Koshikei (Death by Hanging) Reviews
The film proclaims its purpose immediately, by directly interrogating the viewer about his feelings on capital punishment. Presented through stark text cards, the central nag is (paraphrasing) "For those of you in favor of capital punishment, have you ever seen an execution?" Director Nagisa Oshima (best known in the States for "In the Realm of the Senses" and "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence") goes on to introduce the floorplan of what appears to be a real execution chamber, a quaint bungalow tucked away in the corner of a large prison.
From there, we are introduced to the central character "R." (shades of Kafka?), who is about to be hanged in a highly ritualized procedure. We are told that hanging victims are pronounced dead once their heart stops, and this can take up to 15 minutes after the hanging. But in this case, R.'s heart mysteriously persists and he slowly slips back to functional consciousness. Except...he has amnesia, and remembers almost nothing about the world around him.
The execution crew is faced with an unprecedented intellectual dilemma. The Catholic priest insists the last rites freed R.'s soul from his body, and thus the remaining person is not the same man (and should not be punished for the earlier crime). Also, the police have a rule about the condemned recognizing their guilt before death, and now R. has no idea he has committed a crime. Oops.
The hapless police come up with the solution of jarring R.'s memory by awkwardly reenacting incidents from his life. And this is where the tale starts to resemble the delightful, dark satire of Luis Bunuel. There is a surprising number of genuine laughs, and the comic acting may even turn a little too burlesque at times. However, the problem becomes more complex as the hours pass, reality blurs and all characters involved begin to question their beliefs and past transgressions. The issue of racist treatment of Koreans in Japan also becomes an important element.
"Death by Hanging" is a bit overlong at 117 minutes, and the laborious process of the various stagings slightly wears out its welcome. Still, this is a provocative film which can breed debate both about capital punishment and about simply *what happened* as the story turns more surreal.