In and Out of The Big House: DOING TIME and 9 SOULS

By his own admission, noted Mangaka (pro comics creator) Kazuichi Hanawa had long been interested in themes of confinement. An early, unfinished experiment was a manga concerning a masked man locked up in a basement. It’s oddly appropriate then that Hanawa, a noted collector of replica firearms would, years later, be incarcerated in Hokkaido and serve roughly twenty months of a three-year sentence (December 1994-October 1996) after “trying out” some remodelled guns he’d acquired.

By all accounts, the sentence was severe, but as Tomofusa Kure notes in his afterword to Doing Time, Hanawa’s manga-memoir of his jail experiences:

“With the fall of the USSR, Russian military discipline became lax and some of the hard-up troops began to smuggle weapons along the Hokkaido coast. In the city of Sapporo, you often saw ‘Cease illegal firearms ownership’ posters. So it looks like they handed down this sentence as an example.”

Hanawa himself was against appealing the sentence and one surely has to wonder why. Perhaps, as an artist, the chance to experience literal confinement, whether unconsciously or not, was simply too great to resist. In any event, the result of his prison stretch was the aforementioned Doing Time (2000), a 200+ page memoir that surely has to be the most rigorously-documented account of the tedium of imprisonment ever put to paper.

Doing Time is, on one hand, as clinical and detached as a textbook. On the other, it’s a fascinating account of prison, stripped of all pulp-fiction flights of fancy. There are no riots, no self-mutilation, no abuse of authority, no gang warfare. The whole account is so very civilised. So very Japanese.

The reader, upon opening the book, is immediately shown, with figures reminiscent of the most exquisitely rendered paper dolls, “How To Dress In Prisoner’s Clothes.” Seasonal uniforms, armbands denoting prison occupation and the order in which these outfits are to be assembled upon the wearer – it’s all here. The educational, instructional nature of the comic is not lost on Hanawa either as, whether ironically or not (it is Japan, one can never be truly sure), the artist gives us a disclaimer on the first page of comics proper – an inset panel of a small child reading, captioned “Illustrated Story For Good Children.”

Also immediately apparent is the obsessive observation of meals and the foodstuffs they contain. There’s no gruel here in Hokkaido Prison, oh no, no flies in the hash, or jizz in the milk, uh-uh. Pickled plums, cereals, crumbed pork cutlets, miso with potato and seaweed, gyudon, corned beef, fried fish, dumplings, on and on it goes: I’ve eaten in worse Japanese restaurants in downtown Melbourne. Hell, I ate at worse ones in Osaka. There’s even a chapter here entitled, “This Food Will Bankrupt Japan.”

Clearly, this is not Tango & Cash. If the worst one has to endure in a Japanese jail is a lack of smokes, boredom and squat toilets, man, it sounds like writer’s camp to me. Hanawa does allude to a “punishment cell” that prisoners are sent to for rule-breaking, but considering the solitary confinement cells are “quite agreeable” according to the author, one can’t help but smile when musing on what “horrors” may lurk within. No fried pork? Rice rationing? No access to the wide selection of educational texts on offer?  The horror!

Visually, Hanawa depicts himself as some sort of oddly-proportioned dwarf jonesing for cigarettes and enjoying the splendour of the snowfall. Comedic in appearance and attitude, constantly waging his one-man war against boredom, he gets a job masking paper bags. He pushes himself to the limit in this endeavour, vowing at one point, “I’m gonna make 300 bags today.” He’s so scattered that even his poetic attempts at profound jail-inspired proverbs are undercut by his inability to complete them. “The heart afflicted by short days finds comfort in tea,” he begins, hands wrapped around a steaming mug, “or something like that,” he concludes, mind already wandering on to less philosophical thoughts.

Every hint of possible drama or suspense is hilariously negated almost at the exact moment it is created. For example, Hanawa sees odd movements coming from a cell opposite and wonders what its occupant is up to. Forget any Rear Window-styled scenario, for literally two panels later it’s revealed, “Oh, he’s just exercising.”

What about sharing a cell with multiple prisoners? No problem. Food, family life and TV shows (each shared cell has a set) are topics of thoughtful discussion, prison rape is simulated in a still-clothed pantomime, causing such hysterical laughter that a guard has to reprimand Hanawa and co., reminding them that they “aren’t on a field trip.” There is real camaraderie here, Cool Hand Luke without the eventual heartbreaking destruction of spirit and, ironically given Doing Time’s location, individuality.

In 2002, Doing Time was filmed. Unseen by this writer, it’s described as a comedy-drama. Instead of comparing the two (I see little point in that), let’s shift our focus to one of the coolest J-films of the last decade, Toshiaki Toyoda’s astonishing jailbreak flick, 9 Souls.

