Nagisa Oshima’s interest in politics began at a young age. His father, a government official (reportedly of samurai lineage) (1) who died when Oshima was six, left behind an extensive library of Socialist and Communist texts, which the young man read through as he came to maturity. He attended Kyoto University, studying law while dabbling in theatre and becoming deeply involved in student activism. The years of his youth were turbulent ones for Japan, as the nation rebuilt itself after its defeat in World War Two. Food shortages and depressed wages sparked a surge in labour-union activity. The threat of labour unrest, and the dawning of the Cold War mentality, led to crackdowns and “Red purges” of suspected radicals. Slowly, the American occupiers were transforming Japan into a stable capitalist democracy, and as the Cold War got underway, the U.S. came to see its new client state as an essential ally in the region. In 1951, the American occupation officially ended. That same year, the signing of the U.S.-Japan mutual security pact established a permanent U.S. military presence in Japan. Japanese leftists, fearing a return to authoritarianism and militarism, stepped up their demands for greater freedom. At the time of the security pact signing, Oshima was an officer in Kyoto University’s left-wing student association, and led the student body in a series of protests. (In one famous incident that occurred while Oshima was a student leader, the Emperor’s visit to Kyoto University was disrupted by a mass demonstration.)
By the time Oshima graduated in the mid-1950s, he had lost interest in practicing law. Steady employment was hard to find in the post-war, pre-boom years, particularly for a young man with a record of leftist activism, so when a friend notified him of an opening at Shochiku Ofuna studios’ assistant-director training program, he applied, though he was not a passionate cinephile. He was admitted, and began to work his way up the ranks as a screenwriter and assistant director.
In 1959, as the renewal of the U.S.-Japan security pact (stipulated to occur every ten years) approached, student activists joined forces with the Socialist and Communist parties, intellectuals and labour unions. Strikes, boycotts, rallies and occupations of official buildings erupted nationwide. Revolution seemed a real possibility. Amid the disorder, the Japan Communist Party shifted its stance and denounced the student groups as dangerous extremists, selling itself as “a responsible, civic-minded opposition party working against the security treaty and for the independence of Japan” (2). Many on the left, Oshima included, saw the JCP’s actions as a betrayal of the young by their elders. Nevertheless, demonstrations continued, sometimes ending in violent clashes between protestors and police. The treaty was renewed in 1960, the fledging revolutionary movement defeated, but a new spirit of radical agitation had been released into the culture – years before “the sixties” as such really began in the U.S. and Europe(3).
During the years leading up to the great disruptions of 1959-60, Oshima was learning his craft at Shochiku, waiting for the opportunity to make a feature. He had also started writing film criticism. In a 1958 essay called “Is It A Breakthrough? (The Modernists of Japanese Film),” he assessed the new crop of Japanese directors (“modernists”) – most of them, except for Yasuzo Masumura, unknown to Western audiences today:
The modernists are at a crossroads. One road would lead to gradual degeneration of their innovations in form into mere entertainment, bringing about their surrender to the premodern elements that are subconsciously included in the content of their films. In that case, they would simply live out their lives as mediocre technical artists. Another road requires them to exert all of their critical spirit and powers of expression in a persistent struggle that strongly and effectively pits the content of their works against the premodern elements of Japanese society (4).
There are several things to note here. First, the condemnation of the “premodern” Japanese mentality: feudalistic, xenophobic, undemocratic, hostile to personal liberty, mired in dead traditions. Second, the importance granted to cinema: the belief that Japanese cinema can profoundly influence the direction of the Japanese nation. (For the better, and for the worse: Oshima has always disdained the great humanist tradition of Japanese film, seeing it as the artistic embodiment of those “premodern elements of Japanese society” he opposes) (5). Third, the warning against “degeneration” and “surrender”: the fear that bold, innovative young filmmakers might lose their nerve and become “mediocre technical artists” (this from a man still in his twenties, whose first feature would not appear until the following year). Finally, the notion of persistent struggle: the awareness that in the war against a reactionary and repressive society, no true and lasting victory can be won. One must be forever vigilant, must will oneself constantly forward, or be dragged down into corruption and waste.
Through the 1960s and into the early ’70s, Oshima put his youthful theories into practice with a series of films that retain their power to provoke and surprise. Politically and formally radical, they are remarkable documents of their era and constitute a major contribution to the various “new waves” that swept through world cinema during the ’60s. As a director, Oshima never settled into an identifiable aesthetic, a particular mode of address; the films range from neorealist naturalism to pseudo-documentary to avant-garde modernism to surrealist farce. There is no such thing as a “typical” Oshima shot or scene. As a result, his detractors have accused him of lacking a style or voice of his own. But form, for Oshima, serves as a vessel for content (see (5)). His subject matter was new: post-war alienation among Japanese youth, the failures of left-wing political movements, the rise of capitalism, the hangover from the imperial past. These new stories could not be told in the old ways; new content demanded new forms. Traditional forms – the classical style of conventional studio filmmaking – reflected the political and cultural status quo. To critique and reform a corrupt society, to change the way people think and act, would require a change in how they see and hear. The lack of a signature style, the search for new forms, is part and parcel of the never-ending struggle to see contemporary Japan with fresh eyes. Restlessness equals development and growth; repetition leads to self-satisfaction and the weakening of the will. From a 1961 essay:
This accumulation of new images [discovered during shooting] becomes a work and thereby gives the filmmaker a new consciousness of reality. When he is preparing for the next work, it shapes his total dynamic vision of the inner person and outer circumstances. The filmmaker goes on to discover new images as he works on each production, testing and negating his vision….
Reality, however, is always changing. Thus, the filmmaker who is unable to grasp it immediately ceases being a filmmaker and degenerates into a mere crafter of images.
