The last film of the late Ren Osugi as an actor (and his first as producer) is a significant production not just for the aforementioned reason but also because it signals a rare occasion where Japanese cinema deals with sincerity with the concept of the death penalty.
Osugi plays the titular character, Tamotsu Saeki, a chaplain who visits death row inmates with a bible and a portable music player, in an effort to offer any kind of relief he can. He is still inexperienced, being in this particular line of work for only six months, but his patience and restrained enthusiasm make up for the lack of it. His interactions include a former Yakuza, Yoshida, the illiterate elderly Shindo, the rather intelligent and eloquent sociopath Takamiya, a woman in her fifties, Noguchi, the repentant Ogawa and Suzuki. Through these interactions, Saeki also comes to direct clash with his beliefs and himself, while he is also forced to face his past.
Sako directs a minimalist film that takes place almost exclusively inside prison cells, with the exception of a flashback on Saeki’s past, which seems a bit out-of-place but also functions as a relief from the dialogue-only narrative and the repetitive setting. In that fashion, one could say that the movie functions much as a stage play, an approach I found quite beneficial, as it allows the story and the audience to focus on the sociopolitical and philosophical comments the script offers.
Probably the most interesting topic comes from the contradiction deriving from the teachings of Christianity and the concept of death penalty, which is the main element that makes Saeki question his religion and the audience the necessity of such a punishment. Furthermore, and particularly through the interactions with Takamiya, Sako presents a plethora of thought-provoking criticisms regarding the practices of the Japanese government through the years, in a rather pointy series of remarks. This part is probably the most interesting in the film, although I found that the most captivating performances, apart from Osugi’s, come from Kanji Furutachi as Suzuki and Noboru Ogawa as Ogawa, in rather dramatic fashion.
The fact that everyone eventually crumbles in front of losing their life, despite their efforts to appear indifferent, tough or even ignorant, also highlights the harshness of the capital punishment, which seems to be the worst crime of all.
However, and as the film in essence proves a self-portrait of Saeki, it is Osugi who steals the show with a dignified and impressively measured performance that gives the narrative a much-needed star quality to carry it for the whole of its 114 minutes, considering the minimalism of the main theme.
Tatsuya Yamada’s cinematography follows this minimalism completely, allowing the camera to focus on the interaction between the chaplain and the inmates, also including the constant and rather meaningful presence of a corrections officer in the background, with the combination highlighting the excellent framing. Kazumi Wakimoto’s work on the editing is also quite competent, with him changing frequently the person Saeki talks to, giving a sense of movement and speed to a film that is anything but.
“The Chaplain” is a meaningful as much as a significant movie that definitely deserves a watch, even beyond the fact of being Ren Osugi’s swan song.