Judge Joel Pearce wouldn't mind doing a nickel with this unusual Japanese prison flick.
The Japanese prison movie that isn't like a prison movie.
Pretty much guaranteed to be unlike any other prison movie you've ever seen, Doing Time is an offbeat, quirky delight. Its power comes from humanity and sensitivity, which is all too rare in this genre. The fact that it's (sort of) a true story makes it all the more affecting.
Facts of the Case
Hanawa Kazuichi (Yamazaki Tsutomu, Kagemusha) was always fascinated with guns, and was active in battle recreation clubs. Unfortunately for him, he also decided to create a functional replica of Dirty Harry's gun, which landed him in prison. While Japanese prison isn't the violent, dangerous place of Oz or The Shawshank Redemption, it's a peculiarly regimented lifestyle for he and his cell mates, none of whom seem like particularly dangerous men.
On paper, Doing Time shouldn't work. It has no real story, no major conflict, no action…it's exactly the opposite of what we've come to expect from prison movies. And yet, the film has a delightful charm that gives the film a unique tenderness and humanity. There are a few reasons the film works so well.
For one thing, we enter this world with the understanding that we're getting a fairly accurate (if stilted) look at the world of the Japanese prison system. Hanawa Kazuichi really did get put away for a minor firearms infraction. Unfortunately for the prison system, he is a manga artist, and he made a comic book based on his experiences. This film is a faithful adaptation of the manga series. That any place would be this ridiculously regimented is hard to believe, but it creates a system that comforts some prisoners. When all freedom is taken away, there is no fear, little stress, and no confusion. These men understand their place in the world, and they understand what is required of them. The gradual acceptance of the prisoners is fascinating to watch, and I'm not surprised that there never is violence there.
The reality that's demonstrated in Doing Time is matched by its off-kilter perspective, playfully poking fun at the unfortunate inmates. This fun comes in the form of minor details, such as the obsession the men have with food (the only real variety they get to experience), the conversations in the exercise yard, and the bickering about electric razor batteries. Everything about the film is so delicately assembled that we find ourselves fascinated by these details as well. By halfway through the film, we no longer expect or hope for anything major to happen. That Hanawa could become happy in a place that dumps men in solitary for completing the wrong crossword puzzle is believable, baffling and challenging, all at the same time. The performances are perfect, low key and just as human as the rest of the film.
Obviously, Doing Time isn't for everyone. Like the prison itself, the film requires us to fall into a new rhythm, allowing it to do its magic. We need to be content to find humor in the small details, sacrificing the larger laughs of prison comedies. We have to accept that nothing great or exciting or fantastic will happen, just as the inmates have come to accept this truth. Once those expectations are set aside, the film has a chance to exist as its own unique experience. This may be the closest to true prison that we have ever seen on film, and it is both more restricting and more comforting than we would expect.
Fortunately, Parlour Pictures understands that it has a gem on their hands. They give Doing Time the royal treatment with this DVD release, a far better package than I had expected from such a small company. The video transfer is anamorphic widescreen, and while it isn't reference quality, I have no complaints given the film's budget and heritage. The sound is fine too, a bit restrained by its stereo transfer but not suffering too much as a result. In fact, I wonder if the sound in Doing Time shouldn't be a little flat, given its stoic nature.
While the disc has little in the way of special features, two nice booklets are included. The first is a single episode of the manga, to give us a taste of the source material. There is also an informative essay by Doug Jones. It gives us the context we need to truly enjoy the film, which is always welcome on foreign DVDs. In fact, this is more welcome than short, pointless featurettes and picture galleries.
It's not exciting, thrilling, or shocking. For those with patience and a respect for a unique take on a classic idea, however, Doing Time is one of the most rewarding comedies I have seen in a very long time. It's well worth tracking down.
Parlour Pictures and everyone involved in Doing Time is free to go, even if my time in this prison was quite pleasant.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Parlour Pictures
• Original Trailer
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