The Burden Of The Past (2023) review [OAFF 2023]


Following his speculative drama based on firsthand accounts of action sexual harassment case – Company retreat (2021), Atsushi Funahashi directs his lens towards the way Japanese society treats those who spend some time in prison. For this narrative, he took inspiration by a story of a real organization that supports the employment of formerly incarcerated people.  

Osaka Asian Film Festival


One day, Aya Mori (Kiroko Kina), who was convicted for possessing and use of crystal meth, is introduced by her younger sister to Change, an organisation led by Takashi Nagata (Miyatani) founded during the pandemic to help ex-convicts find a job and re-integrate them into the societal fabric. Luckily, she gets a chance to work for a cleaning company, who due to the pandemic is in dire need of new workers. Yet, she still struggles with the lingering craving for crystal meth.

Yoshi Misune (Yoshio Taguchi), a former teacher who was convicted for trying to commit indecent sexual acts with a child, is battling everyday with his paedophilic impulse and the lingering fear he might reoffend. Yet, thanks to Change, he is given a chance to work in construction.

Anri Shima (Anri Mine), who spend ten years in the joint for committed arson, is introduced by Change to a restaurant run by Yuta Wakao (Yuta Mitsuzono), another ex-convict. Taku Tanaka (Taku Tsuji), her co-worker who served ten years for a hit and run manslaughter of a high school student, is struggling to adapt to the way the restaurant is run.

The Burden Of The Past (2023) by Atsushi Funahashi

The Burden Of The Past is a narrative that explores how (un)willing the societal Other – i.e. the little others that make up its fabric – is in tolerating people with a criminal past. Put differently, Funahashi echoes how the Other rather enjoys the ‘failures’ of others (i.e. pushing them to the edge of the societal field by spitting vicious signifiers fuelled their fear or self-assumed moral superiority at their subject) than utilize the event of the criminal act to radically question the blundering structure (i.e. the network of demands, preconceptions, …etc.) it radically subjects the subject to (Narra-note 1). Neither those who never committed a crime nor those who did seem able to escape the impact of the lingering preconceptions on the dynamic of interactions – reducing every exchange to a violent imaginary fight.   

Within such societal network, an organisation like Change is not merely aimed at counteracting the negative social consequences of having a criminal record, but also to combat the preconceptions subjects might have about ex-convicts. The creation of a space of acceptance within the societal field is imperative to the very possibility of anchoring oneself back into its fabric and assume a functional position within it. Only by ensuring such a space (between employers and employees), a place where failure remains possible, the prejudices and fears that lingers within subjects can undergo change (General-note 1).

The Burden Of The Past (2023) by Atsushi Funahashi

Yet, the attempt to create such a place within an unwilling societal field is, as The Burden Of The Past touchingly reveals, is far from evident. The fearful preconceptions that linger within the society, the simplistic ideas that exist about the cause of crime (i.e. the subject is fully responsible for his actions) and the reflex to please our superiority by refusing the Other’s Otherness creates an unforgiving atmosphere that suffocates any attempt to establish a place where the difficult process of re-integration can safely be attempted and violently pushes the subject to the edge of society where, in many cases, the criminal mistake/solution is repeated (General-note 2). 

Taku Tanaka, for instance, struggles in the restaurant not so much due to Yuta Wakao, his boss, but because he is unable to suppress the imaginary that lingers within the symbolically structured speech-act. For him, the signifiers of his boss are merely persecutory attacks to damage his frail ego and scar his sense of masculinity in public – he unwittingly installs a dual relation of violence and narcissistic anger. What he fails to realize is that Yuta Wakao addresses him from his symbolic position of boss and that his signifiers aim to introduce him to what is expected of someone who assume the symbolic position of kitchen staff within the social setting of a restaurant. Can he, given his ‘reflex’ to make his interaction with others volatile, escape the persecutory feeling that haunts him?    

