PRINT May 2013


Nagisa Oshima

Nagisa Oshima, Edinburgh, August 21, 1983. Photo: Steve Pyke/Getty Images.

“OSHIMA’S A BASTARD. Whatever you do, don’t invite him!” more than one colleague counseled when I was organizing a retrospective of the Japanese master’s films in 1988. Fortunately, I ignored their advice. Generous, funny, unaccountably serene, Nagisa Oshima proved the most amenable of guests, sharing my (then) passion for the films of Theo Angelopoulos, entertain­ing Toronto audiences with long, scotch-lubricated Q&As—“Please give me money for my next film!” he mock-pleaded after a screening of Max, Mon Amour (1986)—and deflecting with amused resignation a frenzied group of Japanese tourists who descended upon him at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (He was famous at home more as a confrontational television talk show host and sartorial dandy than as a film director.) The angry insurgent whose work is among the most corrosive of all postwar cinema—“I would like to fight against all authorities and powers,” Oshima once asserted, and proved it with his scandal-making films—appeared imperturbable and charmingly evasive; when I asked him about the recurrence of homosexuality in his films from the 1960s onward—this was long before his final and gayest film, Gohatto (Taboo, 1999)—Oshima laughed innocently and said only, “It’s so interesting, isn’t it?”

Born into privilege in the temple city of Kyoto, the son of a government worker reportedly of samurai ancestry, Oshima scoured his father’s prodigious library for volumes by Freud and Marx, the formative influences on his thought and cinema, though he would later claim, “I am not a Marxist. In fact, I find Marxism and Christianity to be the same thing and both of them are bad.” Oshima’s leftist ideals were forged in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II, by the Korean War and the long struggle against Anpo, Japan’s security pact with Cold War America. Rejecting all political dogma, he mocked the rote doctrinaire responses of radical filmmakers in The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970) and made ideological foes into doubles, united by their impotence, in his coruscating Night and Fog in Japan (1960)—its title provocatively lifted from Alain Resnais’s renowned 1955 documentary about the Holocaust. (In turn, Oshima’s film adumbrated Resnais’s Muriel [1963] in its theatricality, temporal fractures, and overwhelming aura of inertia.) The ideologues of Night and Fog in Japan, who claim to be the vanguard of the class struggle, are too ensnared in internecine skirmishes to confront the reality of those left behind by Japan’s postwar economic miracle. “What has dancing to do with the revolution?” one of the radicals fatuously asks.

Oshima, an avatar of the ’60s Japanese New Wave along with Shohei Imamura, expressed admiration for directors who were “on the side of people” and “show faith in humanity,” such as John Ford, George Stevens, and Frank Capra. The optimistic title of Oshima’s first film, A Town of Love and Hope (1959), made after his apprenticeship at the Shochiku studio, seems to indicate the sentimental humanism he surprisingly admired in Capra, but the cheery appellation was forced on him, a compromise he would not repeat. Oshima’s preferred title was forthright and disconsolate: The Boy Who Sells Pigeons. Expected to abide by Shochiku’s popular “Ofuna” formula for family melodrama, Oshima instead turned in a bitter neorealist tale of a boy driven to petty crime to pay his impoverished mother’s medical bills. “I need money,” the child baldly states, and sets about obtaining it by selling and reselling his homing pigeons, his scam the first of many instances of extortion, imposture, and delinquency in Oshima’s cinema. The devious boy also stands as the first of the director’s many self-portraits, which include, most controversially, the serial killer–rapist Eisuke in Violence at Noon (1966), conceived as a wanton, obsessed embodiment of Ma (evil spirit) who commits “crimes of conviction” and with whom Oshima said he identified. (Rape is distressingly ubiquitous in Oshima’s cinema, as it is in the films of the Japanese New Wave more generally, sometimes presented as a Marcusean act of liberation.) Oshima’s plaintive statement about losing his father at age six, “I always want to go back to my boyhood,” perhaps explains the preponderance in his films of incomplete and broken households. From A Town of Love and Hope through Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Oshima’s children and teens are often witnesses to or participants in crime—the kids who observe the atrocities committed by their elders in The Catch (1961), for instance, or the ten-year-old callously deployed by his parents to fake traffic accidents in Boy (1969). “The blood of a boy dyes all of Japan red!” cried the trailer for the latter film, which is based on a true story. (Prone to such polemical excess, Oshima once stated that he loathed all of Japanese cinema, though he was the director commissioned to chronicle its history for the British Film Institute’s “Century of Cinema” project [1995].)

