Left: Nagisa Oshima, In the Realm of the Senses, 1976, still from a color film in 35 mm, 101 minutes. Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda). Right: Nagisa Oshima, Cruel Story of Youth, 1960, color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Production still. Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu).


NO MAJOR FIGURE IN POSTWAR JAPANESE CINEMA eludes classification more thoroughly than Nagisa Oshima. The director of twenty-three stylistically diverse feature films since his directorial debut in 1958, at the age of twenty-six, Oshima is, arguably, the best-known but least understood proponent of the Japanese New Wave that came to international prominence in the 1960s and ’70s (though it is a label Oshima himself rejects and despises). Given the size of his oeuvre and the portions that remain virtually unknown in the West—including roughly a quarter of his features and most of his twenty-odd documentaries for television—the temptation to generalize about his work must be firmly resisted.

But to grasp at least how Oshima situates himself, 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, the fifty-two-minute documentary he made for the British Film Institute in 1994, provides a helpful start. That he was offered this assignment at all is comical, given his oft-expressed and unyielding hatred of Japanese cinema as a whole, including his own films. He expressed this aversion in his first major interview in Cahiers du cinéma in March 1970, when he told his interlocutors that Europeans who praised Japanese cinema for its formal beauty should speak more about its content. At the time, one should note, these critics had only recently learned how to love Kurosawa in addition to Mizoguchi (whom they had championed since the ’50s), without having yet discovered Ozu or Naruse. Oshima detested all four. A quarter of a century later, offering a leftist and almost exclusively content-driven survey of his subject in 100 Years, he chose to mind his manners—even if he restricted Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa to I Was Born, But . . . (1932), Osaka Elegy (1936), and No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), respectively, and omitted Naruse entirely. In covering the period that encompasses his own career, he obligingly switches from third to first person in his narration, and the eight titles he cites from his own filmography—Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Night and Fog in Japan (1960), Death by Hanging (1968), Boy (1969), The Ceremony (1971), In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and Max, Mon Amour (1986)—constitute (apart from the last item) a credible rundown of his greatest directorial achievements. (Since then, he has made one more feature, arguably another aesthetic high point—1999’s Taboo, a haunting and dreamlike tale centering on a beautiful, androgynous, and narcissistic merchant’s son recruited to become a samurai warrior in the Shinsengumi militia, a nationalist legion assigned to protect the shogun.) In 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, Oshima claims that his principal contribution was to introduce new kinds of subject matter relating to politics, war, and sex into the national cinema.

Oshima suggests in the documentary that Max, Mon Amour, shot in Paris with a European cast, may not even be Japanese. Cowritten with Jean-Claude Carričre and produced by Serge Silberman (the two had together famously teamed with Luis Buńuel on his French and Spanish films of the ’60s and ’70s), this comic tale about a British diplomat’s wife (Charlotte Rampling) having a fling with a chimpanzee mostly registers as a failed attempt at Buńuelian whimsy. But the film’s internationalism relates to Oshima’s point: The last line in his commentary equates the future “blossoming” of Japanese cinema with its capacity to “free itself from the spell of Japanese-ness.” And considering how preoccupied with Japan he remains—his ambitious work The Ceremony is virtually an attempt to psychoanalyze the country over a quarter of a century, as Maureen Turim, his most astute American commentator, has implied—this sounds like a classic case of a filmmaker turned against himself. He often comes across as a man who hates Japan almost as much as he hates Japanese cinema yet is hard put to come up with any other sustaining topic.

This is the beginning of a longer essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum on Nagisa Oshima, which appeared in the October 2008 issue of Artforum. To read the rest of the piece, click here. “The Cruel Stories of Nagisa Oshima,” a retrospective of his work will run at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn April 1–14. For more details, click here.