The Burden Of The Past (2023) by Atsushi Funahashi

A very important element in the narrative of The Burden Of the Past is drama-therapy – an element that ultimately pushes to narrative to its powerful and touching dramatic climax. With his narrative, Funahashi underlines the usefulness of drama-therapy in the post-incarceration reintegration trajectory. One of exercises within this kind of therapy is called The empty chair. While the drama therapist asks Aya Mori and the others to imagine another you sitting in the chair, it becomes evident that who they address is not their alter-ego at all. If this exercise has any effect on the subject, it is not due to recreation of an imaginary dynamic – as is implied in the narrative, but because it grants the person a place to address his Other, the symbolic Other as external (society) as internal (unconscious) (Narra-note 2).      

The composition of The Burden Of The Past is mainly framed with a concatenation of shaky dynamic shots. Funahashi did right to rely on the decorative element of shakiness to bring his socially engaged narrative alive as this visual vibration heightens the sense of realism and supports the naturalness of the acting performances (Cine-note 1). The documentary-feel of the narrative is further heightened by the use of expository intertitles – i.e. the text to introduce the various ex-convicts. The slightly washed-out colour- and lighting design, on the other hand, echoes the dramatic tone of the narrative, foreshadowing the despair born from the ongoing destructive conflict between society and the criminals it produces.  

That The Burden Of The Past is able to shake the spectator to its core with its staging of the imaginary violence that continues to exist between the ex-convict and the societal Other – the dehumanizing Othering the ex-convict is subjected to, is solely due to the amazing acting-performances. The cast that portrays the ex-convicts succeed, via their natural speech and body language, in making the societal weight of the Other’s preconceptions they are forced to carry a sensible and haunting presence. Moreover, due to the natural performances of the cast that gives life to staff of the magazine, the spectator is able to feel the disturbing effect of the unwillingness of the Other to allow a re-integrative space to exist within its fabric.    

With The Burden Of The Past, Funahashi’s delivers a contender for this year’s best Japanese film. It is not only an emotionally upsetting experience but also a powerful piece that confronts the spectator, subjected to the societal Other, to his own complicity to the high rate of recidivism. The Other, riddled by blind fear and violent preconceptions, does not merely fail the ex-convict, but ultimately ‘invites’ him/her to repeat their past criminal failures.


General-note 1: The lack of a well-organized reintegration trajectory (within as well as outside prison) for convicts – Japan’s prison-system is singly-mindedly focused on punishment – is one of the main reasons why the recidivism rate in Japan is high – i.e., 50 percent.

General-note 2: One easily comes to realize that the very way the societal other/Other positions him/herself towards the ex-convict (i.e., a fearful way or one of superiority) plays a crucial role in causing the corroboration of the preconceptions that wander within society – once a criminal, always a criminal. Of course, the other/Other does not (want to or is not able to) perceive the very destructive impact it has on the ex-convict, on the subject that is radically Othered by him.  

Narra-note 1: The sole aim of those violent signifiers is to enjoy one’s sense of superiority by refusing the Other subject its right to exist and reduce it to an object (e.g. trash) to be flushed away from the societal field.

Narra-note 2: Given what we wrote about Taku Tanaka’s struggle to break through the dual structure he installs when interacting with people, it is not surprising that he is unable to address the Other during the drama-therapy.

That his frustration keeps lingering within his subject is also caused by the fact that has not yet grasped that the anger that structures the interactions between his ego and the other is addressed from his subject to the societal Other – the others are, unconsciously, turned into representatives of the Other that scarred him. It is either by realizing the true address of his anger or by finding an Other (subject) that accepts him – thus by breaking the imaginary cycle, that he can bend away the poisonous influence his imaginary frustration has on his interactions with the other and avoid that the other/(m)Other, in a persecutory way, blames him for everything that goes wrong.     

Cine-note 1: The reason why such quivering has such an effect on the sense of realism is simply because it betrays the presence of the camera. Rather than complicating the cinematic experience, the subtle consciousness of its presence allows the spectator to feel as if what happens on the screen has merely been documented. The tremble of the camera heightens the sense that it is not a fantasy that is realized, but a certain reality that has become fictionalized.  


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