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                                                        Flickhead
DVD Review
By Ray Young

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Doing Time

A film by Yoichi Sai from the manga by Kazuichi Hanawa

now on DVD from Parlour Pictures

Keimusho no naka / Doing Time Directed by Yoichi Sai. Screenplay by Chong Wui Shin, Nakamura Yoshihiro and Yoichi Sai. Cinematography by Hamada Takeshi. Edited by Kawase Isao. Music by Sasaki Tsugihiko. With Tsutomu Yamazaki, Teruyuki Kagawa, Tomorou Taguchi, Yutaka Matsushige, Toshifumi Muramatsu. 93 minutes. Originally released in 2002.

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  •     Included with the DVD of Yoichi Sai’s film Doing Time is a replica of a manga written and illustrated by Kazuichi Hanawa. Reflecting on life’s banality with the penciled austerity of a Jack Chick tract, it’s set in prison and concerned less with punchy melodrama than the fleeting significance of daily routine. Subtitled “The Lives of Five Beasts,” the publication’s cover shows an inmate squatting on a toilet bowl while staring at the wall, no promise of high adventure.
        This deadpan approach to cynicism can be as dicey as reality television—one person’s magic hour may be another’s protracted hell. It depends on a sense of humor and a grasp of irony be shared between the creator and the audience to be at all compelling. That’s one reason why Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor works so well as a comic and as a film. Stuck in the confines of their prison setting, however, Hanawa and Sai are denied the ordinary ups and downs and fateful sideswipes of Pekar’s world. Doing Time employs poetic license to add an undertone of nihilism to a comic spin on monotony and incarceration.
        It’s reportedly based on Hanawa’s own tenure behind bars, when he was sentenced to three years for weapons possession. He kept something of a running diary in the letters he wrote to a friend on the outside which were later culled for the narrative. But the prison life depicted on screen here is far removed from what we’re accustomed to, be it the persistent push for freedom in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Jacques Becker’s Le Trou, or those countless Warner Brothers Big House movies where Barton MacLane played the tough guard and Donald McBride was the condescending warden. Strangely enough, if there’s any one film Doing Time resembles it would be Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast.
        That cozy rumination on predictability and enlivened palates was set in its own prison of sorts, the remote, primitive village where an urbane outsider is forced to examine her motives over a period of decades. A similar experience happens with Hanawa’s autobiographical character, played with dripping humility by Tsutomu Yamazaki, who gradually loses his ties to all previous freedoms in a meticulous, state-controlled environment. But just as Babette’s villagers discovered the glories of a finely orchestrated dinner, Hanawa’s and Sai’s mealtimes are a feast for a prisoners’ senses.

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    Above: Yoichi Sai cuts to bucolic images associating prison with home. Below: Tsutomu Yamazaki and the dinner buffet.

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        This eye-popping gag of institutional food as world-class cuisine is one of many metaphors floating in and around the film’s outlook on ritual and structure. Staged to make their earlier lives appear trite and pointless, the inmates’ disciplined and militaristic system interlaces with their mushrooming interests in the politics, bureaucracy and gossip circulating inside. While this appears to inspire a communal bond rife with personal growth and compassion, the intention of the creators is far more caustic.
        By reversing our expectations of prison and the trappings of the prison film, Doing Time satirizes the society that squanders its freedoms and subconsciously desires the security of a police state. In a curious outdoor prelude sequence, Hanawa/Yamazaki is part of a troupe playing nighttime war games who gets ‘killed’ in the mock battle. Whispering over to a roving photographer, he smears a tomato on his imaginary wound to make it look ‘real.’ Then, in a private moment, he reaches a state of euphoria while firing live ammunition into a bottle held down to a rock.
        These seemingly arbitrary images, coupled with the actor’s age (Tsutomu Yamazaki is roughly forty years older than the others in the cast), attend to a condemnation of the thrill of war and violence as holdovers from earlier generations which continually cripple society’s future. The younger inmates introduce Yamazaki to their vacuous culture of hollow television programs and the borderline illiteracy of comic books. Combined with the daily job of tidying up their cell and menial tasks in the prison workshop, the only excitement left is food.
        With a little push, this could have combined the build up of Babette’s Feast with the payoff of La Grande Bouffe, where Marco Ferreri’s determined gluttons ate and farted themselves to the Great Hereafter. But Yoichi Sai handles Hanawa’s subversive proposition with assured delicacy, quietly observing the reactions of men being fitted for a new, controlled existence. It’s all satire, of course, humming along in a world that will always have bed and board ready for its rejects and miscreants.