Make no mistake about this one: Judy Garland is NOT on the other side. This is a brutal, rough, vicious show that takes no prisoners. It is also rather rare in that it examines the Post-WWII life ofJapanand how the war really changed both people and society.
It starts out in July, 1956 and six boys are being transferred to the Shōnan Special Reform School. They are hooded and chained together and are treated like scum and villainy, especially when they have to board a public bus to get to the school. The brutality starts almost immediately when one boy is beaten for trying to return a doll to a little girl who dropped it and no one does anything about the punishment meted out to him.
Once in their cell, after a most humiliating jail processing procedure, they have to confront Sakuragi Rokurouta, who challenges them all to a fight to see who will be the top dog in this little group. Our six other prisoners are:
Minakami Mario, 17, attempted homicide.
Maeda Noboru, 16, serial theft (dine-and-dash crimes.)
Nomoto Ryuuji, 17, fraud scams.
Matsuura Mansaku, 17, underage drinking and crimes committed while drunk.
Tooyama Tadayoshi, 17, disruption of peace.
Yokosuka Jou, 16, morals violation.
Sakuragi is accused of killing his father, but what happened is that he had harsh words towards him and Dad killed himself. This is important, as all the teens are in here as a result of circumstances and not from direct intention and they come to learn quickly that they can only depend and rely on each other.
But the horrors are unrelenting, abetted by a sadistic guard, Ishihara. (Now, what is it about prisons films that the guards are psychotic and that there really is nothing that prevents them from occupying a cell themselves?) Situations make them friends and when Sakuragi is tortured in an attempt to kill him (he knows that the suicide of a prisoner was actually a murder, caused by the perverted doctor and his sexual needs), the six bust him out.
However, they come to learn that life outside is just as mean and brutal as being inside, as there are the same kind of homicidal people out there, ready to kill you for a next meal. The group have dreams as to what they want to be, but they get thwarted constantly by people who have no hope or faith in them. The friends even cheat on each other.
But these bonds are hard to break as they are doing this from the hard lessons Sakuragi taught them.
The brutality gets a bit forced on. In one sequence, Mario gets his hand broken, crushed by a rock when he is assaulted by other prisoners. What is an errant rock doing in a prison yard? I mean, that rock could easily be used against a guard. Weak plot device. There is also a scare when we learn that Maeda may have cancer (as he is an Atomic Bomb Orphan).
It’s that the circumstances are done more to see how much overall abuse everyone can take. To be honest, I have never seen more hard-luck stories with this troupe than with any other six people you could name, with the predictable results. No one really gets a true break.
Still, despite these annoyances, it is, for the most part, a compelling series. I also cannot remember a show when I have seen so much crying, not even in some romantic comedies. The show doesn’t end (but it reaches a save point and it’s good to stop here) and it doesn’t look like there will be a second season (where could you go with the stories, anyway?) but you do find yourself drawn into their worlds, each figuring out how to make it in life and what the best course of action is for them.
On a scale of 1 to 10:
Artwork 7 (Stark, but the ‘splash panels’ get annoying)
Plot 7 (Rather standard)
Pacing 7 (Slows down in places)
Effectiveness 8 (This really works)
Conclusion 8 (It stops, but at a logical point)
Fan Service 2 (A similar show would “Okamisan”)
Overall 8 (It gets a bit maudlin)
And remember, it’s first run until you’ve seen it. Did you ever see the “Shawshank Redemption”?