Constant self-negation and transformation are necessary if one is to avoid that debilitation and continue to confront circumstances as a filmmaker. Naturally, that means preparing a new methodology. Moreover, those transformations and that methodology must not themselves be made into goals of the ego, but, as weapons used to change reality, must always follow through with their objective of revolutionizing consciousness. With this in place, the law of self-negating movement is not merely a law of production or of the filmmaker, but a law of human growth and of the development of the human race – a law of the movement of all things.
The filmmaker must uphold that law (6).
“Reality” in this passage stands for the thing to be resisted, struggled against, overcome. Reality is the way things are, the received wisdom of the social order. The artist pursues a personal vision that will lead to a new consciousness of reality, but once that vision has expressed itself in a particular work, an act of self-negation must occur, to clear the way for new visions. The creation of an oeuvre, the ego-gratifications of artistic success: these are mere by-products of the true quest, to change reality, and to revolutionize consciousness. However: the radical filmmaker seeks these goals, but knows that ultimately, they can never be achieved. It is not a question of reforming a certain law, or bringing a particular issue to light. There is no victory over the horizon, only the persistent struggle, the movement of all things.
This was how the young Oshima defined his mission. But, as we shall see, even in his earliest films, theory did not always walk hand in hand with practice. The films display tremendous anger at social and political corruption, but also great scepticism about the possibility of effecting positive change. The aspiring revolutionary becomes a brilliant anatomist of failed revolutions; the rebel youth who set out to reform society ends up making film after film exploring the twisted, murky psychology of the rebel.
Oshima got the chance to direct his first feature after a series of box-office failures led Shochiku’s management to promote some of its more promising assistant directors. A Town of Love and Hope (1959) sounded acceptably conventional in outline: a social-realist drama about a poor teenage boy who sells a homing pigeon to gullible buyers as a pet, only to later recall the pigeon and sell it again. A close friendship with a rich girl ends when the girl discovers the boy’s scam, and orders the pigeon shot. But, Japanese critic Tadao Sato reports:
[i]n the original script another scene followed in which the teenagers agree not to let their friendship end on such a sour note, and there was the brave, heartwarming message that together they would build a more genuine society. However, Oshima’s film ended with the slain pigeon falling – an image which pierced the viewer to the core. It was a compelling ending because the viewer, who had been an objective, detached observer, was suddenly and forcefully confronted with the question: Where do you stand? (7) According to Sato, Shochiku disliked Oshima’s harsher ending, with the studio head scolding the director, “This film is saying that the rich and poor can never join hands!” The company promptly buried the film, releasing it in only a few small theatres.
The success of his next feature, Cruel Story of Youth (1960), put Oshima back in his employers’ good graces. Cruel Story is often compared to Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955): a juvenile delinquent and a “good” girl fall in love and manoeuvre their way among disapproving adults and dangerous youth gangs. But Oshima’s film is set in a meaner milieu, and he lacks Ray’s romantic idealism. The couple in Cruel Story operate a scam in which the girl lures middle-aged lechers into driving her home, then, once the marks make their moves on her, the boy appears and shakes them down. These are not Rebel‘s wounded innocents, but tainted people in a dirty world, predators as well as prey. Where the film does resemble Rebel is in its supercharged, hot-blooded style: bold colours, intense close-ups, a mood of coiled tension that periodically explodes in sex and violence. Cruel Story is Oshima’s splashiest, most pop-besotted work, a grim tale that’s great fun to watch.
Social commentary shares the foreground with the tale of the two lovers. The boy’s close friend is a student protestor taking part in the anti-security-treaty demonstrations, real footage of which appears in the film. And the girl’s older sister is a former activist of Oshima’s generation; watching her younger sister’s heedless flouting of convention reminds her of her own vanished youth. She reconnects with her former lover, now a doctor, but their meeting ends in disillusionment and a sad recognition of compromised ideals: she settled down with an older man for security, while he supplements his meagre income performing back-alley abortions. The doctor is arrested (after giving the heroine an abortion) and the young lovers meet separate, bloody ends.
Oshima’s next film presented an even harsher view of lowlife Japan. The Sun’s Burial (1960) depicts the struggle between two criminal gangs in an Osaka slum. Prostitution, black-marketeering, identity theft, rape and robbery are the going concerns in this ensemble piece. Oshima repeatedly ends scenes with cityscapes of the sun setting over the decrepit slum. The Sun’s Burial, with its corrupt, conniving characters, its squalor and cruelty, is the director’s disgusted mockery of the nation’s self-image as the “land of the rising sun”.
These first three pictures showed Oshima working largely within the boundaries of conventional genre storytelling: A Town of Love and Hope was an urban melodrama, and Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial were approved and marketed by Shochiku as part of the then-popular Taiyo-zoku (or “Sun Tribe”) films about rebellious contemporary youth. Oshima’s fourth feature, and (astonishingly) his third to appear in 1960, marked a significant breakthrough – an audacious and original work, conceptually rigorous, blisteringly political.
Night and Fog in Japan begins at the wedding of a thirtyish journalist and a younger activist, who met a few months earlier at the bloody height of the security treaty protests. The groom’s friends are from Oshima’s generation, those who took to the streets in the early 1950s. Some have left the movement, some have consolidated their power within it, some hang on at its margins. The bride’s friends are from the younger generation, the students freshly wounded in the recent protests. (The contrast between the two generations recalls the older and younger pairs of lovers in Cruel Story of Youth.) The wedding’s formalised serenity is very quickly broken, as guests invited and uninvited begin to speak of their shared pasts. Night and Fog in Japan takes place during three separate time frames: the present of the wedding, the recent past of the 1960 demonstrations, and the more distant past of the older generation’s activism during the early 1950s. As the guests’ tongues loosen and memories take hold, recriminations and accusations are flung about, and old jealousies and resentments come to light.
