Kim Sung-woong, a documentary film director, says he listened with awe as he heard remarks by a man who was falsely accused in a high-profile murder case.
The previously condemned man had an air of positivity that was surprising considering he’d spent a good chunk of his life behind bars.
“It was unfortunate for me to be arrested over what I didn’t commit, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have been unhappy,” Shoji Sakurai told Kim seven years ago, when Kim was shooting a film about Kazuo Ishikawa, a man currently seeking exoneration from a murder case that happened over a half a century ago.
“I could not understand why Mr. Sakurai could say what he did considering the hardships unreasonably imposed on him,” says Kim, a second-generation Korean living in Japan. “This curiosity inspired me to film Mr. Sakurai and other falsely accused people so I could find the answer.”
His search has bore fruit as a new film “Gokutomo” (“Friends in Prison”), which will be screened at select movie theaters in March before its subsequent nationwide screenings.
The film features Sakurai, 71, who was jailed for almost 30 years together with Takao Sugiyama over a 1967 murder-robbery known as the “Fukawa Incident,” before their acquittal in 2011. Sugiyama died in 2015 at the age of 69.
Another main subject in “Gokutomo” is Toshikazu Sugaya, 71, who was also acquitted in 2010 of the 1990 murder of a girl, the “Ashikaga Case,” after serving more than 17 years of a life sentence.
The three were supporting efforts by Ishikawa, 79, who seeks a retrial over the 1963 “Sayama Case,” in which a 16-year-old female high school student was killed in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture. He was convicted, based mostly on his temporary confession, and spent more than 30 years locked up before his release on parole in 1994.
All four of the men were imprisoned at the Chiba Prison, near Tokyo, and they appear to reminisce about their past time spent in the facility together.
“I had thought they would engage in serious conversations about their experiences during the detention, but it was as if they were attending an alumni meeting,” Kim says.
In the prison, they played baseball and shogi while attending singing contests.
Sakurai wrote poetry and composed songs, while Ishikawa, who was born in a severely ostracized buraku district, learned how to read and write while he was imprisoned though he had little schooling growing up in poverty.
“I would not be released until my innocence was proven, even if I cried and screamed,” Sakurai says in the film. “So, I decided to survive by seeking out something interesting.”
The two also secretly exchanged information, while playing shogi, about how to achieve their exonerations through retrial.
Kim, who would regularly film them, says he gradually learned why they were able to remain so positive.
“For them, the prison was inevitably a place to live, to learn and to spend their youthful days,” he says. “They could not help being positive, and they have affirmatively led their lives ever since their release.”
Kim’s previous films include “Until the Invisible Handcuffs are Removed,” which focuses on Ishikawa’s struggle to reopen the Sayama Case, and “Freedom Moon,” depicting the daily life of Iwao Hakamada, who was convicted of a 1966 quadruple murder and released in 2014 following a 48-year detention after a district court decided to reopen the high-profile case, based on DNA tests.
The court concluded there was reason to believe that evidence had been fabricated in the original trial and that keeping Hakamada, 81, confined while awaiting retrial would have been “unbearably unjust,” but he is still on death row as prosecutors appealed the lower court’s decision to the Tokyo High Court.
As a death row inmate, Hakamada spent six years together with Ishikawa, who also faced the death sentence initially before a commutation to life imprisonment, at the Tokyo Detention House.
The latest film shows the friends from prison — Ishikawa, Sakurai and Sugaya — sometimes visit Hakamada, another “gokutomo,” at his apartment in Shizuoka Prefecture, where he lives with his elder sister Hideko.
Hideko has devotedly supported her brother, whose mental state has deteriorated due to the decades-long solitary and endless fears about execution. In an apparent reaction to being institutionalized, Hakamada began referring to himself as “the omnipotent God.”
Kim says, “Mr. Hakamada must also have tried to remain positive in prison, despite the harsh conditions, and I think it has led him to create his own world, in which he himself became a ‘man with power.'”
“Gokutomo” (“Friends in Prison”) will be screened in Kikuyo, Kumamoto, on March 17; Tokyo on March 24 and Mito, Ibaraki, on March 25. For more information, visit www.gokutomo-movie.com.