Documentary shines spotlight on miscarriage of justice in 1967 murder case

Courtesy of Kimoon Film
Shoji Sakurai walks in front of Chiba Prison during filming for the documentary “Ore no Kinenbi.”

A documentary about a man who was wrongly convicted in a 1967 murder-robbery case hits screens in theaters across Japan this month.

“Ore no Kinenbi” (My memorial days) tells the story of Shoji Sakurai, 75, who was arrested on suspicion of murdering a carpenter in Ibaraki Prefecture in what came to be known as the Fukawa case, and received a life sentence for the crime.

Sakurai was in custody for 29 years before being released on parole in 1996. He was exonerated of all charges in 2011.

“I want to convey the importance of living positively despite suffering and sorrow,” Sakurai has said. The film documents some of the challenges he has had to overcome in his life since his wrongful conviction.

The start of the documentary records a 2016 visit Sakurai paid to Chiba Prison where he was imprisoned.

“Ah, this brings back memories,” Sakurai said in the scene. “Many parts of myself were forged here.”

Sakurai was acquitted in a 2011 retrial on the grounds that the possibility could not be ruled out that the confession in which he admitted to the charges was written under the influence of investigators.

In a lawsuit filed by Sakurai seeking compensation from the state, the Tokyo High Court in 2021 acknowledged illegality in the investigation conducted by prosecutors and the Ibaraki prefectural police, and finalized a ruling ordering the central and prefectural governments to compensate the claimant.

The film follows Sakurai over about 12 years through 2021, covering his activities to support other people who claim they have been falsely accused of crimes and his life with his wife, Keiko, 70, whom he married after he was released on parole.

“I thought the film should focus on Shoji Sakurai’s way of life, not only on the false accusation,” said Kim Sung Woong, 59, the director of the documentary.

“Kinenbi,” the title of a poem Sakurai wrote in prison, is a key motif in the film.

“Oct. 10, 1967: The fragrance of gold osmanthus wafts in the night breeze, the coldness of my first handcuffs.”

“Feb. 11, 1992: My father died. I kept muttering, ‘Dad, you’re a stupid bastard.’”

While in prison, Sakurai treated the day of his arrest and the days his parents died as “anniversaries” and expressed them in his poems.

“Some bad anniversaries can be good anniversaries if you think of them as memorial days and move on to the next one.”

Kim said he sympathized with Sakurai’s view of life.

Sakurai’s words are notably free of pessimism in the film.

Asked about how he felt when he began serving his prison sentence, he said: “I wasn’t able to get out. I had no choice but to spend time inside thinking to myself that I was happy with who I was.”

Regarding a cancer diagnosis in 2019, he said: “Life would be boring if it was full of good things.”

However, viewers also get a glimpse of the suffering he has experienced in his life, especially in a scene featuring his wife Keiko, who said shortly after they married, Sakurai attempted to jump out of a window, shouting, “My mind and body are falling apart!”

The film opens on Oct. 8 at the Pole Pole Higashi-Nakano movie theater in Nakano Ward, Tokyo. Screenings are also scheduled in Kanagawa, Nagano and Shizuoka prefectures.