Photo/IllutrationA chaplain, left, portrayed by Ren Osugi, teaches reading and writing to a death row inmate who was previously homeless in a scene from “Kyokaishi.” ((C) “Kyokaishi” members)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

“Kyokaishi” (Chaplain), a new movie starring the late veteran actor Ren Osugi, is currently inspiring conversations across Japan based on the classic moral dilemma: Do you agree with the death penalty?

The film, which was released Oct. 6, is comprised mostly of conversations between a prison chaplain and six inmates on death row.

Osugi, who died of heart failure in February, plays the chaplain.

Director Dai Sako, 46, also wrote the script of “Kyokaishi” based on interviews with chaplains, former prison officials and others.

“As whether capital punishment is really appropriate is being discussed, I would like people to contemplate the system after watching the movie,” Sako said.

“Kyokaishi” refers to those monks and men of the cloth who visit prisons and detention houses so they can impart their religious teachings to inmates.

The chaplain system is said to have been introduced in 1872 in Japan when a priest from the Otani school of the Shinshu sect of Buddhism delivered a sermon at a prison.

Of the 1,848 chaplains of the Zenkoku Kyokaishi Renmei (National chaplain association), 1,199 were Buddhist monks, 264 were Christian clergy and 222 were Shinto priests as of January 2018.

In the film, the chaplain meets with six inmates, including a good-natured yakuza boss, a middle-aged woman who talks volubly in the Kansai dialect and a former homeless man who appears to have been falsely charged, at a special room in a prison.

While the chaplain is sometimes embarrassed about what the convicts say, he tries to comfort them by telling them, “Your soul will continue to exist.”

A highlight of the movie is a scene where the protagonist talks with a young man who displays a provocative attitude toward him.

The youngster says, for example, “It is unacceptable for the state to kill its nationals.” He also points out one “cannot decide whether or not to support the death penalty, because no detailed information on the system is disclosed.”

The chaplain is puzzled by the questions fired at him by the young man.

“I expected chaplains to provide assistance to convicts so they can return to society,” said Sako. “I became interested in the issue as I thought if so, what is the meaning of the guidance chaplains offered to individuals who are just waiting for death to come?”

After writing the script for “Kyuka” (Vacation), another movie released in 2008 themed on a prison officer involved in executions, Sako became increasingly interested in capital punishment.

“Abolishing the death penalty is the current trend around the world, but 80 percent of Japanese still support it,” Sako said. “I wondered why.”

Trying to gain a deeper insight into the death penalty by better understanding circumstances facing death row inmates, Sako decided to make a film focusing on a chaplain for his next project, and so he interviewed chaplains and former prison guards.

Based on the interviews and some real-life cases, Sako finished the script.

Shinzo Yamane, 74, a pastor at the Hiroshima Seibu Church of the United Church of Christ in Japan, described the film as having “social significance.”

“The work attempts to shed light on an aspect of the death penalty that is rarely made accessible for the public,” said Yamane.

As a chaplain himself, Yamane has talked with three death row inmates.

He even maintained a dialogue with one of the convicts once a month for more than 10 years.

Yamane held talks with the inmate repeatedly, telling him, “Anyone has desires, and you and I are hardly different,” and the convict began reading the Bible and got baptized. But despite those signs of a change of heart, the inmate’s hanging proceeded.

“The convict said ‘death row inmates lead public lives as well’ and he was totally right in that they provide lessons for society,” Yamane said.

“Kyokaishi” depicts “what people who have done irreversible things do and how they change before their deaths,” according to Yamane.

“Covering the issue has great importance, as the state does not disclose such information,” he said.

“Kyokaishi” hit cinemas in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and elsewhere on Oct. 6, and will be screened at 57 theaters nationwide eventually.

(This article was written by Shunsuke Abe and Nobufumi Yamada.)