With Night and Fog, Oshima (and his co-screenwriter Toshiro Oshido, also a former student activist) comments on the immediate moment of the 1959–60 protests while simultaneously crafting a memory-piece about his own political coming-of-age in the early ’50s. The film can be read as Oshima’s indictment of the Old Left’s leadership: how they betrayed one another when young, and how they sold out their successors several years later. The constant flashbacks begin to exert a relentless, vertiginous pull, as if history is grabbing the characters by their necks and dragging them out of the present. One character’s j’accuse leads to a flashback furnishing the evidence for the indictment, but then the accused gets a chance to speak and the viewer is plunged into an alternative version of the past events, and then on to the next argument and counter-argument. The quest for truth, for meaning, for a final settling of accounts, circles back on itself in a spiral of confusion, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. The fugitive of the group is arrested, the guests stand in pensive disarray, and the group’s leader, by now revealed as an unprincipled Stalinist control freak, reasserts order with a speech (surely inspired by the Marquis’ words at the close of Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu ) about the need for unity. The camera drifts past the characters, through the enveloping fog, and into the night.
Stylistically, the film departs from the naturalism of Oshima’s first three features. During the wedding scenes, the actors, spread out along the wide Cinemascope screen in neat rows, stand motionless while the camera pans and tracks across their faces, registering their expressions as they take in what’s happening and think back on the past. The stiff, still tableau of the wedding, traversed by the restless camera, correlates to the state of the characters’ lives, frozen in the present as their history swells and swirls around them. Many scenes are filmed in a heavily theatricalised shorthand – call it minimalist expressionism: a massive protest march is rendered as the sound of crowds chanting, glimpses of waving flags and flashing lights, and a lone protestor stumbling through shadows.
Night and Fog in Japan is a demanding viewing experience, but a rewarding one. We don’t sink comfortably into the flow of the story but instead are constantly thrown out of it, forced to shift our conception of what has happened to these people as more facets of their past are revealed. Oshima doesn’t want us to “like” his characters, but to understand them, and to see how contemporary social history plays itself out through their lives. Though some first-time viewers might be put off by Oshima’s obsessively detailed re-creation of decades-old Japanese political infighting, ultimately the film works as a portrait of any movement of true believers that falls apart when truth and belief prove hard to hold onto (the critic Paul Coates calls Night and Fog a “prescient post-mortem of 1968 before the fact”) (8).
A few days after the film was released, Shochiku withdrew it from circulation, claiming concerns about social stability following the assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party. Oshima was furious, denouncing the studio in the press for its cowardice, and even (like a character in his film) making a grandstanding anti-Shochiku speech to the guests at his own wedding to actress Akiko Toyama. He left Shochiku to form his own independent production company, Sozosha (Creation). Thus ended his career as a studio filmmaker, to the relief of both studio and filmmaker.
The 1960s and Early 1970s
The next few years saw Oshima collaborating with novelist Kenzaburo Oe on a film about a Japanese village holding an American POW during the war (The Catch, 1961), making a biopic about an eighteenth-century revolutionary (Amakusa Shiro Tokisada, 1962) and travelling extensively in Korea and Vietnam. His Asian travels led to a series of documentaries for Japanese television (9). Then, in 1965, he returned to features with Pleasures of the Flesh, about a criminal who pursues a life of dissolute sensualism. Pleasures of the Flesh signalled the beginning of a remarkably fertile period: over the next eight years, Oshima would turn out a dozen features.
Many of these films are difficult to find today. But at least half of them made their mark on international contemporary cinema; they form the better part of Oshima’s filmmaking legacy. The first of these was Violence at Noon (1966). The story was inspired by a real-life serial rapist and killer who terrorised the nation in the late 1950s. Oshima and his screenwriter Tsutomu Tamura (working from a novel by Taijun Takeda) make their criminal, Eisuke (Kei Sato), a fugitive from a collective farm that had failed a year before, adding a social and political backdrop to this noir tale of private perversion.
Oshima was by now reinventing his style for each new work. No two films from this prolific period look alike: the director was living up to his credo of “constant self-negation and transformation.” Violence at Noon, in stark contrast to the long sequence shots of Night and Fog in Japan, consists of some 2,000 shots. Scenes seem to break apart and re-form before our eyes, as Oshima jump-cuts from angle to angle with unsettling speed, fracturing space like a cubist. The fragmented style brings us into the criminal’s consciousness, a jumble of fetishised memories and uncontrollable urges. By the end, Eisuke has receded in importance next to the two women whose lives he has haunted: his schoolteacher wife and his first rape victim. Eisuke is brought to justice, but the women find no comfort, no escape, no happy ending (significantly, Eisuke’s capture and execution are never shown but reported from offscreen, denying us any sense of relief).
Oshima’s obsession with crime and criminals runs deep, from the boy with the homing-pigeon scam to the killers who populate his later work. (Audie Bock: “[I]n every Oshima film at least one murder, rape, theft or blackmail incident can be found, and often the whole of the film is constructed around the chronic repetition of such a crime” (10)). In his writings and interviews, Oshima sometimes equates the outlaw with the artist: both live lives of risk and uncertainty, closer to the edge than those who conform to social norms. This is not an original or profound observation, and Oshima can sound naïve, vain, or foolish when expounding on the theme in print:
In the first place, to make films is a criminal act in this world.
Doesn’t this also explain why it is difficult to establish a movement in the film world? It is easy for one person to commit a crime, but it is really difficult to commit a crime in a group. People who try to commit a crime in a group are inevitably shot down (11).
Rather than being our own, the labors of our days are merely a series of things we are made to do by those outside ourselves. We live lives that are even more evanescent than the bubbles floating along the stream – and even more meaningless.
The reason we show an abnormal interest in crime and scandal is that a life, which usually drifts by, thereby appears caught up by a pole in the river’s flow. A drowning man grasps at straws. For we find, in crime and scandal, a tiny trace that reminds us of human dignity….
The path to human dignity lies through the act of one who, having been previously involved in a crime or scandal, chooses that option for himself once again, in the very midst of the flow (12).
