過去負う者 「Kako ou mono」
Release Date: 2023
Duration: 125 mins.
Director: Atsushi Funahashi
Writer: Atsushi Funahashi (Screenplay),
Starring: Taku Tsuji, June Kubodera, Kiriko Kina, Miyatani, Yoshio Taguchi, Saki Hirai,
With a recidivism rate of 50%, Japanese society has yet to hit upon a way to stop criminals reoffending and relies, instead, on punitive justice. Part of that punitive justice is the social ostracisation that occurs for those previously incarcerated. Getting jobs, finding accommodation, earning people’s trust, all is made harder with a criminal record.
Losing a criminal past is often the subject of films, from Kazuya Shiraishi’s One Night to Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb and Miwa Nishikawa’s Under the Open Sky. It is now the turn of dramatist/documentarian Atsushi Funahashi who shows the difficulties in rehabilitating former criminals with The Burden of the Past, a hard-hitting ensemble docudrama that draws upon the real-life work of CHANGE, a magazine/NPO that aims to help ex-prisoners reintegrate with society.
Written, edited, and directed by Atsushi Funahashi, this two-hour film asks us to witness the work of the staff at CHANGE and the struggle of some of their charges as they battle against the prejudice that others show when asked to live alongside people who have committed crimes.
The film is structured around a year of job interviews, therapy sessions, and work placements before reaching its dramatic climax in a theatre therapy performance where the cast confront their pasts and their present predicaments in front of the public.
We get the perspective of both the people organising and participating in these events. This ranges from absurdly laidback NPO head Takashi Nagata (Miyatani) to idealistic helpers like Saki Ichikawa (Saki Hirai) and June Fujimura (June Kubodera). Then there are ex-criminals such as hit-and-run driver Taku Tanaka (Taku Tsujii) and former drug addict Aya Mori (Kiriko Kina). While the staff at CHANGE are fairly one-dimensional, some of those helped by the NPO are allowed complicated backgrounds which are explored and, subsequently, forms the drama of the film as they endure difficult paths back into society.
Although long and packed with incidents, information, and characters, the film never feels overburdened or meandering thanks to its aesthetic style.
Early on, exposition is efficiently handled through a combination of on-screen text and interviews between NPO staff and the people they help. The subsequent action takes the form of vignettes presented in a faux-documentary style with a handheld camera unobtrusively observing the characters. At times, it feels like an acting workshop what with the low budget and raw acting but with close-ups and the shakiness associated with the style, we feel that immediacy of action and emotion. Although the film was shot in Tokyo and Kawasaki, there are no landmarks or anything to distinguish the locations. This recognisably grey monotonous urban world of the film could stand in for anywhere in Japan. The people we learn about could be one of any number of people we pass by on the street without thinking about and so our minds are focussed on the content while we are also able to relate to what is happening on screen.
While based on real stories and given an air of realism in presentation, any sense of naturalism is stifled by a sense of staginess to the acting and the way storylines are assembled for us. Necessarily so. The film’s central thesis is the difficulty in rehabilitating former criminals. As it strives to realise this, it offers scenes that feel contrived for the sake of drama and characters that seem to behave irrationally.
Are we to believe that Aya, painfully shy and ashamed of her past, would confess her addiction to crystal meth to a complete stranger in her workplace solely on the basis that he sounded nice? Would Saki, so suspicious of a flaky client, suddenly stop tailing him as he seems to be on the verge of committing a heinous crime? For the sake of understanding it’s ideas, we have to go with it.
Acting, too, can be one-note as performers aren’t allowed the time to develop their roles beyond being cyphers for ideas to expound upon the failure of society to help mentally wounded people back into normal life. Indeed, the handling of Taku’s hair-trigger temper becomes an irritating shorthand for the idea that these characters are in need of serious psychological counselling that CHANGE is not set up for. But that opens up the ideas on rehabilitative justice offered by the state, or the lack thereof.
You can see the gears of the plot turning, a predictable path set up to guide us through a parade of pessimistic moments but for all of these breaks in suspension of disbelief, it worked. I found myself paying attention and absorbing the information and learning a lot. The straight-forward presentation was easy to absorb and that meant that when the film reached its theatre climax and the audience and the CHANGE personnel debated their respective positions, I was familiar with the characters, their struggles, the difficulties they faced and so the drama of the confrontation punched itself up a few levels. All distracting thoughts of theatricality and one-note acting were gone and I was swept up in the debate by the emotional intensity the cast brought to their roles, ever mindful of what I had just watched.
The scene caught me off-guard and felt like a bruising encounter between the two sides: the audience inflexible, and not without some reason, and the CHANGE group simply desperate and grasping at any possibility of forgiveness. The raw emotions on the screen in the arguments brought me to tears with the simple pleas for understanding and the memories the film gave of people’s prejudice playing out. It is a breathtakingly ferocious sequence. It also offers a bleak view of society’s intolerance for those who have fallen out of its favour. Funahashi has succeeded in his thesis.
The Burden of the Past plays again at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2023 on March 16.