Prison Circle (Japan, 2020) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

A sand animation sequence accompanied by a voiceover about a lonely boy who could not help himself from lying opens and closes Kaori Sakagami’s most recent documentary. The sequence concerns a childhood memory of Taku, an inmate of Shimane Asahi Rehabilitation Center, one of the four subjects of the documentary with whom Sakagami and her film crew spoke and observed over a two-year period inside the prison. Granted unprecedented albeit closely monitored access to the prison’s interiors and four inmates (at least two guards were present and followed the crew at all times, the film readily relates in the beginning), Sakagami and company observe at close range a unique rehabilitation program for first-timers who are deemed to have “low criminal tendencies.” At bottom, Prison Circle presents a patient and concentrated eye characteristic of many observational documentaries (barring occasional inundations of onscreen captions) while also presenting a bit of a different take on the observational film, given the constraints in capturing the goings-on in the prison. Most prominently, all inmates’ faces are blurred, which may frustrate viewers. Yet such a detail inadvertently contributes to the film’s absorbing footage and quality, not to mention significance. If the film’s end may somewhat smack of a PSA for the prison, on the whole, Prison Circle constructs a very strong case that makes it hard to disagree with the powers of dialogue, empathy, and introspection in dealing with prisoners as people who have committed crimes first and foremost, instead of being defined solely as criminals and statistics inside and outside the prison, and contributing to low recidivism rates once released.

That Taku is the subject with whom the film begins and ends is fitting, for he utters two statements at different times that encapsulate the serious and unfortunate recurring variables in family background and life experiences shared by the four inmates: “But my body remembers,” he says to them, and “Family is tough,” he concedes to a staff member. A combination of physical abuse or estrangement within the family and prolonged school bullying, at times categorically extreme in its violence, cuts across the memories and histories revealed by Taku, Masa, Sho, and Ken, all in their twenties and now serving time for their crimes. These painful memories and histories are ironically presented in beautiful sand animation sequences by animator Arisa Wakami, such as the film’s opening and closing moments.

The two statements by Taku also nod to the hands-on process of emotional and psychological understanding of their crimes that the inmates undergo at the prison through which they confront and share such backgrounds and experiences with themselves and fellow inmates. For this Center is the only prison in Japan that offers the program known as “Therapeutic Community,” or TC for short.

The TC program consists of inmates and staff working together for the former to speak of themselves and their crimes and generate mutual emotional support and constructive feedback through a variety of methods: group discussions, writing exercises, role plays of victim and perpetrator, and the “empty chair,” among others. The TC accepts inmates from all across Japan, but membership is limited to forty members at any given time and applicants must fulfill the set requirements, beginning with having the desire and openness to understand and better oneself. Such a limit becomes understandable as the film, divided in several chapters devoted to current as well as former TC members, observes the different activities in which the members and TC staff engage to address a host of issues. The film’s patient and concentrated observational eye is no doubt inspired by the TC staff and members alike, as Sakagami captures long sequences of sessions that seek to extract in as much detail as possible the mindsets, feelings, and ideas that the members are experiencing about their respective pasts and crimes. For instance, the “empty chair” method (expressing one set of feelings to an empty chair that incarnates the other set of feelings) for Sho to work through his internal conflict about the crime that he committed constitutes one of the film’s longer chapters. The long sequence of Sho’s “empty chair” dialogue illustrates clearly the point that members are not pressured to open up unless they are ready, though the understanding is that, once a member, they are there precisely to share their experiences and insights gained from the program’s activities and fellow members.

One of the most (if not the most) important issues raised by the TC staff is the line between victim and perpetrator, which often gets confused; hence the vital importance of facing one’s victimhood first before facing and understanding the subsequent (physical, emotional) harm that one has caused others. The role play of victim and perpetrator for Ken during his chapter is particularly poignant in this regard. It also demonstrates that while the TC staff obviously guides the program, empowering the members to provide understanding, counter perspectives, and encouragement for each other becomes strikingly clear over the course of the film.

If Taku’s words describe histories of abuse experienced and violence committed by these inmates, it is Ken who sums up the TC’s impact when he states, “This is the first time I have good peers,” in all its irony and honesty.

Prison Circle is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.