But in his films, Oshima’s identification with the outlaw becomes considerably more interesting than these passages might indicate. One complicating factor is how Oshima’s empathy with the criminal colors his identity as a political activist. Like the outlaw and the artist, the would-be reformer takes a rebel stance against normative behaviour. In almost every film, Oshima’s main character or characters, whether artist, criminal or activist, makes the conscious choice to live in defiance of the law. Bock reports that the director had recurring nightmares in which he committed rapes and mass murders, and felt guilty and ashamed upon awakening:
He gradually came to the conclusion that his guilt feelings were related to the impurity that had entered his attitude toward revolution – he was, after all, a filmmaker and not a revolutionary…While he still expresses admiration for the determination of filmmakers like Godard concerning their avid commitment to a revolutionary purpose in the filmic medium, Oshima is adamant in his belief that such a goal is doomed to frustration; hence the criminality complex apparent in his own films (13).
The activist’s mission is to speak truth to power, to do good works in the world, to live by a higher morality. But in private he dreams of crime, perversion, and self-gratification. How does the artist deal with this split in the self? Oshima’s ’60s and ’70s films tie together his personal demons and political critiques in increasingly knotty, fascinating ways.
Oshima’s concern with the legacy of Japan’s former colonisation of Korea manifested itself in three films from the late ’60s. A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song (1967) touches on the subject as part of a larger study of sexual fantasy. Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) is a mistaken-identity comedy about a Korean soldier and a Japanese student. Death by Hanging (1968), the only one of the three to be widely seen outside Japan, is essential Oshima, an aggressively difficult, feverishly inventive film.
Once again, the director and his scenarists started from a real-life story. Chin’u Ri, a poor 22-year-old born in Japan to Korean parents, had been arrested, tried, and executed for raping and killing a Japanese schoolgirl. Ri’s case made headlines, particularly after a journalist published a book of Ri’s letters showing him to be, in Oshima’s words, “the most intelligent and sensitive youth produced by post-war Japan” (14). Ri’s defence team had argued that his actions must be understood in the context of his second-class social status:
[Ri] had been systematically denied his heritage as a Korean yet denied access to economic and social advancement because he was Korean… To many Japanese critics of the courts, it seemed hypocritical, at least, to discriminate against someone of a different ethnic background while at the same time to expect him to act like a member of the dominant society (15). Part of Oshima’s interest in Ri’s story was the chance to voice his opposition to both the death penalty and the systemic prejudice against ethnic Koreans in Japan. But Death by Hanging is more than a simple message picture. Oshima expands his critique beyond specific social structures to call into question, at least for the running time of the film, our very notions of reality and identity.
It begins like a documentary about capital punishment: a prisoner, “R” (Yundo Yun), is led to the gallows, and his body drops through the trapdoor. But the prisoner survives, and now a clearly fictional drama starts to unfold, about the not-dead R and the Japanese jailers who must figure out what to do with him. For the botched hanging has induced amnesia in R, and by a legal technicality, he can’t be executed if he’s not aware that he committed a crime. An absurdist comedic tone takes hold as the jailers try different ways to get R to acknowledge his guilt so they can kill him: from verbal interrogations and abuse, to psychological probing, to explorations of R’s past. We move far afield of conventional realist storytelling into a kind of dream-world, as the spaces of the courthouse become the rooms of R’s childhood, and as R and the jailers find themselves at the scene of the crime, re-enacting the assault. Then the rape and murder “victim” comes to life as R’s “sister,” urging him in long, didactic speeches to embrace his identity as a Korean in Japan, representative of an oppressed minority. Finally, R accepts that he is R, and submits to hanging a second time. A voice-over thanks us for watching. Character and narrative continuity, spatial and temporal logic: all are systematically undermined in Death by Hanging as Oshima scrambles together political polemic, Brechtian alienation effects, Kafkaesque parable and a surrealist assault on perception worthy of Buñuel. (And as in much Buñuel, the comedy is magnified by the solemnity with which the characters go about their business, seeming all the crazier for their attempts to behave “rationally” in a mad world.)
Oshima continued this extraordinary creative streak with his next four films: Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), Boy (1969), The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970) and The Ceremony (1971). Shinjuku Thief juxtaposes the story of a sexually frustrated young couple (aggressive female; passive/masochistic male who can only find sexual release by stealing and being caught) with the account of an avant-garde theatre production and documentary footage of student riots: the links between crime, art and political protest are made explicit, as the couple seeks personal liberation in acts of social rebellion. The acclaimed Boy was, like Violence at Noon and Death by Hanging, inspired by a true story. A man and a woman travelled around Japan with their young son, whom they had trained to run in front of moving cars and pretend to be struck and badly injured. The parents would then demand money from the frightened drivers. Oshima returns to a more straightforward narrative style with Boy; the film, one of his most affecting due to its sympathetic depiction of the title character, is a savage vision of Japanese family values (patriarchy, filial obedience) grown poisonous at the root.
By 1970, the U.S.-Japan security pact was once again up for renewal, and a younger generation of student activists (further energised by their opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam) took to the streets in protest. But history repeated itself: despite massive demonstrations, several of which ended in violence, the treaty was renewed. There was, however, one thing that made the youth protests of ’69–70 different from those of ’59–60: cinema. The international New Wave had happened. Godard and Oshima, et al., had happened. It was the period of cinema verité, the camera stylo, and “truth 24 times a second,” of a new generation that saw filmmaking as a weapon in the battle for social change. The Man Who Left His Will on Film focuses on one such group of young men and women. In the opening scene, Motoki (Kazuo Goto) is seen through the lens of a camera carried by one of his friends. The cameraman runs away – we see only a rushed blur of street movement – with Motoki in pursuit. Motoki’s friend commits suicide by jumping off a roof. Motoki grabs the camera from the police, but they catch him and take custody of the dead man’s footage.
