His Will on Film

The defiant irresolution of late-period Oshima
by Rob Nelson  posted October 1, 2008
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

For years, the critical party line on Nagisa Oshima has had the cruelly youthful Japanese rebel figuratively withering in the autumn of his life, taking more than a dozen years to deliver a mere four works of relatively limited value. It’s an unfair characterization, as the Oshima retrospective makes plain by tracing the arc of this artist over 40 years. Bearing such scope in mind, one finds it not so long ago that Oshima appeared at the Taboo press conference in Cannes—acting both fiercely provocative and fully in control despite physical infirmity in his late sixties, still sharing his dream to obliterate sexual taboos. Absurdly lucky to have been in the room, I still recall the collective sense among colleagues at the festival that Taboo felt baffling, out of reach. Of course this is the ultimate compliment for an artist whose desire to confound, often to the point of self-contradiction, was, from the beginning, his most vital and deliberate characteristic.

With the exception of Kyoto, My Mother’s Place (1991), an hour-long doc as gentle as it sounds, Oshima’s late period is distinguished by defiant irresolution and by a tone of great sarcasm, bordering on anger. Max mon amour (1986) goes beyond simple condescension to mid-’80s art-film commerciality with its tale of the queerest love between Charlotte Rampling’s Parisian sophisticate and, uh, a chimp—the better to shift its target from conventional cinema to conventional sexuality. Far less radical, at least in stylistic terms, than the movies that made Oshima’s reputation, Max mon amour and Taboo—the latter of which turns the chanbara to a song of love, to a film wherein the male-to-male gaze is sharper than any blade—find him joining the establishment, yes. To repudiate it.

At the time of Taboo’s release, Chuck Stephens astutely likened Oshima to Jean-Luc Godard as a “film critic in disguise.” Even in plain sight the Japanese director was a genre-bending agitator—launching another New Wave in the year of Breathless and showing solidarity with his Gallic brethren in ’68 by pulling his Violence at Noon from Cannes. And then there’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema—Oshima’s Histoire(s) du cinéma at one-fourth the length. “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it,” the director famously told an admirer of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. Who better, then, to subvert the very notion of a You Must Remember This doc—of a Japanese Cinema if not Japanese cinema? The BFI’s bold commissioning of Oshima to make this portion of its 1994 “Century of Cinema” series—allowing final cut, presumably—stands among the greatest tributes to the director within what will likely remain his final decade of work. And the film, precisely for its irreverence, earns that honor in full.

Heretofore circulating in the West mainly on a Russian-subtitled import DVD, 100 Years argues—through often caustic voiceovers written by Oshima—that the “whole concept of national [origin] is pointless for a motion picture.” Though Oshima excerpts a long passage from Imamura’s The Insect Woman (which he declines to identify by name), he deals with the Japanese New Wave mainly in order to assert that he has “always detested this tag.” This is the kind of thing that Martin Scorsese’s "Century" episode called a “personal journey,” but infinitely more ornery. In Oshima’s film history (as much philosophy as history, really), for a director to achieve commercial popularity—"moving the hearts of the people"—is essentially to commit a crime. To him, it’s "interesting"—an understatement, no doubt—that the Director’s Guild of Japan formed only a day before the 1936 coup d’etat attempt that led to the era of Japanese militarism.

Four minutes into 100 Years, Oshima pulls a scene from another unidentified film, wherein a preteen boy taunts another kid with the question, “Whose father is more important, mine or yours?” Could the practice of film history be defined more succinctly by any other single line of movie dialogue? Oshima’s film isn’t exactly devoid of generosity, as proven when the director credits Kurosawa with having made one of the “genuine masterpieces” of postwar Japanese cinema—that being Rashomon. But that’s about all that Kurosawa gets; Ozu fares about the same, Kobayashi less well than that. Satsuo Yamamoto’s War and Peace (1947) is dubiously distinguished by Oshima as having inspired the FX of Godzilla and other such Japanese monsters.

Suffice it to say that Oshima’s is an unofficial history. In place of oft-acknowledged masters are others: Kaneto Shindô, Shuji Terayama, Juzo Itami, Tetsuji Takechi. And, of course, there’s Oshima, whose work is represented frequently and without shame. “I hope you’ll forgive me for this sudden shift to first-person narration,” he says before crediting Keisuke Kinoshita’s little-known 1954 comedy Onna no sono with having inspired his career in movies. Equally impudent, the final scene has Oshima predicting that Japanese cinema will heroically rid itself of “Japaneseness” to “stay young” for another hundred years. But Toru Takemitsu’s haunting score sounds like a dirge, and the shaky images from Daisuke Itô’s Diary of Chuji's Travels (1927) look like they’re going to slip off the sprockets.

Perversity can be infectious among critics, as Oshima seems well aware. Regarded as a disappointment in later years, Oshima—inspirationally flaunting the incompleteness of his history, the transparency of his biases, the blatancy of his illogic—may indeed have been ahead of his time even as late as 1994. A decade and a half after 100 Years, the digital availability of “everything” in the canon puts any amateur cinephile within keyboard’s reach of becoming a scholar—and we know those histories won’t ever be complete either. Come to think of it, Oshima sounds suspiciously like a prophet when he says the next hundred years of cinema—nearly 10 of which have already seen film teachers professional and otherwise trading their histories online, peer to peer—will be young, wild, and without borders.

This is the fourth 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. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Courtesy Cinematheque Ontario/Film Society of Lincoln Center
Nagisa Oshima on set
Photo Gallery: His Will on Film


September 27-October 14, 2008 In the Realm of Oshima


The Struggle to Believe by Chris Fujiwara
Be My Knife by Michael Atkinson
Criminal Minded by Joshua Land
More: Article Archive


Rob Nelson is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and an adjunct instructor of film studies at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

More articles by Rob Nelson