Japan has a relatively high recidivism rate with 50% of those released from prison convicted of reoffending within five years. To some this figure simply proves that “criminals“ are, as one woman puts it, “an entirely different race” who have no place in mainstream society and can never be rehabilitated. In many ways it’s a vicious circle, those who’ve spent time in prison are rejected on their release and unable to find steady employment have no other option than to return to criminality in order to support themselves. Atsushi Funahashi’s socially-minded docudrama The Burden of the Past (過去負う者, Kako Ou Mono) explores this contradiction through the stories of a series of former prisoners and the organisation that attempts to help them reintegrate into mainstream society, Change. 

“Change” might in some ways be an ironic name, placing a demand on the people they’re trying to help that implies they are necessarily at fault for their involvement with criminality. The well-meaning staff members are committed to helping the former prisoners reform, but are otherwise powerless to address the systemic social circumstances that led them into crime while prioritising the individual and advocating for conventionality as the only path towards a settled life. That said, each of the people the film spotlights are involved in quite specific kinds of crimes which lean towards the individualistic with only the backstories of Taku, who killed a teenage boy in a hit and run but is also revealed to be dealing with unresolved trauma from childhood physical abuse, and Ai who turned to drug use to overcome her problems with interpersonal communication, loosely explored. 

It is however Ai who suffers most from the hypocritical attitudes of mainstream society. After being taken on as a cleaner she encounters a man smoking who ironically reveals to her that he used to smoke pot but was never caught which is perhaps the only difference between them but on explaining that she spent time in prison for possession of crystal meth he calls her “a real mess” and a “junkie”, telling her that she has no right to hope for a future and should have stayed in jail. His rant results in Ai going temporarily missing with a fear that she may being using drugs again to overcome her sense of hopelessness. Her circumstances are dictated by her existing sense of alienation in her inability to communicate, something which could have been better addressed either by finding ways for her to communicate more effectively or for encouraging others to accommodate her way of communicating rather than insist she conform to theirs. 

Yet it’s clear that the issue is more to do with the stigmatisation of criminality than it is about any fear of potential reoffending as the team from Change discover on talking to a man hoping to recruit a large number of people quickly for pandemic-related cleaning services. The first issue is that he specifically mentions hiring women seeing as it’s a job in cleaning, but also that he says he’ll have to discuss with his boss about hiring people who’ve been involved with sexual or drug-related crimes rather than those which might present a more practical anxiety such as theft, violence, or fraud. 

Close to the end of the film, Change stages a play featuring some of the former prisoners which ends in a confrontational Q&A session in which members of the audience direct their anger towards not only the cast but Change itself for helping them rather than focussing on the welfare of victims of crime. Change also receives a fair amount of harassment, as do a couple who live close by and complain that they feel personally uncomfortable knowing that people with criminal pasts are wandering around where they live while also bringing up that it’s bringing down the price of their property. One of the case workers tries to explain that they’re trying to stop the cycle of recidivism, which would result in lower crime all round and less chance of becoming a victim, but the audience members cannot see her point. They simply feel that these people are not quite human by virtue of their transgression and are in some way weak or defective for being unable to control their impulses or emotions. It may be a comforting thought, to believe these people are so different from oneself is to deny that anyone at anytime could become involved with a crime for a variety of different reasons. After all, laws are socially constructed device for defining conventional morality and what’s considered “criminal” today may not be tomorrow or vice vera. 

But then how do we deal with those whose crimes are so deeply offensive to a conventionally held morality that they cannot really be forgiven? Misumi is a former teacher convicted of an indecent act with a child and fears that he may end up reoffending. He obviously cannot return to his previous employment, and given the nature of his crime can find no other but also must find a way to live. Many at the Q&A session seem to feel that those who’ve been convicted of crimes should be segregated into an alternate prison society so that they do not corrupt the mainstream, but this is in its own way a social death sentence that effectively says they no longer deserve to live even if unlike the extreme case of Misumi their “crimes” were relatively minor and of the sort many others may have committed and faced no penalty for. 

Still, Funahashi doesn’t exactly let Change off the hook suggesting that they are overly idealistic and fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with some of the more serious problems the former prisoners face especially those that would benefit from more comprehensive psychological care. He does though criticise the justice system in which the prison sentence is essentially a fine that’s paid in time and is geared towards punishment rather than rehabilitation leaving the prisoners no different on their release than they were when incarcerated some like Taku still not having fully addressed or accepted their crime and therefore unable to move on with their lives. In any case, the conclusion seems to imply that simple acts of human trust and compassion can go a long way helping to restore a former prisoner’s self-esteem and allowing them to process the realities of their crimes so that they can avoid committing them again even if it is also society which must change. 

The Burden of the Past had its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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