Who ever thought that life in prison could be so…peaceful? Adapted from the autobiographical manga by Kazuichi Hanawa, Yoichi Sai’s 2002 drama Doing Time (刑務所の中, Keimusho no Naka) is a slice of life dramedy somewhat typical of the early 2000s save its unexpected setting in a state penitentiary. Unlike the average prison movie, the main thing that Hanawa discovers is that life inside is incredibly dull, yet he approaches his brief sojourn in this other world with anthropological precision observing and mimicking the behaviour of his fellow prisoners while making the most of this hopefully once in a lifetime experience reflecting that he’ll likely never have the opportunity to wear such worn out undergarments ever again.
A quiet man already in middle age, Hanawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is no dangerous criminal merely a firearms enthusiast who liked to fire modified pistols into bottles of water. He’s got three years for illegal possession of weaponry and explosives, which seems to be quite a harsh penalty considering another man is doing seven for murder after shooting a man he says waved an axe at him when he went to collect a debt. There are clearly men who have committed violent crimes in Hanawa’s immediate vicinity, yet this is not a traditional tale of prison gangs and factional infighting, the only violence we witness concerns one prisoner who appears to have broken the rules accidentally in thoughtlessness or ignorance rather than direct rebellion. Rather it is, ironically enough, almost like a summer camp in which Hanawa and his four cellmates attempt to amuse themselves during the little free time they are offered for contemplation and relaxation.
Even so, every inch of the prisoners’ lives is micromanaged by the guards from the way they walk to when they are allowed to move or speak. So entirely stripped of their dignity are they, that they must ask for permission even to use the toilet in their own cell while in solitary confinement and dutifully report back once they’ve finished. The communal squat toilets at the back of the workshop where Hanawa works crafting wooden tissue boxes are entirely open with only knee-height doors on each stall for privacy. The prisoners’ days are tightly ordered, early to bed and early to rise with work in-between and only the promise of rest to look forward to on weekends and holidays.
Ostensibly a shy man, Hanawa dislikes having to ask permission all the time though not so much as an affront to his autonomy as simply bothersome. Surprisingly he begins to warm to the rhythms and routines of prison life discovering in them a kind of liberation, finding his time in solitary for “unauthorised communication” the most enjoyable of his sentence free as it is of the necessity of interacting with other people. Like the bug collector in Woman of the Dunes, he finds freedom in simplicity appreciating the mindlessness of his absurd new job folding paper bags for medical prescriptions. He can abandon any sense of responsibility for his life, submitting himself entirely to the guards’ authority and surrendering the need for control, happy to allow his existence to be managed for him without needing to decide on anything for himself.
That aside, it’s difficult to see what other purpose prison could serve for a man like Hanawa who merely had an unusual if potentially dangerous hobby save providing him with a unique life experience he seems to be treating as a kind of adventure. He may at times look down on his cellmates who have their own routines, but otherwise appears grateful for their input and advice regarding prison life often listening to their explanations for behaviour he regards as strange such as removing one’s trousers before entering the bathroom and then deciding to do as they do. With so little stimulation the mundane becomes exciting, each meal a culinary adventure listening to a cellmate recount his group treat of a film screening (Takeshi Kitano’s Kid’s Return) as if he had returned from exotic land relishing his description of the chocolate biscuits and cola he was given to snack on. Time is what Hanawa is doing, but he does at least gain the opportunity of experiencing life in slow motion learning to appreciate the beauty of a single dandelion while observing the absurdity of the world all around him which is perhaps no more absurd than that which exists outside.