“A scar may recover but trauma never goes away” according to one of the inmates in Kaori Sakagami’s heartfelt documentary Prison Circle (プリズン・サークル). Neatly encapsulating the doc’s themes, the title refers both to the circle of chairs which represents the open group therapy sessions at the centre of the experimental rehabilitation programme on which the film is focussed, and the cycle of violence to which it alludes. Long interested in justice issues, Sakagami follows her two previous documentaries dealing with the US penal system with that of Japan, but concerns herself less with life in prison than the wider social issues which led to these men being convicted of crimes along with their future possibilities for reintegration into mainstream society. 

Sakagami apparently spent six years trying to acquire permission to shoot inside a Japanese prison before coming to an agreement with Shimane Asahi Rehabilitation Program Center which nevertheless has its limitations in that the faces of all the inmates are understandably blurred, she is always accompanied by two guards, and is not permitted to interact with prisoners or anyone working in the prison outside of a few direct interview sessions. Apparently inspired by Sakagami’s US documentary Lifers: Reaching for Life Beyond the Walls, the Shimane programme is the first and only of its kind in Japan shifting the focus away from punishment towards rehabilitation supporting around 40 men through a therapeutic treatment centre (TC) which attempts to help the prisoners understand the reasons for their crimes, empathise with their victims, and eventually return to mainstream society. According to the closing text the programme has been successful in reducing the rate of recidivism among its graduates in comparison with those released from a regular prison. 

In order to qualify, inmates must have the will to change, have no underlying mental health conditions, and be serving at least six months. The prisoners are also described as low risk though many of those we meet have been convicted of violent crimes including those which involved a death. Operating as a small bubble within a larger facility, the TC shares many of the rules and regulations with the wider population in that inmates are expected to raise their hand to ask permission of the guards any time they want to do something, but unlike other blocks are permitted to walk around unsupervised and sleep in “rooms” rather than “cells”. Prisoners engaging in the programme are also partially exempted from mandatory labour requirements while required to participate in the group sessions that are at the core of the TC. 

Following four men over two years, Sakagami finds a fatalistic similarity among their stories despite the differences in their offences, painting their crimes as a cry for help and direct result of childhood trauma. Each of the men who are now in their 20s comes from a difficult family background and experienced abuse, neglect, and bullying which is, the film seems to suggest, the root cause of their lawbreaking. The first of the men, Taku, was abandoned by his abusive father into a children’s home and thereafter left without support as a young man leaving care with nothing to fall back on. Encouraged to be open, he relates his embarrassment in revealing that even as a grown man he often longs to be hugged he feels because his parents never held him when he was a child. The other prisoner reveals he feels something similar, and other of the men admit they fell into crime in part because they wanted to stay connected to something even if it was delinquent kids in place of a family that had already failed them. The last of the men, Ken, also explains that he ended up getting into debt in part because he was buying expensive presents for his mother and girlfriend because he feared they’d abandon him and he didn’t know how else to keep them. 

Yet the prisoners also admit to feeling little remorse, seeing themselves as victims rather than perpetrators and struggling to draw the lines between their trauma and the crimes they have committed along with the hurt they’ve caused to those around them. Through therapy and role play sessions, the prisoners learn to empathise with each other as well as themselves as they begin to process their trauma in an essentially safe space. Sakagami shifts into gentle, storybook-style sand animation in order to dramatise their often horrific childhood memories linking back directly to a fairy tale written by one of the men about a boy who cried wolf because of a mysterious curse which forced him to lie, insisting that he was fine even in his loneliness as he pushed away those who had not rejected him. The boy in the fairy tale is eventually given the power to free himself after being approached by a benevolent god who gives him permission to speak his truth, emerging from his darkness into the light. Though limited by the conditions of filming and over reliant on onscreen text, Sakagami’s compassion for these men and faith in the project is never is doubt as the closing dedication “For everyone who wishes to stop the cycle of violence” makes plain. 

Prison Circle streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. Viewers in the US will also be able to catch it streaming as part of this year’s Japan Cuts!

International trailer (English subtitles)

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