The indisputable highlight of the 2008 New York Film Festival is a complete retrospective of the films of Japanese provocateur Nagisa Oshima. As “In the Realm of Oshima” unspools this month at the Walter Reade Theater in New York, we asked critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to take the measure of a man who is perhaps Japan’s most unquantifiable cinematic master.

Nagisa Oshima, Empire of Passion, 1978, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). © 1978, Argos Films-Oshima Productions.

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.

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