Kon Ichikawa’s approach to critiquing his society was often laced with a delicious slice of biting irony but he puts sarcasm to one side for this all too rare attempt to address the uncomfortable subject of Japan’s hidden underclass – the burakumin. The term itself simply means “people who live in hamlets” but from feudal times onwards it came to denote the kinds of people with whom others did not want to associate – notably those whose occupations dealt in some way with death from executioners and undertakers, to butchers and leatherworkers. Though outright discrimination against such people was outlawed during the Meiji restoration, social stigma and informal harassment remained common with some lingering tendency remaining even today.
The Outcast (破戒, Hakai), adapted from the book by Toson Shimazaki (known as The Broken Commandment in English) is the story of a young man of burakumin lineage who has to hide his true identity in order to live a normal life in the Japan of 1904. Segawa’s father, formerly a village elder, sent his son away to live with his brother and his wife in a distant town where they could better hide their burakumin status to enjoy a better standard of life. Sadly, Segawa’s father dies after being trampled by a recalcitrant bull never seeing his son again and leaving him with the solemn commandment to live as a regular person, never revealing his connection with the burakumin world.
This debt to his father’s sacrifice creates a conflict in the heart of the young and idealistic Segawa (Raizo Ichikawa). Forced to listen to the casual racism all around him and unable to offer any kind of resistance, Segawa has become interested in the writings of a polemical political figure, Rentaro Inoko (Rentaro Mikuni), who has begun to write passionate political treatises advocating for burakumin rights. When Inoko turns up in Segawa’s town, he finds himself a new father figure and political mentor but continues to feel constrained by the debt of honour to his father’s sacrifice and is unable to confess his own burakumin heritage even to Inoko.
The world Segawa lives in is a conservative and stratified one in which old superstitions hold true even whilst hypocritical authorities use and abuse the trust placed in them. Inoko falls foul of local politics after he discovers a politician has married a wealthy burakumin woman solely for her money and is planning to expose him at a political rally. This same politician has already threatened to blackmail Segawa who continues to deny all knowledge of any burakumin related activities whilst failing to quell the eventual gossip surrounding Segawa’s lineage. The gossip causes problems at the school where Segawa had held a prestigious teaching position as the headmaster and school board fear the reaction of the parents. Though the people at the temple where Segawa takes refuge after growing tired of the racist inn owners in town are broadly supportive of the burakumin, the priest there has his own problems after having made a clumsy pass at his adopted daughter, Shio (Shiho Fujimura) – the daughter of a drunken teacher sacked by the school in order to avoid paying him a proper pension. At every turn the forces of authority are universally corrupt, selfish and venal, leaving no safe direction for a possible revolution of social justice to begin.
This is Segawa’s central conflict. After his experiences with Inoko, Segawa begins to want to follow in his footsteps, living out and proud as a burakumin and full time activist for burakumin rights. However, this would be undoing everything for which his father sacrificed so much. Talking things over with Inoko’s non-burakumin wife, Segawa is also presented with a third way – reveal his burakumin heritage and attempt to live honestly as an ordinary person, changing hearts and minds simply through leading a life among many other lives. This option seems attractive, especially as Segawa has fallen in love and would like to lead an ordinary life with a wife and family, but his youthful idealism is hungry for a greater, faster change than the one which will be born through simple integration. Despite the warnings of Inoko’s wife who believes change will occur not through activism but through the passage of time, Segawa decides his future lies in advancing the burakumin cause in the wider world.
When Segawa does choose to reveal himself, he finds that there is far more sympathy and support than he would ever have expected. A woman he has come to love wants to stay by his side, his previously hostile friend rethinks his entire approach to life and apologises, and even the children in his class convince their parents that their teacher is a good and a kind man regardless of whatever arbitrary social distinction may have been passed to him through an accident of birth. Segawa’s conflicted soul speaks not only for the burakumin but for all hidden and oppressed peoples who have been forced to keep a side of themselves entirely secret, faced with either living a lie in the mainstream world or being confined to life within their own community. His choice is one of either capitulation and collaboration, or resistance which amounts to a sacrifice of his own potential happiness in the hope that it will bring about liberation for other similarly oppressed people.
Scripted again by Natto Wada, The Outcast takes a slightly clumsy, didactic approach filled with long, theatrical speeches but does ultimately prove moving and inspiring in advocating for the fair treatment of these long maligned people as well as others facing similar discrimination in an unforgiving world. As a treatise on identity and rigid social attitudes, the film has lost none of its power or urgency even forty years later in a world in which progress has undoubtedly been made even if there are still distances to go.