Shochiku punished Oshima for his audacity by suspending him for six months, declaring A Town of Love and Hope leftist and unwholesome. The next year, prompted by the assassination of a Socialist politician by a right-wing student, Shochiku pulled Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan, set at the wedding of two leftist “comrades,” from theaters three days after it was released, calling it dangerous and inflammatory. The studio’s contention that this dauntingly cerebral film (shot in fewer than fifty long takes, many of them unstable), with its formalist arsenal of swish and attenuated pans, freeze-frames and frieze shots, rack focusing, flashbacks-within-flashbacks, tight, diagonal compositions, and blackouts with theatrical spotlighting, was a potential incitement to violence was as absurd as Oshima’s riposte that “my film is the weapon of the people’s struggle.” The struggle is all ours as an audience: Closer to the modernist mysteries of Last Year at Marienbad than to the incendiary agitprop of The Battle of Algiers, the fog-swathed Night, perhaps Oshima’s masterpiece, requires more than one viewing for its intricacies to be fully grasped.

Contrasting himself with the venerable Yasujiro Ozu, who claimed he could make only “tofu” movies, Oshima described his approach as “closer to making sake. Sometimes my films approach the full blends and rich flavour that the sake should have, and at other times they’re very raw and they become the kind of sake that burns your throat as it goes down.” If Night and Fog in Japan represents Oshima’s richest blend, The Sun’s Burial, released the same year, may be his most gullet-scorching. Made in Samuel Fuller’s kino-fist style—apparent also in the blotter-like credits over newspaper clippings in Cruel Story of Youth, the first of the three films Oshima made in 1960—Burial introduces its vision of hell with human blood being bartered for booze in the Kamagasaki slum on Osaka’s periphery. A sign erected amid the desolation, where everything from plasma to prostitutes is for sale, promises “Love and Hope for Youth,” a mocking allusion to the title of the director’s first film. (Like that of Godard, to whom he was frequently compared, much to his chagrin, Oshima’s cinema is rife with self-reference; a song in Ceremonies [1971] celebrates Sada Abe, the murderous chambermaid of In the Realm of the Senses.) Oshima repudiated traditional shots of the sky or of people sitting on tatami mats, and, perhaps remembering Kandinsky’s caveat against green as the color of complacency, banished the hue from his palette because it “softens the heart” through association with nature and the Japanese garden. Not for him the gentle evanescence of mono no aware: He shunned Ozu’s symmetries and quietude in favor of tonal impulsiveness, off-center CinemaScope compositions, insistent, unnerving music (eerie high woodwinds and growling bass in Cruel Story, a Schnittke-like score in the desperately underlit Shiro Amakusa, the Christian Rebel [1962]), and a Fauvist inferno of industrial color—red, blue, and turquoise telephones in Cruel Story; crimson and Fanta-orange everything in Burial; purple underwear, blaring paisley, and hot pink onsen outfits in 1968’s Three Resurrected Drunkards (whose “resurrection” can give projectionists a start when the film’s second reel seems to exactly repeat the first, one of many such conceptual japes in Oshima’s cinema).

