Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 19, 2023 6:10 pm 
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Japanese justice finds a little pity

December is a Japanese courtroom drama with a less predictable outcome than most, given that the conviction rate is 99% in their system, normally. Here, a little mercy is being considered - though we don't know till the last minute what the judge will decide - for a young woman convicted of first degree murder at age 17. It's seven years later, and a sort of retrial is being conducted. Her lawyer Toru Kizu), proposes that she should not have been sentenced as an adult, to 20 years, and might be eligible for release.

The defendant is Kana Fukuda (Ryo Matsuura), a young woman who has a haunted look about her. She also often says that she is guilty and deserves punishment. She would still like to be free, to help others. Prospects are grim: she has no one now: never knew her father, and her mother just died. As the trial goes on, though, she testifies, and has decided to speak up for herself. She declares that the victim, Emi Higuchi (Kanon Narumi), whom she stabbed to death when they were both 17, mercilessly bullied her, along with classmates, with her the gang leader.

But this is almost peripheral. A big focus is on the victim, Emi's, parents, who are now divorced - trauma like this often destroys a marriage) - but now are drawn together by attending the trial, then pull apart, then draw tentatively together again. Emi's father is Katsu (the single-named Shogen), a writer, who's life has been derailed by their daughter's death and has become his whole focus in life. His drinking is out of hand and he passionately, rabidly, seeks to guarantee that Kana is put away for good. He is enraged at their being this retrial.

Katsu calls Kana a "monster," as do others. It becomes clear that viciously demonizing wrongdoers is commonplace in Japan and an explanation of the cruelty of the legal system. Katsu's ex-wife is Sumiko (the single-named Megumi), who has been married for five years to a man she met in a support group for grieving parents. Things aren't very good for him now, because the new marriage has to take second place to a revival of the torments of the murdered daughter and the bond of pain between Sumiko and Katsu, which has more than a little sex in it.

Shogen, who plays Katsu, is bearded and handsome. His Katsu is a mess, and drinks like a fish, but he's passionate and sexy. The new husband is bespectacled and plain. But he is determined to make a go of it. Is this reopening of wounds going to destroy another marriage; revive the old one? We are left in the dark about that.

But Sumiko has a realization: it's time to put things to a rest. While Katsu delivers hysterical testimony at the trial, by the time it comes to Sumiko's turn, her words are soft and ambiguous as to whether she cares, or what she thinks.

As for us, the audience, we are being swayed by flickering flashbacks to Kana's as a uniformed high schooler being attacked and mocked by classmates. We gather that while the murder was wrong, obviously, Kana was driven to it. There's also the suggestion that Katsu's obsession with revenge has destroyed him. The arc of justice is turning toward forgiveness. Sumiko goes to the prison and meets with Kana, an unusual gesture that means Sumiko can't participate in the trial anymore. Eventually Katsu chooses to do this too, and he insists he meet freely with Kana, without barriers - which leads to a dramatic, suspenseful scene. By now the main opposition to forgiveness, or correction, since the 20-year sentence can be seen as a judicial error, lies with the judge, a woman, who will evaluate the crime and the sentence in a climactic penultimate scene.

Much has been made of the fact that this film was directed by a non-Japanese, Anshul Chauhan, who was born in India who started as an animator. He set up his own production company seven years ago. This third feature, and the one of widest appeal, though the first two, Bad Poetry Tokyo (2018) and Kontora (2019) got a good critical reception, signaling a move of non-Japanese directors toward the Japanese mainstream. This may be less important for non-Japanese viewers, and all acknowledge that the film doesn't reveal a "foreign" hand. Nonetheless Max Schilling in his Japan Times review cites December as signaling a new diversity in Japanese cinema. For us it provides hints of new Japanese attitudes toward guilt and punishment of teenage offenders and some insight into the impact of bullying, the way the trauma of a child's murder reshapes a marriage, alcoholism in Japan, and cracks in the rigid justice system.

December ‘赦し’, 99 mins., script by Rand Colter and Moteki, debuted at Busan Oct. 22, 2022, showing also at Goteborg, Osaka, Helsinki and Udine. Released in Japan Mar. 2023. Screened for this review as part of the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival.
Monday, July 24
6:00 PM Walter Reade Theater

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