Motoki and his peers, a collective of young Marxist filmmakers, recover the footage and screen it. The dead man was supposed to be filming political demonstrations, but his camera captured only dull street scenes: uninflected, unexciting quotidian reality. In a bravura sequence, Oshima shows us the footage as we hear voice-over debates among the spectators about what they’re watching: “But what was he thinking when he shot this?” “Watching this is a waste of time. He was bankrupt, politically and artistically.” “Maybe he figured that by linking meaningless shots he could make meaning by paradox.” In our heads we join Motoki and his friends in the debate, searching for meaning and coherence in the seemingly random footage. Soon Motoki grows obsessed with the dead man, initiating a romance with Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki), the deceased’s girlfriend, and eventually restaging and reshooting the scenes we watched earlier. As in Death by Hanging, identity is a fluid process and not a fixed fact: we, and Motoki himself, aren’t sure if Motoki is on the trail of a mystery with a plausible solution, or if he’s losing his mind in attempting to take the dead man’s place. In the end, Motoki becomes the victim of his obsession: he takes a camera up onto the same roof seen at the start of the film, and jumps to his death. A hand reaches into the frame and steals Motoki’s camera, just as Motoki himself had earlier grabbed the camera from the cops. The end. We realise: Motoki himself was the dead man, and the story we just watched has formed a Möbius loop of repetition compulsion. Motoki’s despair at his own ineffectiveness as a filmmaker-revolutionary, evident in scene after scene, is shown to be the same despair that led his “friend” to take his own life in the beginning. Noël Burch writes that The Man Who Left His Will on Film ties together a number of Oshima’s concerns:
…the contradictions within the radical movement, Japan’s multiply divided self, and the dilemma of Oshima himself, unable to establish a dialectical relationship between his art and his politics…. [A]n ambitious attempt to develop a dialectical narrative form [that considers] the mechanisms of the unconscious in relation to the contradictions of political filmmaking (16).
Next came The Ceremony, a multigenerational family saga in the mode of The Godfather 1 and 2 (Francis Coppola, 1972/74) and City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989). Like Coppola and Hou’s films, Oshima’s covers several decades, but while theirs are sprawling, expansive (if elegiac) epics, his traces another claustrophobic closed circle of failure and frustration. The central character is Masuo (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a high-school baseball coach in his late youth. As the film begins Masuo is on the way to visit one of his three cousins. The cousins belong to the Sakurada clan, a well-to-do family presided over by Masuo’s grandfather Kazuomi (Kei Sato, the killer in Violence at Noon). A series of flashbacks spanning the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s show the family members gathering at various ceremonies: weddings, anniversaries, funerals.
The Ceremony pulls together themes and devices from several of Oshima’s previous films into a masterful summation. As in Night and Fog in Japan, the flashbacks qualify and condition our understanding of the present: the family, for all its outward prosperity, is rotting from the inside out, and from the top down. Kazuomi is a fearsome patriarch whose cruelty and love of power have stunted the succeeding generations. Also like the earlier film, the traditional rituals of Japanese society (the wedding in Night and Fog, and nearly every flashback scene here) are shown to be shams, empty ceremonies masking broken spirits and wasted lives. Though much of the story is presented in a relatively (for Oshima) conventional way, there are frequent detours into the Brechtian anti-realism of Death by Hanging: in one extraordinary scene, Masuo’s arranged marriage to a woman he’s never met is about to be cancelled once the bride-to-be sends word that she will not be arriving, but Kazuomi insists the ceremony continue as planned. Bride or no bride, the forms of tradition must be obeyed, so the gathered guests watch as the humiliated Masuo stands at the altar alone, “marrying” nothing but air. And, as in so many Oshima films, the path to personal freedom is blocked by crippling psychic compulsions: The Ceremony ends with Masuo reliving a childhood memory, taking part in an imaginary baseball game with his absent cousins. Masuo’s escape into childish fantasy seems poor compensation for his ineffectiveness in the real world. The film suggests that modern Japan, like the Sakadura clan, is trapped between past and present. The older generation, authoritarian, patriarchal, supporters of the nation’s imperialist and militarist traditions, continues to hold power over Masuo and his contemporaries, who have no new ideals or beliefs with which to resist the old order.
The International Years
After making one more film, the little-seen Dear Summer Sister (1972), Oshima’s career took a new turn. Though sex plays an important part in almost all his films, he had for years wanted to make a picture that took sexuality as its central concern. But he held back:
I had resolved not to make that kind of film if there were no possibility of complete sexual expression. Sexual expression carried to its logical conclusion would result in the direct filming of sexual intercourse (17).
Now, censorship restrictions had been lifted in many countries, and French producer Anatole Dauman (a nouvelle vague veteran who produced films for Resnais, Godard and Marker) offered to back him in making an erotic – or pornographic – film. Oshima dissolved Sozosha, his production company, and set to work on a script inspired by the case of Sada Abe, a madwoman who in 1936 was found walking the streets of Tokyo holding the severed penis of her dead lover. In the Realm of the Senses (1976) was financed with French and Japanese money, and shot in Japan with a Japanese cast and crew, then (to circumvent Japanese laws) the footage was sent to France to be processed and edited. Oshima followed up on Bertolucci’s earlier provocation Last Tango in Paris (1972), but went further: Realm caused an international sensation with its explicit depictions of fellatio, penetration and S&M. (Oshima’s film was banned in Japan for many years.) The two films also share a theme: the desire to shut one’s social being entirely out of one’s sexual life, to shed one’s everyday self in the sex act – to fuck your way to freedom. And both portray uninhibited eroticism as a road ending in death.