“I always try to deny the style I used in a previous work. . . . I never make films in the same style,” Oshima told writer Joan Mellen. Violence at Noon, based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorized Japan in the ’50s, marks one of many stylistic departures in the director’s work, and one of his most radical. In contrast to the mere four dozen takes of Night and Fog in Japan, Violence at Noon employs roughly fifteen hundred cuts—some reports say more than two thousand—in ninety-eight minutes. Flurries of barely perceptible edits give the film a jittery, vertiginous quality, amplified by its use of varying shot sizes, eyeline mismatches, incessant reframing, reflected images, and sudden, space-stripping ’Scope close-ups. Camera movement is often “unmotivated,” the lateral pans in a late sequence set on a train at times traveling past their subject into empty space and then back. The stutter edits and restive camera movement refuse a sense of settled truth—the film’s portrait of the rapist and his victims remains terrifyingly ambiguous to the end—and, as elsewhere in Oshima’s cinema, reflect his characters’ tenuous existence. Examples abound in 1968 alone, when the director turned out the Genet-influenced Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, as well as Drunkards, a brash pop farce starring Kazuhiko Kato, the guitarist and leader of the Sadistic Mika Band, and shot in ’Scope and retina-ripping color, and Death by Hanging, an absurdist Brechtian documentary-satire shot in black-and-white and in the old VistaVision aspect ratio, about R., a Korean student hanged for the rape and murder of two women, whose body refuses to cooperate with the state by declining to expire. Both films deal with Japanese bigotry toward Koreans, a frequent theme of Oshima’s, who told British critic Ian Cameron, “The feeling among Japanese intellectuals is that what Japan did to Korea was the biggest crime it ever committed.”

Though an iconoclast, Oshima was not immune to influence, even from the traditional Japanese culture he so often decried. Both the erotic ghost story Empire of Passion (1978) and Oshima’s most notorious film, In the Realm of the Senses, a sake- and semen-soaked recounting of the true story of a hotel maid who murdered and castrated her employer after days of sequestered lovemaking, owe something to Yasuzo Masumura’s Seisaku’s Wife, an earlier study in erotic obsession turned to disfiguring violence (released in 1965). It might be glib to trace Oshima’s international “breakthrough” film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), starring rock icons David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto in a tale of an Orient-Occident gay fixation set in a POW camp in Java in 1942, to its precedent in Bridge on the River Kwai, but Max, Mon Amour, Oshima’s failed comedy of manners about a French diplomat’s wife who falls in love with a chimpanzee, is clearly indebted to the late satires of stymied desire by Luis Buñuel, the Japanese provocateur’s favorite director. And Oshima frequently employed traditional forms and genres, though to his own transgressive ends: the historical pageant and samurai epic in Shiro Amakusa; anime in Band of Ninja (1967); the generational family saga in Ceremonies, his brilliant allegory about the collapse of the powerful Sakurada clan. Gohatto, made after Oshima suffered the first of a series of strokes that ultimately debilitated him, marked the director’s return to the samurai genre and to the Shochiku studio with which he began his career. Despite the “taboo” of homosexuality invoked in the film’s title, a reiteration of Oshima’s themes of eros and death—desire in conflict with social codes—Gohatto’s style derives considerably from the golden age of Japanese cinema that Oshima frequently scorned. Shot partly in the studio Mizoguchi used for Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) and concluding with a soundstage duel in a misty marsh, the film features (Mizoguchian) long-take dolly and tracking shots interlaced with spates of orthodox shot-countershot editing that articulates space in deep focus, its multiple use of hard wipes (recalling Kurosawa) and elegantly balanced, symmetrical compositions—a long take of a young geisha advancing toward the camera flanked by two little girls in red is soon followed by a shot of a samurai walking away from the camera through a gateway flanked by two guards, all in brown—manifesting a classicism that previously seemed anathema to Oshima. (The static symmetries of Ceremonies had been used to imply lethal ritual.) Relying on traditional Japanese iconography, portraying the film’s effeminate young object of desire as a bishonen, the “beautiful boy” of classic Japanese literature and contemporary manga, Oshima ended Gohatto, and his career, with a cascade of white cherry blossoms. The director had long before asserted that the future “blossoming” of Japanese cinema would depend on its ability to “free itself from the spell of Japaneseness.” Like the image of the red sun from the Japanese flag that Oshima frequently deployed with bitter irony, this final shower of petals would once have signified a culture the director disparaged, but here it appears as fond envoi, a stylized sayonara from the greatest Japanese director of the past fifty years.

Nagisa Oshima died on January 15 at the age of eighty. In memoriam, the San Sebastián Film Festival will mount a complete retrospective of his feature films in September. Many of his works are available from the Criterion Collection, which released the box set Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties in 2010.

James Quandt, senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto, organized the traveling retrospective “In The Realm of Oshima” in 2008.