As we’ve seen from Doing Time, Japanese prisoners seem civil, contemplative and willing to share what little space they have compared to the ear-lopping, tall-tale-telling madmen we have here in Australia and the occasional race wars you guys have in US penitentiaries. However, if you lock a couple of murderers, an escape artist/M.D., a violent biker, a porn king, a drug dealer, a delinquent and a “general loose cannon” up in a single cell, not even the comfiest of futons will see you through a long stretch in the big house.

Young turk of J-cinema (well, once young) Toshiaki Toyoda (Blue SpringPornostar  [not about porn at all]) made 9 Souls in 2003. The film squeezes all of the prisoners listed above around a jail cell dinner table. They chow down in a scenario straight out of Doing Time and then promptly bust loose, on the hunt for former cellmate counterfeit “king” Yamamoto-san’s supposed stashed loot at the foot of Mount Fuji. Inspired by (yet utterly unlike in every conceivable way) The Great Escape9 Souls is a surprising film. Far from the brutal arterial spray-filled tough guy-fest you may be expecting, Toyoda wrings a surprising amount of humour from his plot, yet never crosses the line into crazy, whacked-out Japanese comedy (which I’m pretty sure you literally have to be Japanese to enjoy) – even when they all get up in drag. It’s nine guys in a van, on the road, on the hunt for the loot and getting into all sorts of shit on the way.  It also has one of the coolest soundtracks of any modern Japanese film, thanks to dip, and a truly thrilling and fun breakout sequence.

Of course, prisoners drop off, find their own slice of freedom, or flat out get busted. Yet each gets his own screen time, is allowed to develop in often unorthodox ways that alternate in tone and mood. Little Person Mame Yamada, for example, is the escape artist. Yet, not only is he also a doctor, he once gave a kidney to a woman he fell in love with. He doesn’t care about treasure buried at Fuji-san, all he wants is to find the woman who literally has a part of him. Find her he does, in a strip club called The Lucky Hole. The van the fugitives steal in a pretty hilarious scene involving a stoned raver actually belongs to the club and this is one of many little thematic links played out over 9 Souls’ two-hour runtime without ever being particularly explicit about it. It’s unusually restrained for a Japanese genre film – hell, for any Japanese film – and I don’t just mean the lack of spurting blood (although it does have its fair share).

Anyway, Mame’s stripper/transplant recipient is played by model Misaki Ito and this is as good an excuse as any to play the scene – there is no nudity for you folks fretting at work, but, for those banging their desks in frustration, it does feature the hands-down best Japanese song ever, chitchana toki kara by Maki Asikawa from her 1970 debut album Asikawa Maki no seki. So take some solace in that.

Subarashi, ne?

Mame’s story contrasts with that of drug pusher Kee, who’s desperate to call his girlfriend up for phone sex (even offering it to his fellow fugitives also), only he can’t get through to her. Yeah, that’s a pretty good gag, but Toyoda is not above punching you in the balls once he’s got you laughing. And here lies the true brilliance of 9 Souls: it’s all fun and games, sure, but there are murderers and assorted other violent dudes aboard this strip club minibus. Things are surely not going to end well. It’s no spoiler to say they don’t.

Relationships build in strange ways: the near Sasori-mute Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda) killed his father. Torakichi (Yoshio Harada), the ringleader of the crew, killed his son. This dynamic plays out with much less sentimentality than you would expect from a country and a region so fond of melodrama. The first half of the film with its gags, gender-bending, false moustaches, crashing the homes of old acquaintances going straight, is a set-up for some pretty heavy stuff, as we see with, for example, poor old “loose cannon” Genta.  Played as a big buffoon for the most part, he just wants to settle down, get a normal nine-to-five, hook up with a woman who loves him and play happy families. Genta’s violent past is justifiably (if salaciously) brought up by the media and when his (admittedly lame) cover is blown at his newfound job, an intense self-loathing rears its head and it is heartbreaking to watch.

9 Souls is, like Sion Sono’s Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance, one of those tough ones to talk about. There’s really no excuse for you not to see it. It’s readily available on DVD, is accessible in ways many Japanese films are not, and is quintessentially oddball Japanese, but this is an endearing rather than off-putting quality.  It is the one Japanese film I would buy you all a copy of if I could as it’s the one I’m most sure all of you would like.  So, if you trust this columnist at all by now, please be the cool kid in class and go check it out; after all, there’s plenty of other bullshit you could occupy your time with instead. Prison Break, this ain’t.

– originally published 2/11/2012