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A Movie Which Changed the Course of Japanese Legal History
"Darkness at Noon" is a movie first in Japan. It was the first Japanese movie which criticized the Japanese judiciary for its verdict.
This movie is based on a real case (so-called "Yakkai Murder") which took place in Yakkai Village in western Japan in 1951. An old couple was found murdered in their home. The house was ransacked and some valuables and money were taken. The police detectives concluded that several robbers were responsible for the crime based on numerous footprints found behind the couple's home and the fact that it would have been very difficult for a single robber to have committed this particular crime. A young laborer was quickly arrested at a brothel and quickly confessed that he alone committed the crime. However, the detectives were convinced that the crime was committed by several robbers and forced out from the suspect--through physical torture--a confession alleging that four of his acquaintances were accomplices in the robbery. Based on the confession, the four acquaintances were quickly arrested. Using brutal torture--including repeated punching, kicking, beating with bamboo sticks, throwing the suspects onto the ground with judo throws, tying the suspects with rope--the police detectives made the four confess that they were responsible for the double murder robbery. However, as the investigation went on, it became more and more clear to the police that the four accomplices had solid alibis at the time of the commission of the crime. It became also clear to them that the young laborer was the sole robber and other four had nothing to do with the crime. In spite of the mounting exculpatory evidence, the police and prosecutor stubbornly stuck to their false allegation and charged the young laborer and his four innocent acquaintances with the crime. At the trial court the judges fully accepted the confession which was extracted by torture and sentenced the defendants to punishment ranging from death penalty to life imprisonment. The appellate court upheld the lower court ruling which left the four innocent men and their family in a total state of shock. The innocent man whose death sentence was upheld by the appellate court screamed in anguish at the very end of the movie: "We have the Supreme Court! WE STILL HAVE THE SUPREME COURT!!"
In the real case, the defendants appealed the verdict to the Japanese Supreme Court. The movie, which was based on a paperback book "The Judge" written by Hiroshi Masaki, one of the defense attorneys for the innocent men, was made in 1956 when the appeal of this case was pending before the Japanese Supreme Court. In the real case the Supreme Court vacated the guilty verdict of the four innocent men in 1957 and ordered the appellate court to retry the case. (Due to the secrecy surrounding the delivery within the Supreme Court, it is not clear whether the movie had anything to do with the Supreme Court decision. However, the anguish cry of "We still have the Supreme Court!" at the end of the movie was a clear cinematic appeal to the Supreme Court judges.) The appellate court acquitted the four defendants but the prosecution appealed the acquittal in 1961. (In Japan and many other countries the prosecution can appeal an acquittal.) The Supreme Court then vacated the acquittal and ordered the appellate court to retry the case once again. This time the appellate court found the four innocent men guilty and resentenced one of them to death penalty. The defendants were forced to appeal the guilty verdict to the Supreme Court again. The Supreme Court in 1968 acquitted the four defendants and did not order the appellate court to retry the case any more, thus finally ending the endless appeal seventeen years after the murder and arrest. Because of the endless appeal of the case and the agony of the innocent defendants many Japanese newspapers heavily criticized the Japanese judicial system.
This movie had a large impact in Japan in the late 1950's similar to the impact in the U.S. caused by the Hollywood classic "I Want To Live." Unlike "I Want To Live," in which the main character was already executed before the movie was made, at least one of the four innocent defendants in the Yakkai case was on death row awaiting the ruling by the Japanese Supreme Court when this movie was released. Just like the recent American documentary "Thin Blue Line" this movie led to the acquittal of innocent men. After the acquittal and release from prison, Randall Adams who was the subject of "Thin Blue Line" sued the movie producers even though his acquittal owed greatly to the movie. However, the four innocent defendants portrayed in this movie were eternally grateful to Hiroshi Masaki, the attorney who wrote the book on which this movie was based on. Masaki, a dauntless fighter, had a warm place in their heart until his death in 1975.
Until 1945 Japan was ruled by an authoritarian government with the emperor at the top of the pyramid. After the WW II defeat by the Allies, Japanese reformists with the help of U.S. occupational forces introduced a more democratic form of government. Under the air of freedom this remarkable movie was made in 1956. This movie showed the public and many journalists that it is acceptable to criticize and even ridicule the judiciary. Before the post-WW II reform any movie maker, who would have made a movie like this, would have been arrested under Japan's strict pre-war security laws. This movie was a true trailblazer in Japan.
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