What would you be like if you'd spent the last half-century isolated in a tiny room, not knowing if you were going to make it to the end of the day alive? That is the question Kim Sungwoong asks in Freedom Moon, a new documentary about the Japanese former professional boxer Iwao Hakamada, who was sentenced to death in 1968 for a mass murder. He was held on death row for nearly 46 years – a world record – before his release in 2014.
In 1966, there was a fire at the home of one of Iwao's bosses. According to Iwao, he helped extinguish the fire, only to find the bodies of the executive, his wife and two children, all stabbed to death. Two months later, Iwao confessed to the crime and was arrested. But when the case reached court he immediately retracted his confession, claiming he had been forced into it after sustained periods of torture.
According to his lawyers, Iwao was interrogated for 264 hours over 23 days. Other evidence of Iwao's guilt was shaky: a small amount of gasoline and blood were allegedly found on pyjamas that Iwao was wearing that night. This evidence was later changed to "bloodstained clothes", but the clothes in question would not have fitted Iwao.
Various appeals for a retrial were denied, but once Norimichi Kumamoto – one of the judges who originally convicted Iwao – came out in support of his innocence, the fight gained momentum, and in 2014 he was finally granted a retrial. The presiding judge admitted "the possibility of [Iwao's] innocence has become clear to a respectable degree," and he was released from prison.
By this point, however, the damage to Iwao's life had already been done; he had been diagnosed with institutional psychosis several years prior to his release. This was arguably a result of Japan's inhumane method of detaining death row inmates in solitary confinement, in tiny cells, without any notice of their execution date.
On his release, Iwao was taken under the care of his sister, Hideko Hakamada, now 83, who had maintained that her brother was innocent since his arrest. It is this part of Iwao's life that director Kim Sungwoong documents in Freedom Moon.
"Hideko came to see Sayama [Sungwoong's previous film about another wrongly imprisoned Japanese man] and recognised that I wanted to focus on their everyday life," says Sungwoong. "After getting to know me, she agreed to my making of the film."
Sungwoong spent one-and-a-half years with the siblings, following their progress as Hideko created a home for the two of them and Iwao was reintroduced to the outside world.
The first thing that hits you, on watching the film, is the severity of Iwao's condition. He paces around Hideko's small apartment, creating the same circle, time and time again, seemingly oblivious to other people. He appears to have lost sense of who he is, referring to himself at times as God, the head of all corporations, or an undefeated emperor.
"Because the case was so famous, at certain times – anniversaries, etc – mass media would come flying in, ask huge amounts of intrusive questions, then quickly leave," explains Sungwoong. These moments were perhaps the most uncomfortable parts of the film to watch; crowds of journalists and cameras packed into the tiny apartment with Iwao. Invariably, he was asked about "the incident" – the murder he was wrongly accused of – and each time he flatly denied such an event had ever occurred.
Sungwoong decided to do things differently to other Japanese media. "For the first six months of our filming, we never faced the camera towards him, and there were no questions about the incident. It just didn't feel like the right thing to do," he says. "And if I'd have asked, there would have been this same response of 'it didn't happen' and he'd retreat back into his own world."
Over time, you see a sense of familiarity build up between the two men, largely portrayed through endless games of chess.
To make a poignant film even more poignant, Sungwoong punctuates the film with shots of letters Iwao wrote to Hideko before he became ill. Pointing to a time where pain and injustice was felt with more clarity, the letters speak of his innocence, his experiences inside and the sense of freedom he still feels when he stares out of his cell, at the moon.
While the degenerative effects of Iwao's imprisonment are plain to see, what is just as striking is Hideko's unwavering optimism. She is matter-of-fact about Iwao's condition, and talks about her battles with patience and good humour, almost always smiling, even when Iwao briefly disappears from their home (he'd been shopping). She never seems to be embittered by what the justice system has done to her family's life, just pleased that, at last, her brother is out. It is this, more than anything, that Sungwoong wanted to show.
"The film is actually about Hideko's strength, the power of family and the resilience of the human spirit," says Sungwoong, explaining that he felt this was the only way to get Iwao's story to resonate with a Japanese audience. "Japanese society has a very strong faith in the police, the courts and the justice system – that they can't make mistakes. But of course they do, and this film tries to show that. But people here don't really talk about issues of human rights, so if you try to beat people over the head with it, it wouldn't work. Instead, to use a boxing metaphor, the film is more like a body blow: you don't really feel it at first, but later, it's stayed with you."
The result is a film that, despite its heartbreaking subject matter, is a relatively soft, easy watch – one audiences might be surprised to find themselves laughing along with at certain points.
Perhaps because of lazy stereotypes about Japan being weird or cute, full of green Kit Kats and toilets that wash your bum, it's not especially well known that the country still practices capital punishment. Most executions in Japan happen by hanging and there aren't many successful appeals.
Alongside the US, Japan is the only developed state to have the death penalty, yet Japanese executions receive far less global press attention. Hopefully, by making a film that is both honest and accessible, Freedom Moon will start to shine a light on the Japanese justice system.
Freedom Moon is showing at various venues around Japan now. For details on upcoming international screenings, head to the official site.
Interview translation by Christopher Bondy. More on VICE: