The Struggle to Believe

Nagisa Oshima and the crisis of representation
by Chris Fujiwara  posted September 26, 2008
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Nagisa Oshima's The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970) tells of a dispossession. The visible has become a wasteland. The circuit of perception has broken. People no longer inhabit their own images or take responsibility for them. The political subject is impotent and perhaps, like Motoki, the hero of the film, already dead, having been, or in danger of being, replaced by his own double (this film is Oshima's Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or doomed in advance to a suicide that the narrative merely postpones.

Ten years earlier, the suppression of Night and Fog in Japan (1960), Oshima's fourth film and an artistic breakthrough (too politically hot and too radical in form for its studio, Shochiku), led to a period of retrenchment for the director—but to no slackening in his hatred for Japanese society and the dominant forms of Japanese cinema. In 1965, he wrote: "I must cultivate this painful bitterness and make it explode." The explosion came in the artistic freedom of such late-'60s Oshima works as Death by Hanging (1968) and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968).

In The Man Who Left His Will on Film, the culmination of this period, Oshima documents a historical turning point, the moment (often designated, in Japan as in many Western countries, as "the end of the '60s") when political struggle no longer takes the form of bodies massed against bodies. In Night and Fog in Japan, Oshima showed this kind of conflict in his recreations of the protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. The brief glimpses of similar confrontations in The Man Who Left His Will on Film are inconclusive, at once instantly readable and opaque, suggesting that, though the struggle was far from won, the possibilities of a certain kind of oppositional cinema have been exhausted. Oshima has already moved past such images in his conception of bodies, power, and subjects.

The sense that The Man Who Left His Will on Film has come after something else, in a "post" period, is explicit in the Japanese title, Tokyo senso sengo hiwa, which means "Secret Story of the Period after the Tokyo War." "Tokyo War" refers to the mass protests in November 1969 against Japanese prime minister Eisaku Sato's visit to the United States. This war is assuredly and emphatically not "the War" that serves as the main historical landmark for characters in other Oshima films, providing a (false) explanation and excuse for their actions (as with the officials in Death by Hanging and the father in Boy [1969]). The Man Who Left His Will on Film places itself within a later history, one perhaps not yet readable at the time it was made.

From the beginning of The Man Who Left His Will on Film, Oshima draws us into an urgent movement. Someone—"we," let's say, since we see the scene through a "subjective" camera lens—has taken a movie camera that belongs to a revolutionary film group, which seeks to reclaim it. This struggle over a camera, and, through it, over a means of seeing and a structure of seeing, is crucial to the film. Who owns images? The collective affirms that if certain values are not evident in the image, the image is worthless. The individual, on the other hand, is the site of ambivalence: a film may invoke collective values, or not; just as important is the presence or absence of a sensibility, of a stream of experience, of a recognition.

In the seizing of the camera there is a nonhistorical, transcendental aspect that is even more important to Oshima: the Promethean element of crime. It links the film back to Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, which opens with the hero stealing books (of knowledge, of frameworks for understanding reality) and ends with his theft of the theatrical role of Yui Shosetsu (leader of an unsuccessful rebellion—an attempted theft of the state—in 17th-century Japan), which is, in terms of the film, a theft of identity.

The theft of the camera in The Man Who Left His Will on Film is also an authorial note, Oshima's reference to his conception of filmmaking and his role within Japanese film production and distribution. He makes this connection explicit in a text on Violence at Noon (1966) called "The Concept of Demons and the Concept of a Movement": "To make films is a criminal act in this world."

This statement can help us understand the film-within-the-film in The Man Who Left His Will on Film. At first this film might appear bereft of intentionality or meaning, so banal as to be unreadable: static long takes of what appear to be typical, unremarkable Tokyo residential areas: rooftops, the tops of trees, a street with many small shops, a street on which cars go by in both directions, a guardrail, a mailbox, a tunnel under a bridge, a cigarette store on a corner near a railroad track, television antennas and telephone lines. Do these images have a personal meaning for the cameraperson: were these spaces where something happened? In that case, the problem for the viewer would be to accept or reject the cameraperson's gaze. Or does the significance of these images lie in the fact that nothing would have happened to anybody; in other words, is something being shown that denies subjectivity? In this case, the problem for the viewer would be to accept the absence of the gaze as the precondition for meaning, and then to work through the loss of the gaze to what is active, though concealed, in the images.

With its images of stagnation that bewilder, bore, and vaguely frighten the on-screen viewers (the young members of the revolutionary film unit), the film-within-the-film provokes, and makes clear, a crisis of representation. In the nothing-to-see of these images is the premonition of a near future when there is nothing to do: when the adversary can be located only with difficulty, because it permeates all levels of the society, and when making revolution is no longer meaningful, because, like Hegel's slave, one has given up one's death. (In a short text written to introduce The Man Who Left His Will on Film, Oshima emphasized the fact that in the so-called Tokyo War, "the curtain was drawn on the struggles of the 1960s without a single fatality in the midst of what looked like a defeat for the demonstrators.")

Oshima refuses any psychological or sociological explanation for Motoki's suicide. (Similarly, in Boy, the Boy is never explained as a psychological subject; he exists in relation to certain patterns and structures of action, and above all to a certain configuration of images.) Perhaps the clue is in the (Japanese) title, and Motoki kills himself because it is the post-time, the after-time, because it is late. Just as the entire narrative of The Man Who Left His Will on Film is a postproduction, coming after the filming of the images that the characters project, watch, and edit, so Motoki's action—his only action, his suicide—is explicable only as the action of someone who finds himself in a post-time.

It is a stalled time, characteristic of Oshima's world. The hands of a clock are the first things stolen in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (even though the film keeps announcing the time in intertitles). The Ceremony (1971) covers a considerable, and meticulously charted, trajectory of discrete points in time, but each point opens onto the frozen and expanded time of ceremonies (as in Night and Fog in Japan), and the entire narrative takes place within the opening created by a death that is put in question.

It is much the same with Death by Hanging. Everything happens after the failed execution—another failed "production." Condemned to hang for the rape-murders of two girls, R, a student of Korean descent living in Japan, miraculously survives his execution and declares that he does not recognize himself as R. At the urging of officials who are eager to execute him again, he takes the central role in a depiction of R's life. For this purpose, the execution house is turned into a set representing R's home, using a decor of newspaper pages: the collected evidence of daily life, the calcification of daily life in social facts. Presiding over all this, the hinomaru (solar disc of the Japanese flag) blazes in the backgrounds of shots, a black sun of death.

The officials demand that R become subjectively what they take him to be legally, a subject of Japan. "The nation exists in your mind, and as long as you feel it, you will feel guilty," says the Public Prosecutor as R freezes in front of an open door through which hot white light streams, like the atomic radiation in Kiss Me Deadly. But R, though he turns back from the door to be executed again, does not accept his guilt; he refuses to see himself as society sees him.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film is like a continuation of the earlier film that, taking off in a new direction from the shot of R before the open door, asks: what if R—or someone else who had seen the workings of the state from the inside—had not turned back but instead had gone out through the doorway; what world would he have found, and what would have been his relation to that world? Instead of the blinding white light, The Man Who Left His Will on Film presents the placid and sinister images of daily life of the film-within-the-film, stubbornly and insidiously present, too familiar to be alienating.

The struggle in both films is the same: the struggle to believe in an image, in a world, in which one has given up believing. In this regard, the character of Motoki's girlfriend, Yasuko, and her form of revolt have special significance. As Motoki tries to negate the film-within-the-film by remaking it, Yasuko disrupts each shot with her obstinate presence in body and voice: at the mailbox, at a payphone, in the middle of traffic. Forcing others to acknowledge her, she puts herself forward as a target for their violence, an abject body. Her strategy against power is to force the power that is hidden, invisible, dispersed within spaces (those of the communication systems that the film-within-the-film traces) to expose itself and strike at her.

The state, its terror, and its need for victims are real, says Yasuko (and, before her, R). We have to see them—which means, we have to imagine them. To do that, we must first acknowledge that what was called representation no longer works. We can realize this only by experiencing its breakdown directly. In charting these stages, logically and passionately, Death by Hanging and The Man Who Left His Will on Film open pathways for cinema that have still to be explored.

This is the first 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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Courtesy Cinematheque Ontario/Film Society of Lincoln Center
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RELATED CALENDAR ENTRY

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

KEYWORDS

Nagisa Oshima  |  Japanese cinema  |  1968  |  film review

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THE AUTHOR

Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

More articles by Chris Fujiwara
Author's Website: insanemute.com