In recent years, nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have drawn global attention to some of the longstanding problems of Japan’s criminal justice system, which is sometimes referred to as a “hostage” justice system. Suspects in criminal cases are often detained for lengthy periods of time without bail or access to legal counsel and are subjected to relentless interrogation until a confession — sometimes a false confession — is coerced from them. Presumption of innocence rather than guilt and the right to a fair trial — two cornerstones of modern jurisprudence — are nominally found in the country’s criminal procedure codes, but a number of civil liberties groups are seeking to hold Japanese authorities accountable for their failure to adhere to these principles. As revealed in director Louis Dai’s fascinating documentary Hakamada, advocates for social reform, including anti-death penalty activists, have made considerable strides in bringing about change and helping individuals such as Iwao Hakamada receive the justice he had been denied for over 45 years. Taking its title from the name of the world’s longest-held death row inmate, Dai’s film explains with procedural precision how this former boxing champion became embroiled in a 1966 murder that he claims he did not commit. Presented with all the gripping suspense of a mystery thriller but leavened with moments of familial tenderness in which the titular figure’s sister, Hideko, displays her unflagging commitment to getting her ailing brother a retrial, Hakamada is an eye-opening look at the way that the rush to prosecute often leads to wrongful convictions and can have tragic consequences for many parties besides the accused. Although much work remains to be done before Japan and other countries reach international human rights standards in matters related to prolonged detention and capital punishment, this heartfelt motion picture will surely help that most defendable of causes.
-David Scott Diffrient
English and Japanese with English subtitles