Aside from a complete lack of privacy, Kazuichio Hanawa’s description of his stay inside of a Japanese prison conveys a lifestyle that seems a whole lot nicer and more fulfilling than America’s lower-middle class generally lives: organized, nonviolent, respectful, and replete with delicious food on a regular schedule. We’ve recently heard a great deal of discussion about how “different” Japanese culture is when compared to American culture, and Doing Time is an ideal example of the “differences” being a played out in a real and enlightening manner.
As a collector of interesting guns, Hanawa ran afoul of Japan’s strict gun ownership regulations and was caught testing out some of his unlicensed acquisitions in a remote location. Perhaps the starkest contrast to American law is that Hanawa was imprisoned for three years for a wholly nonviolent and nondestructive event, while a similar offense in the U.S. is typically met with fines. In fact, some of Hanawa’s historical guns would be exempted by U.S. gun law, but are strictly forbidden by Japanese law.
Hanawa doesn’t spend any time lamenting his unjust punishment, or how awful life in prison is, instead focusing on the actualities of his situation and how to make the most of it. He’s accepted that he is to spend three years in prison, and he’s created an excellent documentary about the duration. It’s intensely detailed, and while it spends a lot of time on the minutia of prison life, it effectively conveys the feeling of passing the time by the very nature of this attention to the minutia, making all of it very interesting. Black and sepia drawings throughout spell out these details down to their finest points, with thousands of tiny lines that feel like time passing, minute by minute, for three years. It’s the perfect medium and style for the narrative that Hanawa is delivering.
It’s not a story that’s full of action, making it a true documentary in this sense. It’s filled with schedules, pages of meals, and the intensity of small moments of anxiety and respite in a severely restricted environment. Rules are rarely broken, and if they are, it’s never in a violent manner. Prisoners spend their days producing art, or resting, or bathing, and have all seemed to accept their fate without struggling against it. We never get to see documentation of the punishment for breaking these rules, because Hanawa never saw it happen. Despite this lack of action, this voyeuristic and honest view into a prison cell remains compelling and makes every page meaningful. If you like documentaries or Japanese culture, or even the intellectual nature of independent comics, this is perfect for you.
It’s a story about a prison, but there’s little vulgarity, unlike what US prison reality shows and dramas would have you anticipate. Minor male nudity and typical locker room discussions occur, but Doing Time does not contain anything even slightly gratuitous. If anything potentially offensive does happen, which is rare, it’s an expression of the lack of privacy in prison and little else. Doing Time is a tremendously interesting peek into a foreign, fascinating place, and a great window into a wholly different genre of manga.
Reviewed by Collin David on March 15, 2006