Broken Commandment (破戒, Kazuo Maeda, 2022)

Toson Shimazaki’s 1906 novel The Broken Commandment (破戒, Hakai) has been adapted for the screen several times, each version taking a slightly different approach to the source material. A new constitution film, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Apostasy (1948) focuses more keenly in the necessity of abandoning latent feudalism to create a truly free society of social equality, while Kon Ichikawa’s The Outcast (1962) essentially tells a coming out story in which the hero finds a kind of liberation in the embrace of his identity and resolves to fight for the rights of others forced to live in shame by an oppressive social order. 

One could say that each adaptation in its way reflects the time in which it was made. Kazuo Maeda’s The Broken Commandment focuses more on the threat of rising militarism and an increasingly authoritarian social order than the hero’s internalised conflict between the necessity of keeping the promise he made to his father never to reveal his roots as a member of the burakumin class and the knowledge that not to do so is to remain complicit in the oppression of others like him. 

Set during the Russo-Japanese War of the early 1900s, the film opens with a scene in which the hero, Ushimatsu (Shotaro Mamiya), is woken by a commotion in the inn at which he is staying. Another of the guests in town to receive medical treatment has been outed as a burakumin, a member of a near untouchable class. The woman running the inn apologises profusely and explains that all the tatami mats throughout the building now need to be replaced while following the elderly gentleman ejected from the building out onto the street throwing salt on the ground to purify it from his presence. Ushimatsu’s problem is that he is himself a burakumin who has kept his heritage secret and is living an ordinary life as a teacher in a small rural town. The school which he works for is extremely conservative and aligned with the proto-militarist conservative right which is currently in ascendency with the war in full swing. Ushimatsu is already treated with a degree of suspicion not of his class background but his socialist views which advocate for peace, freedom, and equality. 

Yet it’s clear that not even he has been fully able to relinquish feudalistic thinking. Though he urges some of his pupils that it is alright to play together despite the class difference which exists between them explaining that the class system ended with the Meiji Restoration, he feels beginning a relationship with the adopted daughter of a temple where he is currently living, Shiho (Anna Ishii), would be inappropriate not just because he is a burakumin and it would be unfair to marry without telling her which he cannot do because of the commandment from his father, but because she is descended from a former samurai family. As we can see social class is largely distinct from wealth, a corrupt local politician marrying the daughter of a burakumin who has become wealthy but keeping her origins secret while the old man ejected from the inn was also someone of means dressing in elegant Western suits in contrast to most in the impoverished village who still wear kimono. Wealth did not free the burakumin from prejudice, while even in poverty Shiho and her father Kazama (Kazuya Takahashi), who is about to fired by the school so they won’t have to pay his pension, are still thought of as members of the nobility. The old ideas don’t disappear so easily even among those who know them to be mistaken. 

Yet as Ushimatsu’s mentor Inoko (Hidekazu Mashima) says, even if the burakumin were to be accepted by society prejudice itself would not die merely migrate to another minority. In Inoko, a socialist writer who proudly comes out and says he is a burakumin, or “eta” meaning pariah in the language of the time, Ushimatsu discovers a second father who grants him the courage to free himself from his feudal vision of filiality and break his father’s commandment to better help those like him and resist the mounting authoritarianism of the education system in which boys in particular are being brainwashed that they are little more than tools for imperialist expansion. In his impassioned speech to the students, Ushimatsu tells them that he wants them to grow up to be people who can think for themselves rather than blindly accept their programming, the kids seemingly getting the message in defying slimy militarist plant Katsuno to see Ushimatsu on his way when he decides he must leave the village to foster freedom elsewhere. 

Unlike previous adaptations, the film does not much go into how he plans to do that save his intention to find a position as a school teacher in the city and educate the young away from prejudice. Breaking his father’s commandment is in its own way a way of breaking with the past, refusing to be complicit with an oppressive social order still bound up with feudalistic notions of class hierarchy which all point towards the emperor and reinforce the increasing authoritarianism of the militarists. Speaking to the rising nationalism of the contemporary society, Maeda’s adaptation positions education as the best weapon against an oppressive social order but also insists that its hero must first free himself from his own internalised shame and outdated ways of thinking. 


Broken Commandment screens at Asia Society 28th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

© 2022 BROKEN COMMANDMENT Film Partners

The Outcast (破戒, AKA The Broken Commandment, Kon Ichikawa, 1962)

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.