Film

Documentary examines death-row inmate’s new life after 48-year wait for hangman

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

A new documentary movie portrays the new daily ordeal of a man who lived for almost half a century in solitary confinement and in fear of the gallows.

“Freedom Moon” depicts the daily life of Iwao Hakamada, a former boxer who served 48 years in prison for murder, most of it on death row. It also features his sister, Hideko, who campaigned tirelessly for his exoneration.

Tragically, the film shows how Hakamada’s decades of solitary confinement and fear of execution have resulted in a badly deteriorated mental state. He paces his apartment and sometimes is unable to express his thoughts clearly.

“I expect those who watch this film 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 the film’s director, Kim Sung-woong.

Kim, a second-generation Korean living in Japan, created a series of educational videos on human rights, focusing on the Ainu indigenous people, the homeless and sexual minorities.

Hakamada, 79, was sentenced to death for the 1966 murder of four members of a family in Shizuoka Prefecture. Just 32 at his sentencing, he maintained his innocence and waged a long-running campaign for retrial.

He was freed in March 2014 after the Shizuoka District Court decided to reopen the case and suspended his death sentence. The move came after DNA tests showed bloodstains on clothing used as evidence was not Hakamada’s.

Since there was reason to believe that evidence had been fabricated in the original trial, the court concluded that keeping him confined while awaiting retrial would be “unbearably unjust.”

His retrial has not yet started, as prosecutors appealed the district court’s decision to the Tokyo High Court, and Hakamada, although free, legally remains on death row.

The film’s shooting began two months after Hakamada’s release from the Tokyo Detention House. It focuses on his new life with Hideko, 82, at an apartment in the city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Scenes from the film show Hakamada walking from room to room like clockwork — a habit apparently reflecting his years of isolation. Hideko comments with a smile, “I don’t know what he thinks about. I just follow what he does.”

At times he presents himself as a top investigator, a judge, or even a poet. Hideko says: “Iwao had remained stable until his death sentence was finalized in 1980, but since then, he has created his own world to withdraw into it.”

Although Hakamada’s prison diary in recent years was mostly incoherent, his words during his early campaign to gain his release are of a man convinced of his innocence.

“The ‘freedom’ I had to learn about during my long life in prison has both a kind of poignant regret and a bright glare to it.

“I keep asking myself renewed questions. When will I, who have committed no crime, recover my freedom?”

Kim points out the irony of Hakamada himself becoming “a man with power in his own world” who as “the omnipotent god” can abolish the death penalty in Japan, although it was the power of public prosecution that locked him up for decades in the first place.

Kim followed Hakamada with a camera for more than a year, and ended up with more than 200 hours of footage.

The film suggests the former inmate has gradually found a normal routine in his new life.

After six months of shooting, Hakamada started playing shogi (Japanese chess) with Kim.

On occasions, he has also gone shopping alone to buy his favorite sweet bread.

“At around this time, he became a little bit expressive. He started smiling, sometimes,” Kim said. “I hope the scope of his ordinary life will expand step by step.”

Kim added: “I wanted to present Ms. Hideko as another lead character as she has supported her brother open-mindedly, although she has gone through hardships.”

Around 900 donors put up ¥9 million of the film’s cost, and a version of “Freedom Moon” with English subtitles has been produced for screening overseas, such as at film festivals.

A previous work of Kim’s covered 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 campaigned to reopen the case.

The title of the film, “Until the Invisible Handcuffs are Removed,” reflects the fact that Ishikawa remains a parolee, whose fight to clear his name has yet to bear fruit.

“I was impressed with his positive outlook despite the hardships he faced, and I also encountered those who were falsely accused while creating the documentary,” Kim said.

“As I know of many people who have been ruined because of false charges, I have no other choice but to continue shooting documentaries on this issue.

“In my next work, I plan to feature people who have been exonerated in retrials following long detentions over high-profile murder cases,” Kim said.

“I want to clarify why they made ‘confessions’ on what they had never committed and how they could maintain hope under extreme conditions until they were able to prove their innocence.”

“Freedom Moon” will be screened next year in cities including Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, as well as Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and Shizuoka.

Further information is available at www.hakamada-movie.com and from Kimoon Film on 042-316-5567.