In Realm, Sada (Eiko Matsuda) is a former prostitute now working as a maid at an inn. The master of the house, Kichi (Tatsuya Fuji), exercises his privileges and takes her to bed. A great passion sparks in both of them. Kichi leaves home with Sada, and they travel the countryside staying in different inns, spending all their time in bed. In its early scenes, the film seems like a portrait of many a new love affair: the endless fascination of the other; lots of sex, sex talk, testing of sexual boundaries. But Sada and Kichi go further, leaving their “regular” lives behind. Apart from Sada’s two visits to an old sugar daddy to raise money for their food and lodging, she and Kichi keep to themselves, giving their entire existences over to sex. Their rooms grow increasingly filthy (and, humorously, even the geishas are scandalised by their nonstop sucking and rutting). Sada is insatiable: she demands ever-greater pleasure, endless pleasure. Soon they escalate to S&M games, hitting and choking each other. She can’t stop, but Kichi begins to wear out. The bold, energetic seducer of the earlier scenes seems dried up, emptied; he lives only to fulfil Sada’s desires. In the end, with his blessing, she strangles him to death in a sex ritual and lovingly cuts his penis off his body.
Some accused Oshima of opportunism and commercialism in making In the Realm of the Senses, but in hindsight it looks like a necessary move from an artistic point of view as well. The utopian ideals of the ’60s had collapsed. Social revolution seemed an impossibility and Oshima no longer felt at home making films within the Japanese system (18). Where could the Oshima protagonist go, then, except turn inward? In Realm, the characters’ search for freedom has no political or social dimension; it is a purely selfish act. No rebellion against society is possible or desirable, only a shutting-out of society and an obsessive focus on one’s own pleasure (and pain). At one point, while Kichi is awaiting Sada’s return from a rendezvous with her sugar daddy, he wanders outside, where a regiment of the imperial Japanese army is marching off to war. A crowd of citizens stands by the road cheering them on. This is the film’s only acknowledgment of the world outside the lovers’ bedroom, the world where history is being made, armies are massing, nations falling and rising, great causes being lost and won… Kichi, uncaring, walks past the crowd and retreats to his room.
In 1978, Dauman and Oshima reunited for Empire of Passion. Like Realm, Empire of Passion starred Tatsuya Fuji, had a period setting (this time the 1890s), and centered on a doomed love affair. It was even titled In the Realm of Passion in some English-language releases. But the transgressive intensity of the earlier film was replaced by a sombre study of guilt and remorse. Toyoji (Fuji), a labourer in a provincial village, falls in love with Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), the wife of a rickshaw driver, Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). Toyoji and Seki kill her husband to prevent him from discovering their affair, but when Gisaburo’s ghost begins to haunt Seki, the lovers slowly fall apart. Despite some steamy sex (far less explicit than In the Realm of the Senses) and horror-shocks, the storytelling is mostly restrained, the mood mournful and tender. Oshima blends film noir (the early scenes in particular have the heat and tension of a James M. Cain thriller), ghost-story, and period-piece tropes to make this one of his most accessible and entertaining works. Overshadowed at the time of its release by its more sensationalistic predecessor, the film is due for rediscovery.
The two collaborations with Dauman inaugurate a shift – the central dividing line, in fact – in Oshima’s body of work. He becomes an international filmmaker, dependent on international co-production deals for financing, and (for his next two films after Empire of Passion) working with international casts and crews, in foreign languages. He seeks a larger, more global audience. In an essay titled “Perspectives on the Japanese Film,” Oshima explained the reasons for this change. With the internationalisation of the Japanese economy, foreign films – in mass terms, that meant largely American films – ate away at the domestic box-office share of Japanese films. Raising money became more difficult, with more filmmakers competing for fewer production and distribution opportunities.
Films conceived in the multiracial United States can become global films just as they are. Their expansive investments in production are possible because of a firm belief in this fact.
I don’t work under these conditions.
However, even if I can’t attract large audiences everywhere in the world, I can make films that are sure to attract audiences everywhere, even if they are small. Although the numbers in each country will be small, they will add up to a certain total worldwide. That is probably what makes it possible for me to make my next film. This is how I would like to make international films…
Oshima’s dilemma, and his proposed solution to it, are shared by filmmakers worldwide; he has “confirmed this in conversations with Wim Wenders, Bernardo Bertolucci, Paolo Taviani, Theo Angelopoulos, Jim Jarmusch, Mrinal Sen… Chen Kaige and Lee Jang ho” and others:
But why is this trend global? It is because the film worlds of their own countries are ghettoes for these film people….
Not one country has been able to find a breakthrough point – which is to say that industrially the size of film audiences only decreases, while practically no films are made that broaden the artistic possibilities of the form (19).
Due to difficulties raising money, and a debilitating stroke in the 1990s, Oshima was far less prolific during this second, internationalist half of his career: eighteen features between 1959 and 1973, only five since 1976. (In the ’90s, he also completed two documentaries: Kyoto, My Mother’s Place  for the BBC, and the Japanese episode of the British Film Institute’s The Century of Cinema series .) Inevitably, this diminishment in productivity has given the later films the impression of an artist in search of a subject. (20) Nevertheless, the five features from this period are impressive works. The radical formal experimentation of the ’60s and early ’70s mindfuck films is replaced by a more classical, easy-to-read style; the social inquiry and psychological complexity remain, but head into new territory.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) was adapted by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg from the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens Van der Post. (It was produced by Jeremy Thomas, who also worked with Roeg, Bertolucci, and Crone berg; he later produced Oshima’s Taboo .) Mr. Lawrence is set in a Japanese POW camp in Java during World War Two. The repressed, aristocratic Captain Yonoi (pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the score) runs the camp with the assistance of the earthy, rough-and-tumble Sergeant Hara (television comedian and future auteur Takeshi Kitano in his first dramatic role). POW John Lawrence (Tom Conti) is a British officer who has lived in Japan and is comfortable with the language and culture of his captors. The camp is thrown into chaos with the arrival of another British officer, the Afrikaner Jack Celliers (David Bowie). Celliers exerts a strong homoerotic pull on Yonoi, whose frustrated urges begin to eat away at his psyche. Yonoi’s men think Celliers is a devil sent to kill their captain’s spirit. In the name of maintaining order, the devil must be destroyed.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is based on an English-language novel, and co-written by an Englishman. English actors get more screen time than the Japanese, and though the film is bilingual there’s more English than Japanese spoken on the soundtrack. We learn much about Lawrence and Celliers’ pasts, less about Yonoi and Hara’s. And yet the film is Oshima’s most thorough fictional treatment of the Japanese during World War Two, teetering between the high noon of their imperial ambitions and their imminent, ignominious defeat. Lawrence explains to Celliers: “They were an anxious people. They could do nothing individually. So they went mad en masse.” Oshima is working on an international scale for a global audience, but he uses the “foreign” point of view to take a fresh look at his own nation’s history.
