The Chaplian posterJapan is one of the few developed nations which still maintains the death penalty, though in practice infrequently. The sentence of death is handed down almost exclusively to mass or serial murderers, child killers, or those whose crimes are judged to be of extraordinary barbarity. Unlike other nations, Japan houses those on death row not in prisons but in detention centres, denying them the rights that are afforded to regular prisoners such as visitation, exercise, and entertainment. Execution must be carried out within five days of the judgement being handed down. The prisoner themselves is informed on the morning of their death and given a choice of last meal, but their family members, legal team, and the general public are only informed once it has taken place preventing any last minute attempts for a stay.

In what would be his final screen role (and his first as a producer), Ren Osugi stars as a prison chaplain, Saeki, attempting to guide a series of Death Row prisoners towards spiritual peace as they prepare to accept their judgement. Though none of the prisoners he visits protests their innocence, some are more repentant than others and not all of them have fully internalised the fact they will never leave the facility even when no further legal attempts to commute their sentences seem to be underway. Some might say there is an element of exploitation in sending a chaplain in at all seeing as this is literally a captive audience. The crimes which lead to being on Death Row are necessarily extreme, many prisoners either have no remaining family members or have been abandoned by them out of shame, leaving them intensely lonely and devoid of human contact (not even televisions or radios are permitted). They are therefore much more interested in conversation than they are in The Bible or accepting Jesus into their hearts.

Then again, Saeki’s first visit is to a man who says nothing at all, allowing him to fill the silence with some of his own backstory which hints at a personal trauma possibly informing his desire to save the souls of these unfortunate people. Another prisoner, by contrast, is all too eager to convert but, as Saeki soon realises, is almost entirely illiterate and therefore struggling to hear the word of God through being unable to read. Saeki does his best to help them, gently listening to their fears and worries but encounters a familiar series of social problems which made their fates inevitable stemming from entrenched poverty and social inequality.

Only six months into the job, he wonders if he’s really getting through and if his efforts are worthwhile. His most challenging prisoner is a young man convicted of a mass killing of those with learning difficulties (inspired by a real life case), whom he deemed to be a drain on national resources. A hyper-rational sociopath, Takamiya (Leo Tamaoki) baits Saeki with unassailable, coldhearted logic which asks why, if he’s happy enough to kill and eat “stupid” animals like cows and pigs, but not “clever” ones like dolphins, his application of the same logic to the human world can be wrong? If all creatures have an equal right to life, then killing for food is as wrong as any other kind of killing and the death penalty nothing more than state sanctioned murder. There is no rational answer for Takamiya’s philosophy and aside from his abhorrent, unfeeling rationality he may have a point when it comes to social hypocrisy. All Saeki can do is ask him to stand with the people that he killed, and acknowledge that God or no God, Saeki too will be with him until the very end.

If Takamiya begins to question the terrifying rationalism which led him to his truly barbaric act, he does so probably not because of Saeki’s ministrations but because of his proximity to death. Meanwhile, another prisoner, Suzuki (Kanji Furutachi), convicted of a stalker murder, seems to have picked up entirely the wrong message in coming to blame just about everyone else for his crime and absolving himself of responsibility. He might have found peace, but it is not the kind of peace he was supposed to find. Noguchi (Setsuko Karasuma), meanwhile, the only female prisoner, continues to talk about the future as if she really thinks she’s getting out. Only Shoichi (Takeo Gozu), an elderly man, seems to truly accept Saeki’s teachings though it is perhaps enough to make him feel as if he really is making a difference.

Sako opts for subtlety in pointing out the inherent hypocritical immorality of the death penalty and particularly in the context of the Japanese legal system which relies heavily on confessions often extracted under duress. Battling his own sense of guilt, Saeki tries to save himself by saving the souls of others but finds his work an uphill battle in a society which prefers not to speak of unpleasant matters and thereby renders itself absolute and unaccountable in the rigidity of its justice.


The Chaplain (教誨師, Kyoukaishi) was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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