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Freedom Moon: Poignant documentary on Japanese death-row inmate

Kim-Sung Woong’s new film Freedom Moon traces the humiliating and torturous life of champion Japanese boxer Iwao Hakamada, who was incarcerated for 48 years, for a murder he never committed.

world cinema Updated: Jan 11, 2016 15:04 IST
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Kim-Sung Woong’s Freedom Moon traces the humiliating and torturous life of Iwao Hakamada, a one-time champion boxer, who was incarcerated for 48 years for a murder he said he had never committed.
Kim-Sung Woong’s Freedom Moon traces the humiliating and torturous life of Iwao Hakamada, a one-time champion boxer, who was incarcerated for 48 years for a murder he said he had never committed. (Kimon Film)

Capital punishment is medieval and barbarous. It is nothing short of murder by a state, and most countries have abolished the noose. Not Japan, and a new documentary tells the heartrending tale of a death row convict kept in solitary confinement for -- believe it or not -- 48 years. Titled Freedom Moon and made by Kim-Sung Woong, the film traces the humiliating and torturous life of Iwao Hakamada, a one-time champion boxer, who was incarcerated for 48 years for a murder he said he had never committed.

The documentary, which may be screened at the upcoming international documentary movie festival in Mumbai, also features Hakamada’s sister, Hideko, who campaigned tirelessly for all these decades to see her brother walk free.

Hakamada is now free, of course, but years of solitude and the terrible fear of the gallows have left him with a badly deformed mental state. He often walks up and down his flat and is unable to express himself with clarity. Hakamada is 82 today, and he was sentenced to death in 1966 for murdering four members of a family in Shizuoka Prefecture. He was just 32 then, and kept saying that he was innocent and pleading for retrial.

Hakamada is a free man today but years of solitude and the terrible fear of the gallows have left him with a badly deformed mental state. He often walks up and down his flat and is unable to express himself with clarity. (Kimon Film)

In 2014, he walked out the jail after the Shizuoka District Court decided to reopen the case and suspended his death sentence. This legal move came after tests revealed that the bloodstains on clothes-- used as original evidence -- were not Hakamada’s. How cruel could this have been!

However, even though the judicial process is yet to start all over again, he is technically on the death row. But mercifully, the court felt that keeping the man in prison would be “unbearably unjust”. What a late realisation -- and after the man’s entire life is just about over!

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Kim began shooting his documentary two months after Hakamada walked out of jail and in the flat at Hamamatsu, a city in Shizuoka Prefecture. The film shows him pacing up and down the room, a habit he must have picked up during those longs years of isolation. At times, he behaves like an investigator, at times like a judge or even a poet -- which merely indicate the imbalanced state of his mind brought about by a fabrication and a judiciary which failed in its duty.

Some of Hakamada’s jottings in his diary during his early years of punishment said: “I keep asking myself renewed questions. When will I, who have committed no crime, recover my freedom?” Today, there is some sense of normality in Hakamada, who has begin playing his best-loved game, Shogi (Japanese chess), with Kim, and has even gone out alone to buy his favourite sweet bread.

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“I expect those who watch this movie to think about why Mr Hakamada was forced to face death for decades under the judicial system and how such circumstances have made him what he is,” said Kim in an email message to this writer. The helmer is a second generation Korean who has made Japan his home -- as hundreds of his countrymen have.

Earlier, Kim produced another documentary on Kazuo Ishikawa, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a 16-year-old high school girl in Sayama, near Tokyo, in 1963. Ishikawa has always maintained his innocence in what is widely known as the ‘Sayama Case’. He was released on parole in 1994 and has since been campaigning to reopen the case.

The title of the documentary, Until the Invisible Handcuffs are Removed, conveys the fact that Ishikawa remains a parolee, whose fight to clear his name is yet to bear fruit.