The Japanese title of Doing Time, Keimusho no naka, is especially apt. It translates simply as “Inside Prison.” Free of any idiomatic overtones and stylistic embellishments, “Inside Prison” delivers exactly what it promises: men inside prison. While not a documentary (but based on the experiences of manga artist Hanawa Kazuichi), the film focuses on the minutia of the lives of men while keimusho no naka, inside prison. That it does so poignantly and humorously makes Doing Time an unmitigated success.
Hanawa, played with perfect understatement by veteran actor Yamazaki Tsutomu, best known as the cowboy truck driver in Tampopo (1985), is sent to jail for illegal arms possession, the same as the real-life Hanawa. He’s no career criminal—he just finds happiness in harmlessly discharging firearms into bottles of water. In America, he could be president. In Japan, he’s a criminal. Hanawa lives in a studio-apartment-sized cell with four other men. This is not a maximum security prison: there’s tatami mats on the floors, men are allowed needles and thread to sew missing buttons, and they’re allowed to keep soy and vegetable sauce bottles in their cells, as food is served not in a cafeteria but off carts in the hallways.
Food, in the absence of precious little stimuli, becomes the main focus of the prisoners. Talk often turns to what will be served for the next meal, and pre-printed menus are consulted and fantasized over. In one sequence, a commercial for sweets comes on while the five are watching TV in their cell. Close-ups of watering mouths and smacking lips reveal just how important this has become to them. It’s not sex that they miss (although they are men, and masturbation is alluded to) but something sweet, which has become a stand-in for freedom, a symbol of the outside world. They may not be in a maximum-security prison but they’re in prison nonetheless.
Were this a typical prison film, it would undoubtedly devolve into gang wars, shower rapes, exercise-yard shankings. Doing Time instead shows us, episodically, just what life is like for the men inside. Much of their time is spent staying on the good side of the guards, who control every aspect of their lives, even down to bodily functions. God forbid you do a crossword puzzle in a magazine without copying it out first, for that will get you dragged to solitary confinement. Hanawa eventually goes to solitary but instead of loneliness finds there a small amount of peace, free from the annoyances of communal living.
Director Sai Yoichi has been making films for over 20 years in Japan. That experience really shows in Doing Time, which is directed with extreme confidence and control. Sai is relatively unknown in the US but that is bound to change due to his obvious talent. Blood and Bones (2004), Sai’s epic Korean-Japanese gangster biopic, is perhaps his best-known film.