His next film was in essence an entirely European venture, filmed in French and English. Max, Mon Amour (1986) was produced by Serge Silberman, co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière, and made in France with a French crew led by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Silberman and Carrière were Buñuel’s partners during his late flourishing in France in the ’60s and ’70s, and much about Max resembles Buñuel’s work. An English couple residing in Paris, Margaret and Peter Jones (Charlotte Rampling and Anthony Higgins), have their lives thrown into disarray when Margaret falls in love and carries on an affair. The film is a light domestic farce satirising bourgeois manners – with the added twist that Margaret’s lover Max is a chimpanzee. The social satire fuses with the kinky-surrealist monkey business and yields some comic gems, as when Max joins a dinner party but ignores the food and drink to stroke, nibble, and kiss Margaret in full view of the guests (who are too polite to object), or when Peter grows crazed with jealousy wondering just what it is Max and Margaret actually do in bed. Along with the Buñuelian elements of the story, Oshima and Coutard also seem to have borrowed Buñuel’s late style: simple camera setups, unobtrusive editing, no flash and dazzle; the bizarro events onscreen are made more real to us by the director’s lack of interest in hyping them up with jazzy angles and cutting. Max, Mon Amour is minor Oshima – in so many ways it hardly seems like “an Oshima film” – but it’s a fun joke, enjoyably sustained over the film’s running time.
Oshima spent a few years trying and failing to raise money for Hollywood Zen, a biopic about the Japanese American movie star Sessue Hayakawa. He returned to Japan to make Taboo instead, but a stroke in 1996 derailed those plans. He recovered sufficient strength to direct the film a few years later, albeit from a wheelchair. Taboo, based on a novel by Ryotaro Shiba, is set in 1865, when the shogunate had taken control of the nation from the emperor. The Shinsengumi, a samurai militia serving the shogunate, is recruiting new members from the peasant class. One of the new inductees is Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda). Kano, a young man of feminine delicacy and mysterious motives, becomes the locus of homoerotic and homosexual desire among several members of the militia. The group’s leaders, Commander Kondo (Yoichi Sai) and Captain Hijiketa (Takeshi Kitano), try to maintain order but the lust Kano inspires in the men leads to jealousy, dissension and betrayal.
Taboo seems, on the surface, to be Oshima’s least original film. It’s full of generic hand-me-downs: cherry blossoms, swordplay, dialogues about samurai honour and duty. It has the feeling of something we’ve seen before – except that at its heart it’s a study of gay desire. The samurai film is a venerable Japanese genre, and Oshima obeys its codes only to inject this unfamiliar element into its bloodstream – to blow up the tradition from within its gates. But the director is not interested in scoring easy points off the social prejudices of an earlier era (as Todd Haynes was in the accomplished but smug Far from Heaven ): the warriors accept man-on-man love as a natural occurrence in military life. What links Taboo to Oshima’s earlier work is its depiction of the social order shaken by unstoppable human urges. (Taboo most obviously resembles Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence: a rigid military hierarchy crumbles into chaos with the arrival of a beautiful stranger.) Tellingly, it’s the lower-ranking men who openly express their desires. Kondo and Hijiketa, the leaders, smother their own passions in the name of duty. We absorb much of the story through Hijiketa’s eyes, and we hear some of his thoughts in voice-over, but Kitano might as well be acting with a mask on: he gives almost nothing away, until his banked emotions flare up in a sudden, startling release in the final scene. The mood of the film fits its meaning: the tone is stately, restrained, but the presence of Kano charges each scene with tension.
Oshima suffered a second, more serious stroke after completing Taboo; there may be no new films forthcoming. Though the social and political upheavals that inspired much of his work have now passed from the headlines to the history books, and his international reputation has declined since its peak in the 1970s, his best films remain a potent testament to radical cinema’s capacity to “revolutionise consciousness” – one viewer at a time.
Feature films only; does not include short films, documentaries, or work made for television
(also screenwriter or co-screenwriter, except for *)
A Town of Love and Hope (Ai to Kibo no Machi) (1959)
Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) (1960)
The Sun’s Burial (Taiyo no Hakaba) (1960)
Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no Yoru to Kiri) (1960)
The Catch (Shiiku) (1961)*
Shiro Tokisada from Amakusa (Amakusa Shiro Tokisada) (1962) also known as The Rebel or The Revolutionary
Pleasures of the Flesh (Etsuraku) (1965)
Violence at Noon (Hakuchu no Torima) (1966)*
Band of Ninja (Ninja Bugeicho) (1967) also known as Tales of the Ninja
A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song (Nihon Shunka-ko) (1967) also known as Sing A Song of Sex
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Muri-Shinju: Nihon no Natsu) (1967)
Death by Hanging (Koshikei) (1968)
Three Resurrected Drunkards (Kaette Kita Yopparai) (1968)
Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki) (1968) also known as Diary of a Shinjuku Burglar
Boy (Shonen) (1969)*
The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa) (1970)
The Ceremony (Gishiki) (1971)
Dear Summer Sister (Natsu no Imoto) (1972) also known as Summer Sister
In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Corrida) (1976)
Empire of Passion (Ai no Borei) (1978)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Max, Mon Amour (1985)
Taboo (Gohatto) (1999)
Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, expanded edition, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1982.
Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors (revised paperback edition), Tokyo and New York, Kodansha International Ltd., 1985.
Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, revised and edited by Annette Michelson, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1979.
Noël Burch, “Nagisa Oshima and Japanese Cinema in the 60s” in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Volume Two, London, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1980.
Paul Coates, “Repetition and Contradiction in the Films of Oshima”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Volume 11, Number 4, 1990, pp. 65–71.
David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1988.
John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
J. Hoberman, “All Shook Up” in Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1991 [a 1984 review of the re-release of Cruel Story of Youth].
Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, New York, Metropolitan Books, 2000.
Joan Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through Its Cinema, New York, Pantheon Books, 1976.
Nagisa Oshima, Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956–1978, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Dawn Larson, Cambridge (Mass.) and London, MIT Press, 1992.
Tadao Sato, Currents in Japanese Cinema, translated by Gregory Barrett, Tokyo and New York, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982.
Maureen Turim, The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1998.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
The Unkindest Cut of All? by Freda Freiberg
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1997 review of Oshima’s BFI documentary 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, from the Chicago Reader.
J. Hoberman’s review of Taboo, from the Village Voice, September 27-October 3, 2000.
Making and Breaking Taboos
A 2000 interview regarding Taboo, by Howard Feinstein for The Advocate.
Nagisa Oshima: Boy
Derek Malcolm selects Boy as number 86 on his “100 Greatest Movies” list in The Guardian, Thursday, October 5, 2000.
Strictly Film School
Short essays by Acquarello on A Town of Love and Hope, The Sun’s Burial and Violence at Noon.
Feast from the East
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 2001 review of Taboo for the Chicago Reader.
Gohatto, or The End of Nagisa Oshima?
Andrew Grossman’s negative assessment of Taboo for Bright Lights Film Journal.
New Yorker Films’ press packet for the film’s US theatrical release.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
Click here to search for Nagisa Oshima DVDs, videos and books at
- Oshima’s great contemporary Shohei Imamura once remarked, “I’m a country farmer; Nagisa Oshima is a samurai.” The usual interpretation of this oft-quoted remark is that Imamura was humbly praising Oshima for his warrior spirit: Audie Bock reads Imamura’s statement as alluding specifically to the “moral rectitude” of the samurai class Oshima represents. But Maureen Turim argues that Imamura was one-upping Oshima: though both filmmakers are social critics who speak out in protest against the structures of power, Oshima the aristocrat speaks as a privileged insider, while Imamura (in fact, the middle-class son of a physician) speaks as a true man of the people, a peasant or “’outcast’ (hani), inherently critical of Japanese official culture.” See Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors (revised paperback edition), Tokyo and New York, Kodansha International Ltd., 1985, p. 329; Maureen Turim, The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, University of California Press, 1998, p. 7.
- David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 34.
- Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, revised and edited by Annette Michelson, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1979, p. 325; Bock, pp. 314–15; Desser, pp. 24–36. For a detailed study of Japan in the immediate post-war years and the U.S. occupation, see John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
- Nagisa Oshima, Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956–1978, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Dawn Larson, Cambridge (Mass.) and London, MIT Press, 1992, p. 35.
- “’My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it’ [said Oshima]… Here Oshima seems to attack not only the entire film industry, including its most renowned directors, but also something like Japanese national identity. In response to a question proclaiming admiration for the films of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, Oshima gave this reply: ‘In Europe, you always speak of the formal beauty of Japanese cinema, but you are wrong to not speak sufficiently of the content…. [F]orm is something one can always borrow, and from which, one can always make something passable. But with content you have to work with things that are important to you.’” (Turim, p. 20.) And on the “tear-jerking melodramas and flavourless domestic dramas” turned out by Shochiku Ofuna during his apprenticeship: “I hated such characters, rooms, and gardens from the depths of my soul. I firmly believed that unless the dark sensibility that those things engendered was completely destroyed, nothing new could come into being in Japan.” (Oshima, p. 208.)
- Oshima, p. 48.
- Tadao Sato, Currents in Japanese Cinema, translated by Gregory Barrett, Tokyo and New York, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982, pp. 214–5.
- Paul Coates, “Repetition and Contradiction in the Films of Oshima”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 11, no. 4, 1990, p. 68.
- Turim’s book contains a useful chapter about Oshima’s documentaries. Turim, pp. 215–45.
- Bock, p. 319.
- Oshima, p. 109.
- Ibid., p. 213.
- Bock, pp. 319–20.
- Oshima, p. 166.
- Desser, p. 155.
- Burch, p. 341.
- Oshima, p. 257.
- During the 1970s Oshima also began a second career as a popular talk-show television personality. One long-running program consisted of the cinematic provocateur dispensing domestic advice to unhappy housewives. Hearing about Oshima’s success in this field can produce mild cognitive dissonance in some of his foreign admirers: imagine an American learning that John Sayles was guest-hosting for Oprah Winfrey, or that Gore Vidal had joined the team of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. But Oshima himself was pleased that he could reach a mass audience and influence its lives in more immediate ways than he could with his always challenging, sometimes recondite, and often little-seen films.
- Oshima, pp. 15–6. This essay, unlike the others in the volume, is undated, but references within the text indicate it was written in the late 1980s or early ’90s.
- It’s worth noting that none of the five later films are set in present-day Japan. Four of the five are historical pictures. Did Oshima’s reliance on international financing prevent him from telling smaller, more localised stories about the contemporary scene – or did he simply lose interest? Whatever the reason, this great social critic has been silent on the changes that have occurred in Japan over the past thirty years. Where are the Oshima films about corporate capitalism, about globalisation and the mass media, about late 20th century Japanese politics, crime, and revolt?