If your daughter’s killer had the opportunity to start again, would she, to your mind, be deserving of that second chance? That is the question at the heart of December, a Japanese court drama helmed by Indian filmmaker Anshul Chauhan. Crime, punishment, and the rehabilitation of criminals are topics that are debated all around the world, but in Chauhan’s film it takes on a different meaning because of the way it examines the issue at hand and its setting.
Japan’s criminal justice system has a 99.9% conviction rate, a staggering percentage at first glance, though perhaps not so surprising when one realises that a person is presumed guilty until proven innocent in their courts. It is also especially disconcerting to think of this fact given Japan is one of the few countries to still implement the death penalty. There has been much public outcry over the number of wrongful convictions in the country over the years – but, in December the debate isn’t whether Kana (Ryo Matsuura) did murder her classmate, it’s whether she should be allowed to return to society.
Kana killed Emi Higuchi (Kanon Narumi) when they were both 17 years old, and at the time she was sentenced to life in prison despite being a juvenile. Now, her lawyer Sato (Kizu Toru) is keen to appeal her conviction and argue that she was sentenced too harshly by her first judge, and that the seven years she spent in prison is punishment enough. Emi’s grieving father Katsu (Shogen) is just as determined to stop his daughter’s killer from getting out of prison, and he persuades his ex-wife Sumiko (Megumi) to help testify during Kana’s retrial.
What follows is an intense drama that explores not only the court case at hand but also the struggles of Katsu, Sumiko, and Kana. December is a human drama, and so much of the emotional strife that viewers feel is a result of the pain depicted by the film’s main trio. Katsu’s grief has driven him to drink into oblivion, which has, in turn, twisted his sadness into rage against Kana. While the young woman is battling with a dark inner conflict over the blood she has spilt and how much agony she caused with her actions. Sumiko’s struggle is more muted in comparison, but it bubbles up to the surface in terrifying waves while she is with her second husband. Shogen, Megumi and Matsuura all rise to the challenge and each skilfully embodies their characters’ plight onscreen.
Matsuura is especially impressive because she lends a gentleness to her character; Kana’s guilt over her past is palpable with every glance and gesture. When she remarks on how her punishment may have been justified, we feel her anguish at the admission, and that is testament to Matsuura’s great performance. Shogen and Megumi, too, give compelling performances in their respective roles. Shogen is a force to be reckoned with when Kana’s retrial begins, with just his eyes the actor conveys Katsu’s inhuman rage with an intensity that serves to increase the drama of the film every time the character and his daughter’s killer are faced with one another.
Chauhan, with his third feature, December, makes interesting choices as a director with the film, especially later on when various confrontations come to a head. That said, the film takes its time to get to its intense and emotional scenes. While it is true that much of the first half features necessary building blocks for the story’s climax, it does make the film drag a little. The payoff, though, is ultimately worth it.
Written by Roxy Simons
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