The undisputed enfant terrible of Japanese cinema, Nagisa Oshima once famously equated the making of a film with a criminal act. In an art form cluttered with self-styled rebels, it’s tempting to roll one’s eyes at such a statement, but even a casual acquaintance with Oshima’s filmography argues for taking him at his word—and not only (or even primarily) because of the murderers, rapists, pimps, thieves, and extortionists who populate his oeuvre. Belligerently modernist in his aesthetics, Oshima conceived his films as acts of formal violence against the humanist tradition of Japanese cinema. It’s hardly surprising that he didn’t last long at the Shochiku studios—the legendary home of Ozu and Mizoguchi—leaving to form his own company after the studio pulled his politically explosive fourth feature, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), after mere days in release.
Oshima’s fixation on crime and criminals goes back to his studio period—his breakthrough film Cruel Story of Youth (1960) was a decidedly unromantic look at a pair of aspiring young blackmailers: after a young student rescues a teenage girl from a potential rape, he begins using her as bait for an extortion scam—sending the girl out to be picked up by older men, and then shaking them down for a payoff. In the years after leaving Shochiku, the director’s visions turned even darker and more perverse. Released in 1966, Violence at Noon remains an incendiary work, the story of a serial rapist and murderer—and the two women who won’t turn him in. The movie is best known for packing some 2,000 shots into less than 100 minutes, but the sheer number of cuts hardly begins to account for the assaultive impact of its style. Oshima and editor Keiichi Uraoka make liberal use of jump cuts, cross the 180-degree line with abandon, and create unsettling graphic clashes by frequently cutting between strong images, as from one close-up of a face to another. We’re continuously whiplashed through time and space as the intricate flashback-laden narrative unfolds. The first volley of shock cuts comes from the point of view of the criminal, Eisuke, as he chops a woman’s body to pieces with his eyes, but the rest of Violence at Noon seems deliberately designed to fragment any stable point of view, spatial or moral.
Whereas the blackmailers of Cruel Story were little more than juvenile dead-enders, Eisuke is a more essentialized criminal. An early bit of dialogue suggests that certain people simply can’t stop committing crimes, and Eisuke seems to confirm this view later on, in voiceover testimony from his unseen trial. Speculating about his actions, he feints at blaming others but ultimately concludes, “It’s just me.” Despite (or because of) his crimes, Eisuke maintains the allegiance of Matsuko, his schoolteacher wife, and Shino, who becomes his first victim when he rapes what appears to be her dead body following a suicide attempt that left her unconscious. (When she awakens, Eisuke justifies himself in chilling fashion: “Corpses are no longer human. They are things.”) Much of the story is told via flashbacks from the perspectives of the two women, whose devotion to Eisuke remains as unshakeable as it is irrational. Both are still in love with him, and even when one eventually gives up his identity to the police, she does so unwittingly, as if in rebellion against her conscious mind.
From the vantage of the post-feminist present, the women’s attraction to their attacker is undeniably hard to take, but ultimately the women of Violence at Noon are neither independent agents nor hapless victims; they are conflicted spectators, transfixed by Eisuke’s unrepressed id. Few films of any era are as honest in owning up to the erotic thrill of violence and the ways that cinema exploits it (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence jumps to mind). Oshima refuses to waste his time or ours with cheap, redundant moralizing, instead using the very repulsiveness of the scenario to shock his audience out of passive spectatorship.
Death by Hanging goes even further, explicitly taking the side of the criminal against society (and, in its final scene, against the spectator). Playing out almost in real time and, with the exception of two ambiguously imaginary sequences, in one room, the film details the botched execution of a young Korean man called R, who has been condemned to death for the rape and murder of two young women. After the hanging inexplicably fails and R awakens with apparent amnesia, the gathered witnesses spend the remainder of the film’s two hours—during which reality and fantasy begin to converge—trying to find a legal way to attempt the execution again by forcing R to remember his identity and acknowledge his guilt.
Virtually announcing itself as an anti-death-penalty tract at the outset, Death by Hanging airs a number of traditional arguments against capital punishment, some perhaps more persuasive than others—one (possibly nonexistent) character even goes so far as to say that R’s crimes represent a justifiable act of reprisal for the crimes of Japanese imperialism against Koreans—but these notions are all red herrings. The film's strongest argument against the death penalty—that the state lacks the moral standing to execute criminals—is rooted less in any specific scene than in its fundamentally absurdist sensibility. Treating a serious dramatic subject as surreal farce, Oshima’s satire ropes in every major institution of Japanese society. The witnesses to the execution are known only by their professions: doctor, prosecutor, prison warden, education officer, priest (curiously Catholic rather than Buddhist). Entrapped in a ludicrous quest to compel R to acknowledge his own identity, these pillars of the state quickly reveal themselves as self-justifying buffoons with bad consciences who, their grandiose talk aside, mostly just want to get on with the execution, whatever it takes. By the final scene, when R rails against the notion of being “killed by an abstraction” with the hinomaru looming in the background, the target of Oshima’s pitch-black comedy could hardly be clearer.
Going so far as to challenge the very concept of “character” in cinema by leaving its nominal protagonist's very identity an open question, Death by Hanging is among Oshima’s most radical narrative experiments. Superficially tamer but ultimately even more corrosive, Boy (1969) unfolds in a fairly straight narrative line. By the standards of Oshima’s rogues’ gallery, the family at the center of the film is almost benign; their game is running out in front of cars and extorting settlement money from the drivers. Boy thus returns to the blackmail motif of Cruel Story of Youth but Oshima’s view of criminality has clearly evolved: in the earlier film, the young blackmailers were both products of respectable society and outcasts from it. Here, criminality is not a product of society; it is society. The presence of a 10-year-old protagonist has even tempted some to see the film as evidence of a kinder, gentler Oshima. But any attempts to rehabilitate Boy for the forces of humanism are profoundly misguided. Intelligible only as the most scathing of satires, the movie is a thoroughgoing assault on the bourgeois family. The adults are all either absent or ludicrously selfish; the Boy and his brother do appear as sympathetic characters in the traditional sense, but only as a consequence of living as virtual prisoners, cut off from the mainstream world.
Less overtly frame-breaking than other works of Oshima’s audacious middle period, Boy is hardly without its moments of stylistic fragmentation. The dingy settings in which this grotesque parody of the traditional family live out their impoverished lives are rendered in drab, washed-out hues, and the film marks perhaps Oshima’s most extensive use of what the late Manny Farber termed the one-to-one shot (a favorite of Antonioni and other titans of cinematic modernism), visualizing the Boy’s alienation by setting him off against solid, anonymous backdrops, his face and body turned toward the camera. These flattened images of the Boy—who like R in Death by Hanging, is both criminal and victim—are simultaneously plaintive and accusatory in their directness, engaging our sympathy while also drawing us into the social rot onscreen. Oshima’s formal aggression would become more sublimated in his later films, but his rage against the hypocrisies of both polite society and cinematic form would remain.
This is the third in a series of four articles on Nagisa Oshima. "In the Realm of Oshima" will be at the Walter Reade in New York September 27-October 14 and the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto October 31-December 9. Curated by James Quandt and organized by the Cinematheque Ontario, the series will travel to approximately a dozen cities in the United States and Canada in the coming year.
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