The values of a ‘Vacation’ from the pressures of work

This is a retro review. During a Facebook discussion, I realized that there are few reviews for this 2008 movie by Hajime Kadoi that is a look at the death penalty in Japan. Instead of looking at the battle–personal and legal against the death penalty, “Vacation” (Kyuka or sometimes Hajime Kyuka) looks at two men and their daily struggle with the death penalty.

The guidelines for the death penalty were established during the 1968 trial of Norio Nagayama who committed four murders at the age of 19 (a minor by Japanese law) and was hanged in 1997. By that time he had written several novels, including the 1983 “Wooden Bridge” for which he received an award.

The criteria are as follows:

  1. Degree of viciousness
  2. Motive
  3. How the crime was committed; especially the manner in which the victim was killed.
  4. Outcome of the crime; especially the number of victims.
  5. Sentiments of the bereaved family members.
  6. Impact of the crime on Japanese society.
  7. Defendant’s age (in Japan, someone is a minor until the age of 20).
  8. Defendant’s previous criminal record.
  9. Degree of remorse shown by the defendant.

The typical stay on death row is 5-7 years although about 1/4 will remain there for over 10 years. The record is likely held by Sadamichi Hirasawa who died while waiting his execution at age 95. He had been on death row for 32 years.  Death row inmates are held at detnetion centeers in Sapporo (Hokkaido), Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. The inmates are usually in solitary confinement, cannot communicate with other prisoners, and may only have three books.

The inmate is informed the morning of the execution and given the change to request their choice of last meal. Their family and legal representatives are not informed until after the execution.

In Japan, the death penalty method is hanging and involves human contact. Not only is the prisoner brought to the hanging room to stand on top of a trap door, but two prison guards act as supporters, men who keep the body from twitching. The two supporters get a week of vacation time. You think you need a vacation, imagine helping a man die and feeling the life drain from his body.

Based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura, the movie follows two people: Toru Hirai (Kaoru Kobayashi) and a death row inmate Shinichi Kaneda (Hidetoshi Nishijima). When we first meet the middle-aged Toru, he is on a train, traveling with his new family, but we learn how he got there in flashbacks.

This is an arranged marriage between the kind of people for whom this system is best suited. Toru is a reserved man with a steady but unattractive job. His bride-to-be, Mika (Nene Ohtsuka) already has a son, Tatsuya (Shusei Uto). In Japan, with such cramped quarters many families opt for only one child.

We don’t learn much about Misako and what happened to her husband. We only know that her son isn’t ready to accept this new father figure and Toru hopes that by having this vacation, he can spend time with his new family.

Kaneda is a murderer, but we don’t learn much about the circumstances behind his crime–just that he has a sister. He is likely the eldest son. And there was more than one victim.  He spends his time, drawing, an activity only made possible by the guards giving him a slight variance in the few privileges allowed death row inmates.

Tatsuya also draws, linking the prisoner Kaneda and Toru’s future family.

Instead of melodrama, this film proceeds quietly. We get into the rhythm of Toru and Kaneda’s daily lives. The cinematography of Hiroyuki Okimura and Yukihiro Okimura allow us to feel the confinement and spartan existence of each man.

This is a sensitive contemplation about the death penalty and the toll it has the men who must carry out the hangings.

This movie was shown in Los Angeles as part of the Japan Film Festival in 2009.


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