When former Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn used his first press conference since fleeing Japan to give the country’s justice system a one-star TripAdvisor review, it drew a collective shrug from the general public. If, as Dostoevsky said, you can judge a society by how it treats its prisoners, I suspect Japan would score highly for indifference.

That’s partly because most people here know little about life behind bars. For years, the closest most Japanese viewers got to a real-life jail cell was via yakuza flicks. Though TV crews now venture inside the country’s jails on a more regular basis, amazingly, “Prison Circle” is the first feature-length documentary to do so.

Having made two films about the United States’ penal system, director Kaori Sakagami spent six years working to obtain permission to shoot at a Japanese prison. She eventually got the go-ahead from an atypical institution. At the Shimane Asahi Rehabilitation Program Center, the daily regimen is as minutely regulated as any other jail in Japan, but the onus is less on making inmates pay for their crimes than ensuring they don’t reoffend.

Prison Circle (Purizun Sakuru)
Run Time 136 mins.

This extends to the center’s use of therapeutic communities (TCs), a form of mutual self-help treatment that encourages members of a group to support each other. Although the method has been used in prisons in the United States since the 1960s, it was only introduced in Japan a decade ago. Interestingly enough, the inspiration came from Sakagami’s 2004 film “Lifers: Reaching for Life Beyond the Walls.”

“Prison Circle” follows four inmates, all in their 20s, as they make their way through the TC program over a span of two years. Meeting for regular group sessions, inmates are encouraged to face up to their crimes to understand why they committed them and empathize with those whom they hurt in the process. This process takes many forms, from story-writing to discussions, and it soon becomes clear that the most effective counselors are the prisoners themselves.

Sakagami makes it clear from the start that her access, while unprecedented, was far from unfettered. Prisoners’ faces are obscured, and she is only allowed to engage them in conversation during supervised one-on-one interviews. All the same, their personalities come through.

The most affecting scenes involve 27-year-old Kentaro, imprisoned for violently robbing his own grandfather in order to pay off debts. Recalling, during a group discussion, a traumatic experience of bullying, he chokes up, suddenly unable to continue. In a subsequent role-playing session, in which other inmates play the victims of his crime, he breaks down in tears — as does one of his interrogators.

As the film’s closing dedication to “all those who want to end the cycle of violence” makes clear, Sakagami is far from a neutral observer in all this. Her compassion toward the inmates is evident in the way she introduces each of the documentary’s main characters with a section about their childhood memories, depicting unhappy histories of neglect and abuse in elegant sand animation sequences by animator Arisa Wakami.

Although Sakagami resists any narrative voiceover, she bombards the viewer with onscreen text, especially during the film’s opening stretch, which can make the experience of watching “Prison Circle” more akin to sitting in on a university lecture.

It isn’t a great documentary, but it’s an extremely valuable document, with a powerful humanist sentiment that even sceptics may find persuasive.

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