centric Japanese movie from the 1960s, subordinating the inherently horrifying nature of those acts to political allegory. I cannot really make excuses for that, especially since Oshima has gone to this well a lot. Saying that the movie makes me laugh is possibly the worst way for me to recommend this movie, but…uh, yeah, there is really no acceptable rationalization for this. At best, I can say that to have the prisoner be guilty of a lesser crime or innocent, the question of whether he as an individual deserves the punishment may overwhelm the question of the punishment itself.
The movie states the argument that state-sanctioned killing is no different than murder. Thus, if R is guilty of murder, then those responsible for his execution are also guilty of murder. In the case of this particular movie, the argument that the execution will prevent future crime and is punishment for past crimes falls through. It is implied early on that at least one of the people involved in the execution had taken part in war crimes during the Second World War, possibly in Korea. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that others have as well. R may have been a horrible rapist and murderer, but the Japanese characters do not have the moral high ground. Why should he hang for his crimes when they have not? The one thing separating R from the Japanese men is that he might murder again if he is set free. Then again, who knows if Japan may go to war again? Oddly enough, the movie touches on how some of the characters killed people before, but it does not say whether any of them had actually raped anyone. There is implication, but in a movie this brazen and unsubtle, it was a noticeable that it did not connect the dots as explicitly as it did regarding murder.
Aside from the chaplain (I don’t remember if it was actually stated that he took part in any war crimes), none of the Japanese characters seem to exhibit anything regarding guilt or shame. The closest thing may be embarrassment at having to take part in the reenactments. They show absolutely no remorse for their war crimes, not even considering them to be crimes. They show no compassion for R’s victims, let alone R’s family. The education officer in particular performs the reenactments with glee and he occasionally lets slip references to rather nasty desires that he may or may not harbor.
None of the Japanese characters are given names. They are known only by their job titles, and there are moments of irony. The education officer gives out really stupid-sounding explanations to almost all of R’s questions. The doctor is here only to confirm death and, during one moment in the reenactments, he uses his stethoscope to mock-strangle someone else. As for R, well, it is explained later in the movie that he adopted the name R when he was awakened to nationalism, but that might not be true. So maybe R means something else. Rapist? Rebel? Perhaps it stands for Ri Chin’u. Ri was an intelligent Japanese-born Korean who raped and murdered two Japanese girls in 1958. He made many political statements regarding the murders, a few of which were used in the movie’s dialog.
The movie touches upon the colonial oppression of the Korean people by Japan between 1910 and 1945 as well as the continued discrimination against ethnic Koreans in Japan. It may be important to note that anti-Korean sentiment and actions were still a big deal in 1968, perhaps comparable to how Black people were treated in the United States or how France treated the native populations in the colonies that it still had. Japan and South Korea had established political relations in 1965 and the results were a little dubious, especially since the people in charge of South Korea were those who had been collaborators under the Japanese occupation. Whether or not the prejudice on the part of the Japanese characters in this movie are exaggerated, the effects were real: poverty, lack of options, denial of employment, imbalanced dispensation of justice, feelings of absolute powerlessness, and loss of identity. Things may be better now, but there are still aftereffects.
In the movie, the education officer notes that R’s hard upbringing and his supposed trajectory were similar to that of one of the guards, a notion that is utterly laughable. As to drive the point home, the guard walks up to R and hits him in the head, saying only afterwards that he had heard that that might cure amnesia. I have talked about movies in this series where men lash out at an unjust world by committing injustice of their own. Sometimes violently. This movie takes that to an unapologetically disturbing extreme. R’s intelligence was belittled, his prospects were blocked, his dreams were destroyed, his rage was met with disdain, his mind was warped. So he did the worst thing that he could do. His actions were denounced, his freedom was taken, his life rendered worthless. All that he had left was his body; not what he could do with his body, just his body. So his body rebelled against death. The people taking part in his execution had thought that they could because they made the rules made a certain type of murder socially acceptable. R’s real crime was committing rape and murder outside of the rules that the Japanese follow without question. And his refusal to die as expected turned those rules against his would-be murderers, throwing their orderly world into chaos. Whether or not he deserved to die for his crimes, these men would not be the ones who would kill him.
R has lost his sense of identity. He does not lament the loss; it has just happened. He was executed, but instead of dying, he has changed from a brutal rapist and murderer into a passive nobody. Similarly, the atomic bombs did not destroy Japan, but turned it into a pacifist nation. R has no memory of his crimes; Japan would rather forget its wartime atrocities while still revering the “heroes” of war. R seems to treat his criminal past as the past of someone else. Contemporary Japan would rather not be blamed for the mistakes of generations past, even if many in the generations past are still in charge. R was smart and hardworking, perhaps destined for greatness; surely he was more than a brutal murderer and rapist. But he was still condemned to death. Should we have sympathy for him? Of course not, he raped and murdered an innocent girl. If, however, he does deserve to be executed for his crimes, then why not the entirety of Japan as well? Or, at least the 71% who supported Capital Punishment back then.
This movie may be over fifty years old, but the subjects that it brings up resonate today. Even if you completely disagree with the director’s argument or the way that he frames it, this is not a film to dismiss. If you can accept the stylistic quirks, you might find some food for thought here. Enjoy.
WTF ASIA 92: A Simple Life (Hong Kong: 2011, approx. 118 minutes)
WTF ASIA 93: Parasite (South Korea: 2019, approx. 132 minutes)